Back to Top

News & Stories

In The Spotlight: Language Enthusiast Drives Nationwide Impact

Laura Murray, Ph.D., Technical Director of NSA's College of Language and Area Studies

After 9/11, the Intelligence Community (IC) recognized a shortage in resources to fight the global war on terror. The IC desperately needed personnel proficient in less commonly taught languages, and was looking to hire more Americans with specific language skills. In 2006, at the direction of then President George W. Bush, the National Security Language Initiative was launched to help meet the need to teach students and educators foreign language skills critical to national security.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) responded with the creation of the STARTALK program. At the time, Laura Murray, Ph.D., currently the Technical Director of NSA's College of Language and Area Studies, was at the forefront of this effort serving as Director of the Foreign Language Program Office at ODNI.

"At the time it was just an idea - STARTALK didn't exist." Murray said. "It was an opportunity to launch a completely new program, with the potential to become nationwide in scope." But getting the program off the ground was not easy.

Laura Murray, Ph.D., Technical Director of NSA's College of Language and Area Studies
Having embraced the task with vigor, Murray recalled, "I had the firm belief that language aptitude was, and continues to be, a very democratic skill, and I wanted to expand access as widely as possible. There was a potential to positively impact thousands of participants. This was truly a rare opportunity."

She envisioned a first-class program to test innovative methods for teaching language. "I made an immediate decision to focus on a program that would achieve geographic diversity," Murray explained, "and would reach participants from every corner of society, through offering the programs free of charge."

Today, STARTALK not only exists, but thrives. As it stands, STARTALK has now reached nearly 70,000 participants in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Its focus remains on providing quality summer language experiences for students and effective professional development for teachers of world languages. NSA continues to benefit from this effort, with STARTALK alumni now working in language areas critical to national security, including Chinese, Arabic, Russian, and Persian Farsi.

Murray looks back on STARTALK's 11 years of service with great pride and satisfaction. The maturity of the program has led to increased attention to infrastructure building and sustainability.

An avid baseball fan, Murray explains the outcome of STARTALK this way: "We are building the bench for the future. The IC will now have a bigger pool of people to pick from in the application pool. Nobody walks into the major leagues without having picked up a bat. NSA is the major league for language."

This isn't Murray's first time at bat. From an early age, she developed an interest in world affairs and foreign cultures.

"I began my study of Chinese as a graduate student during the Vietnam War era, motivated by concern for the wars that had been fought by the U.S. with various countries in Asia during the 20th century," she explained.

Since 1985, her career has spanned assignments in language analysis, research and foreign affairs, to name a few. Murray helped create projects supporting our nation's language analysts, and has enabled the implementation of a highly successful post-9/11 major hiring program for language talent. Murray has received many awards for her efforts to support and enable language analysts. She recently received the A. Ronald Walton Award from the National Council for Less Commonly Taught Languages, a national lifetime achievement award, for launching STARTALK.

"I was shocked. To me it was like the Nobel Prize," Murray said. "It's relatively rare when you're working for the IC to get recognition from the outside. STARTALK is really having a national impact."

Murray's career has primarily focused on crisis preparedness through the teaching of less commonly taught languages. Her commitment has helped increase Americans' proficiency in language studies, giving NSA and the IC a talent pool with the skills needed to address the challenges of today and tomorrow.

To learn more about the STARTALK program visit startalk.umd.edu/