Avi Ackerman

Plan II/Linguistics

The first week of classes of my junior year had barely started in 2021 when I left Austin for London on a flight booked with the help of my Dedman enrichment fund. I was on my way to Newcastle University representing my student activist group at the first international conference on the Xinjiang Crisis, where experts on Uyghur history and culture would meet with lawyers and genocide scholars to trace how the atrocities in China’s Central Asian colony began, and how those of us on the outside could end them. After a surreal week of travel made possible by lecture streaming and the transatlantic time-zone difference, I returned to my first in-person semester since my freshman year.

My Fall 2021 semester was memorable for two classes—Origins of Modern Japan, and Linguistic Typology, a graduate course covering my favorite subfield within linguistics—and for my work outside of class on calling attention to the genocide in Xinjiang. I was so glad to help a diaspora Uyghur activist describe her experiences in an article that eventually appeared in the New Yorker, and I was profoundly moved by Abduweli Ayup, the linguist and camp survivor who spoke at the virtual UT event I arranged.

I had planned on spending the Spring 2022 semester abroad, having been accepted to programs in Japan and Kyrgyzstan, but neither worked out. By that point, though, I had learned to temper all expectations which Covid could interfere with, and I ended up having what was in many ways my best semester yet. The classes I took on shamanism, Jewish nationalist historiography, and early colonial Latin American history were a constant joy to attend. I was nominated by UT for the Truman Scholarship, and though I was not selected as a finalist, I was able to rework the ideas I had developed in the policy proposal component of the application into an award-winning article on the Xinjiang Crisis. At the end of the semester, as I began to despair at my chances of getting abroad at all, I was notified that I’d won Plan II’s Rowe Koehl Scholarship. I’d proposed to travel to Istanbul for language practice in the heart of the Uyghur diaspora, and then, after wandering across Turkey, to end in Georgia, a country I’d fallen in love with the first time I heard its music years before.

I spent nearly a month abroad in what was unquestionably one of the best experiences of my life. I spoke Uyghur on the street and picked up a surprising amount of Turkish. I visited a master luthier and  bought a baglama saz (a Turkish stringed instrument) for when take I lessons at UT in my senior year. And I fell in love.

I’m writing now, in the summer of 2022, on the last day of six weeks of advanced Yiddish classes at the Yivo Institute in New York, where I’ve been able to study thanks to the generosity of the Dedman family. I am so grateful for this and the many other irreplaceable experiences that they have brought into my life.