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Boren Fellows on the application process

The Boren Fellowship is a unique opportunity for U.S. graduate students to study less commonly taught languages in world regions including Africa, Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, Eurasia, Latin America and the Middle East. Learn more about this fantastic international opportunity, and the application process necessary to get you there, from two successful UW applicants: Benjamin Ditter and Margaret Walrod.

Why the Boren Fellowship? What drew you to the program and to your country of choice?

Benjamin Ditter: My master’s program is International Studies—China Studies. I have minimal in-country experience and wanted to enhance my linguistic and cultural skills. Beijing is the cultural and political capital of China, so that is where I decided to go. I also hope to obtain a relevant internship there.

Margaret Walrod: My initial interest in the Boren Fellowship was twofold: 1. As someone who is passionate about pursuing a career in public service, the competitive hiring privileges that come with being a fellow are quite enticing. 2. Although my academic focus in undergrad was South Asia, I do not speak any related languages nor have I spent a significant amount of time in the region. Boren will afford me an opportunity to do both.

The Boren Fellowship requires one year of federal service. How do you plan to approach this requirement?

BD: Through the State Department, but I’m open to other options in the Department of Defense, CIA, Department of Homeland Security, and/or IEE. This will be very challenging though, due to the Boren requirement that you cannot be affiliated with nor be in contact with any government agency while participating in Boren. So, I may need to look to the private sector first, so I have a job upon returning to the U.S., then apply for and move to a federal job many months or a year after.

MW: I am currently working for the U.S. Department of State and hope to return to the Department after my fellowship to fulfill the service requirement. Boren Fellows are also eligible for the Diplomacy Fellows Program — an opportunity I am eager to take advantage of to pursue a career as a Public Diplomacy Officer in the U.S. Foreign Service.

How did you identify a language study program in your destination country?

BD: I knew of Tsinghua University as one of the top two universities in China and also know that most universities have Mandarin programs for non-native speakers, so I just went to their website and looked at the requirements, then applied.

MW: I chose to apply to the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS), as it is the same institution the State Department’s uses for its Hindi and Urdu Critical Language Scholarships. AIIS is also one of only a handful of Urdu schools which caters to English speakers — many Urdu programs are designed for students’ whose mother tongues are Arabic or Farsi.

What language preparation did you have before applying for the Boren?

BD: I completed third-year Mandarin at UW, Critical Language Scholarship in China during the summer of 2016, and one quarter of Classical Chinese.

MW: I never formally studied Urdu before enrolling in the University of Washington, however, I do have a background in Mandarin Chinese. In my application I discussed what techniques I used to learn Mandarin and how I would modify them to help me master Urdu. Part of learning a language is learning how to study it.

What is one piece of advice you would offer to future applicants?

BD: Don’t doubt yourself if you don’t already have a research contact or internship lined up when you apply. I am proof that you can articulate your intent to find one, but it is not a guarantee, and they may still accept you. Also, stay strong during the application process. It’s long and grueling, and you may not get support from faculty, but as cheesy as it sounds, you need to keep believing in yourself when it seems that no one else does.

MW: Start early! I began brainstorming my application essays — particularly the one regarding national security — almost a year before the deadline. If you want to submit a compelling case it’s important that you take time and effort to organize your application. You should also take advantage of all the campus resources available, such as writing centers, professors, and of course the Graduate School Office of Fellowships and Awards.

Introducing Boren Fellow Benjamin Kantner

David L. Boren Graduate Fellowships, an initiative of the National Security Education Program, provide funding for U.S. graduate students to study less commonly taught languages in world regions critical to U.S. interests and regions that are underrepresented in study abroad programs. This year, two graduate students — both master’s students in the Jackson School — have been awarded the Boren Fellowship to improve their language skills and enhance their research efforts. Benjamin Kantner, master’s student in International Studies, is studying in Brazil, and Pablo Tutillo, master’s student in Middle East Studies, in Israel. We spoke with Benjamin Kantner about their research, career goals and plans for the Fellowship.

Benjamin Kantner, master’s in International Studies, Jackson School

Benjamin Kantner

What do you study, broadly?
Political Ecology in Brazil with a strong influence from environmental anthropology. My primary geographic focus is the state of Pará in the Brazilian Amazon. My master’s thesis studies the relationship between indigenous rights and international conservation in the Tapajós Basin. My Boren Fellowship will consider the contributions to land security provided by including traditional and indigenous Brazilians in decision-making involving infrastructure projects.

Why did you decide to pursue the Boren Fellowship?
I have had two study abroad experiences in Brazil, each for a period of two months. My fluency in Portuguese and sense of place grew tremendously, amplified with the increase of time. The Boren Fellowship offered an opportunity for extended fieldwork in Brazil, and a chance to grow more familiar with the environment: cultural and ecological. I have also always had an interest in government service which is a component of the Fellowship.

What do you hope to take from the Boren Fellowship? 
My primary goal is for the research I conduct to contribute to the communities in Brazil fighting for recognition in their struggle against extractive industries in the Amazon. I’m also very excited about the potential for further study exchanges and cooperation between the University of Washington and the Federal University of Pará in Belém, Brazil. This fellowship represents an important moment in my academic development as it supports the continuation of my thesis research which I began in Brazil in the summer of 2017 with a Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship. It may also contribute to a Ph.D. in the future.

What’s next for you after the Boren?
After returning from Brazil, I will defend my master’s thesis. I plan to apply to environmental anthropology-geared Ph.D. programs on the West Coast. One of the conditions of the Boren Fellowship is a year of working for the federal government. I would like to defer this until after I complete a Ph.D. in order to be more competitive for an inspiring position at the U.S. State Department.

What are you most looking forward to in Brazil?
In Brazil I’ll be working closely with Professor Rodrigo Peixoto at the Federal University of Pará. In the past, he led a task force at the Jackson School with Professor Jonathan Warren. I’m very excited to continue building on this exchange of research and learn from Professor Peixoto. To be honest, I’m also looking forward to avoiding my first Seattle winter in a decade. The Amazon Basin is an incredible part of the world, often even feeling separate. To become fully immersed in that environment is a rare opportunity for outsiders and is essential for producing relevant research. Finally, I’m deeply involved in music in Seattle and am thrilled to jump into a unique sonic ecosystem; Brazil is passionate about music and Pará is no exception.

Published October 2018, Updated November 2018

Leoma James reflects on her Boren Fellowship experience in Tanzania

During her Master of Education program at the University of Washington, Leoma received an additional opportunity to travel back to Africa as the 2022 recipient of the David L. Boren Fellowship, which allowed her to live in Tanzania and study Swahili for nine months. 

The David L. Boren Fellowship is an initiative of the national security education program that provides U.S graduate students funding of up to $25,000 to study less commonly taught languages in regions that are underrepresented in study abroad programs. In exchange for funding, Boren fellows commit to working for the U.S. federal government for up to one year.  

Read about Leoma’s experience