7 students receive prestigious Boren Awards, making for a ‘banner year’ for ASU

Seven students from Arizona State University have received prestigious Boren Awards, which fund critical foreign language study abroad.

Sponsored by the National Security Education Program, the Boren Awards promote the study of less-commonly taught foreign languages in an effort to support long-term U.S. national security and global stability. Boren Awards provide full funding for immersive study abroad experiences of three months to a full year. As part of their award, Boren Scholars and Fellows receive professional mentoring and assistance with applying for federal jobs, with the hopes of creating a pipeline of talented, committed public servants who are familiar with a wide range of languages and cultures.

“Given our strong commitment to service and to teaching a range of foreign languages, ASU has traditionally been a top producer of Boren winners,” said Kyle Mox, director of the Office of National Scholarship Advisement and an associate dean for Barrett, The Honors College at ASU. “But even by our standards, this has been a banner year.”

The office's staff worked with the students to refine their Boren applications, which included personal essays, recommendation letters and proposed study programs with budgets.

Mox said that 17 ASU students applied for Boren Scholarships or Fellowships in the 2020 cycle. In addition to the seven who were offered Boren awards, three were selected as alternates.

“This outcome has been our best output in over a decade. The increasing interest in these sorts of awards demonstrates ASU’s position as a global university,” Mox said.

The 2020 Boren Award winners from ASU are Bianca Navia, who will study Arabic; Hussein Mohamed, who will study Akan; John Ransone, who will study Thai; Daniel Holton, who will study Bahasa Indonesian, and Alexandra Berends, William Grosser and Olivia Parker, who will study Mandarin.

Deep-rooted interests

Most of the awardees have previously studied their target languages or have had long-term interest in the world regions in which the languages are dominant. Each applicant drew on these experiences to craft a compelling application.

student posing in front of Department of State sign

Bianca Navia

Navia, a rising senior at Barrett who is pursuing a dual degree in political science and global studies, said that her choice to study Arabic was heavily influenced by her experience volunteering for Paper Airplanes, a nonprofit organization that provides tutoring services to young people affected by conflict in the Middle East. While at ASU, she also completed a major research project on Hamas, a terrorist organization and political party in the Gaza Strip, and drew some conclusions on how extremist groups radicalize and recruit new members, especially youth. 

"Living abroad in Jordan allows me the opportunity to learn the Levantine dialect, as well as to be in the Levant, which is my favorite region in the Middle East to study," Navia said.

Berends will begin a master’s degree in linguistics at Georgetown University next year. During her Boren year, she will be studying Mandarin in Taiwan. 

“This is a dream come true,” Berends said. “I've wanted to study Mandarin overseas for many years, and now it's finally possible.”

Berends said she has held a personal interest in Taiwan since middle school, when she was paired with a Taiwanese pen pal. She began studying Mandarin in high school.

Grosser, a sophomore studying Chinese with a minor in global studies, will be studying Chinese at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, California, a new option for Boren Scholars. 

As a student in the Chinese Language Flagship Program at ASU, Grosser will complete his capstone year at the center, during which time he will also enroll in courses at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, also located in Monterey. 

“Since I was a young kid, I have had the enchanting dream of attending DLI,” he said. “Now at 19, it is amazing to see those goals come into fruition.”

A difficult process, made easier

Given the immense value and prestige of the Boren Awards, the application process is extensive, requiring multiple essays and a campus interview, among other requirements. Throughout the process, however, the Office of National Scholarship Advisement provides guidance and direction to applicants.

Ransone, a senior Asia studies major, will spend his Boren year at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand. 

Ransone said the application process was thorough. After completing in-depth research on the language program and the location, he then had to create a complete budget proposal for the length of his proposed study program. He also had to include multiple letters of reference with his application.

Ransone worked with the Office of National Scholarship Advisement, which coordinated a series of campus interviews with prominent faculty to both evaluate the applicants and to provide them feedback on their materials. “That was very beneficial to the process. They are great people who want to see you succeed and will help you along the way,” he said

Mohamed, a master’s degree student in the ASU Social Justice and Human Rights Program, will be studying Akan (Twi) in Accra, Ghana. 

Mohamed said the application process was rigorous, but with help from staff at the Office of National Scholarship Advisement, he was able to craft compelling essays and convey the national security relevance of Ghana and the West African region. 

“I would highly recommend any student attempting to apply for a nationally competitive scholarship or fellowship to work with ONSA because of their years of experience helping students earn acceptance into their intended programs,” he said.

Navia agreed. “The most challenging part for me was definitely the essays and developing a national security argument that somehow related to my background and studies,” she said. “Working with ONSA was incredibly beneficial, and I received constructive, pointed feedback on my many essay revisions. I would definitely recommend ONSA to other students.”

Alexandra Berends

Berends also worked with Mox on her application. 

“A lot of research is necessary to inform your essays,” Berends said. “But ASU's Boren application process is a well-oiled machine that makes it doable by mapping it out step by step.”

Berends said she would recommend this advising process as she wouldn't have known how to craft successful essays on her own without the guidance of those who know the Boren program and selection standards so well. 

Careers in service

For each of the applicants, the requirement to work one year for the federal government was actually a compelling reason to apply for the Boren Awards, rather than a deterrent.

Navia, for instance, intends to leverage her experience as a Boren Scholar to pursue a career in the U.S. Foreign Service. 

“Being awarded a Boren Scholarship is invaluable, as it will allow me to study abroad in an immersive environment, learn Arabic, a critical language, engage in cross-cultural exchange, and foster understanding between the U.S. and Jordan, skills and experiences which are important in the Foreign Service,” Navia said.

Hussein Mohamed

Mohamed, whose studies are in the field of critical trauma and social work, said his academic interests are broadly within the spectrum of human trafficking, specifically in understanding the relationships and connections in the human trafficking-terror funding nexus. His future goal is to work with the U.S. Department of State on bilateral and multilateral policies to prevent human trafficking, protect human trafficking survivors and prosecute traffickers.

“The Boren Fellowship African Flagship Language Initiative will help me achieve this goal through a culturally immersive experience focused on understanding the politics and the traditions of various communities in Ghana, and throughout West Africa,” Mohamed said.

Ransone also hopes to work on issues related to transnational crime, including trafficking, drug smuggling and human rights abuses in Southeast Asia.

“Speaking a language from the region helps with interacting with both government officials and local people in ways that using a translator prohibits,” he said.

Grosser said he is passionate about pursuing a foreign service career with the U.S. State Department and using his Chinese language skills to contribute to the cross-cultural communications efforts between the U.S. and China.

William Grosser

“Since studying abroad at 16 in China on the National Security Language Initiative for Youth scholarship sponsored by the State Department, and studying abroad two more times since then, I have been exposed to many career paths,” Grosser said.

“However, one that has always been on my heart and in my dream remains to be in the U.S. Foreign Service. I want to work with some of the best people in our nation on world issues that can affect our country. The State Department's ethos speaks out to me, and I want to work and live in an environment where a strong core value system is needed to fulfill a mission.”

A great honor

Each of the ASU Boren Scholars and Fellows said that they are deeply grateful to have been selected for such a prestigious award.

“I am honored in being selected for such a prestigious fellowship, and grateful to everyone that helped me get to where I am today,” Mohamed said. 

“I feel very humbled and fortunate to have been awarded the prestigious Boren Scholarship,” Grosser said. “I am beyond grateful for the opportunity and excited to ultimately serve my country.”

Story by Ranjani Venkatakrishnan, a Barrett, The Honors College student majoring in journalism.