Crafting a Creative Application: Madison Marks on the Boren Scholarship for International Study

May 17, 2013
Madison Marks, 2013 Boren Scholar in Jordan

Fresh off a one-year stint in Jordan on a prestigious David L. Boren Scholarship, Madison Marks doesn’t slow down. With a keen interest in international refugee studies, Madison has pursued every opportunity to advance her Arabic language skills, gain international field experience and prepare a solid resume, with her eye on becoming a future graduate student at Oxford University.

The Boren Awards for International Study, are highly competitive fellowships for study abroad. Funded by the National Security Education Program, the Boren Awards provide undergraduate and graduate fellowships of $20-$30K to fund opportunities to study the language and culture of countries normally underrepresented in U.S. study abroad programs. Applicants must convince the selection committee how their study abroad program, as well as their future academic and career goals, will contribute to U.S. national security. In my previous post “How to Win a Boren Fellowship”, I discuss the importance of crafting a compelling application. Madison provides her insider tips on crafting a national security-related project proposal in the context of economic sustainability. She also talks frankly about her experience applying for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship for study at Oxford.

1. What inspired you to apply for the Boren Scholarship and what was your experience like?

I enrolled in Arabic at FSU, but there were few opportunities to practice the language outside of the classroom; therefore, I sought opportunities to gain an extended immersion experience abroad.

The Boren Scholarship is a National Security Education Program-funded grant that enables students to pursue immersion experiences with languages that are pertinent to U.S. national security interests, broadly defined. Undergraduate Boren Scholars can receive up to $20,000 for study abroad.  Boren tends to select students who choose to spend 6-12 months in one country as opposed to one semester.  The application process involves writing two essays.  One of these essays describes how the language and country chosen is pertinent to the applicant’s goals and U.S. national security interests; the other is a more general overview of the preferred study abroad program.

Developing my proposal for the Boren scholarship was actually quite challenging because I was interested in studying Sudanese Arabic.  Both Sudan and South Sudan are on the U.S. State Department Travel Warning list, therefore I had to be creative with my application.  My interest in Sudan developed during my first two years at FSU where I wrote several term papers and did a Directed Individual Study related to the causes and consequences of displacement in the Nuba Mountains area of Sudan.  Through my research, I learned that the largest Sudanese diaspora community is in Cairo.  As a result, I crafted my Boren application in such a way that I emphasized the importance of studying in Cairo so that I could also interact with Sudanese refugees to learn the dialect. I emphasized the importance of having U.S. experts in Sudan in the future, as well as my desire to contribute towards security in the Sudan via economic sustainability projects, especially related to education.

During the period between submitting my application in January 2011 and receiving the Boren Scholarship in May 2011, Egypt experienced a lot of economic and political transitions following the fall of Mubarak. My study abroad program was canceled for the fall, so I switched to Jordan.  I had won a grant from my university to study Arabic in Jordan the summer, so I was simply extending my stay from three months to a full year.

I studied Arabic intensively at Qasid Institute, progressing through level 6 of Modern Standard Arabic. I did not go with an organized study abroad group, so I did much of my planning for extracurricular activities, language partners, and travel by myself or with my group of friends. I volunteered with refugee aid and civil society organizations in order to learn more about different NGOs, and taught conversational English.  All of these extracurricular activities and language partners enabled me to hone my Arabic conversational skills and gave me insight into my academic and professional interests.  Working with and befriending refugees from across the Middle East and North Africa sparked my interest in pursuing further education in Refugee and Forced Migration studies.

Upon returning to the U.S. in summer 2012, I worked with refugees in Nashville, Tennessee in order to learn about the U.S. resettlement process and the challenges that refugees face in adjusting to American culture and systems.  My experience in Nashville and the Middle East motivated me to apply for the Rhodes scholarship in order to obtain an MPhil in International Development. Oxford has the world’s leading Refugee Studies Centre, and I wanted to concentrate my master’s thesis on issues concerning forced migration.  Because I had already applied for the Boren scholarship, I was prepared for the hard work that the Rhodes application would require. Drafting a personal statement was difficult (and took between 10 and 12 different drafts!) yet rewarding because I was finally able to put my story down on paper in a concise way and better articulate my personal and professional goals.  Being selected as a finalist for the Rhodes in fall 2012 was an honor.  It challenged me to learn how to articulate my goals in an interview setting and not just on paper. I have grown much as a result of these fellowships and would not have been able to have the opportunities I did without the funding abilities like Boren.  The most rewarding part is the personal growth you gain from the application process, whether or not you are selected as a fellow or not.

2. What do you think made your application stand out?

My application to the Boren was unique because of my interest in national security-related issues in the Sudan.  The country that was most closely related to Sudan in language and culture was Egypt; therefore, I drafted my application emphasizing the importance of studying in Cairo in order for me to enhance my Arabic skills and understanding of Sudanese culture and dynamics. As mentioned before, the largest number of Sudanese refugees are in Cairo. In addition to my Arabic studies, I planned to volunteer with NGOs that would enable me to use my Arabic skills while learning about the challenges that Sudanese refugees faced in Cairo. Ultimately, I believe my application stood out because it was atypical in the way that I defined the importance of national security in a country like Sudan that is often overlooked in discussions on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. While I ended up studying in Jordan, I pursued my interests in education and social development through volunteerism there, and I visited Cairo on my route home.

I started drafting my essays two to three months before the application deadline in order to give myself time to work through several revisions.  Giving myself plenty of time on the application helped me to dwell on areas in which I needed to improve, and what was not necessary to get my point across.  If I could give advice to other applicants for the Boren Scholarship, it would be the following:

  • Talk to your university fellowships advisor and your major professors early. The application deadline on your campus might be a few weeks before the national deadline.  Beginning in October and November gives you plenty of time to do research on your proposed study abroad programs.
  • Notify those who will be writing your letters of recommendation well in advance.
  • Contact your proposed study abroad programs in advance in order to get the name of the admissions coordinator. If you are having trouble finding a study abroad program, see where other Boren scholars have studied in the past. The Boren website has a list of sites where you might be able to find a list of websites internationally.
  • Staying with a host family or in a dorm will provide you unique insight into the culture, and will help you grow your language skills.
  • While writing your essays, be sure to answer the prompt questions directly: (1) why the language you seek to study is important to national security; (2) the importance of the country you are studying in; (3) how you came to be interested in this language/country/topic and how you plan to use your acquired skills following the Boren scholarship; (4) where you plan to fulfill your year of service; and (5) how the study abroad programs of your choice will enable you to reach your goals.
  • Do your research to create a realist budget. For instance, taxis in Jordan were $4.00 per day. This adds up over a year!
  • Keep a timeline of the deadlines for the study abroad programs you have chosen. You will be notified in May whether or not you received the Boren, but you should have applied to the study abroad programs by this time…. Especially if you are starting in summer!
  • Reach out to other Boren alumni for any questions. If you are selected as a Boren Scholar, you will have access to a Facebook group for Boren scholars. I utilized this in order to find a roommate in Jordan who is now one of my dearest friends!

3. How has the Boren Scholarship influenced your professional interests and career path?

The Boren Scholarship allowed me to gain advanced proficiency in Arabic, a skill that is fundamental for work in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Living in Jordan for a year also enabled me to explore my interests in refugee assistance and civil society development by volunteering with international and local organizations. Additionally, I was introduced to a network of Boren scholars and other international students and professionals who share an interest in the Middle East.

Overall, my academic and work experiences and the relationships built throughout my time on the Boren Scholarship has encouraged me to pursue a career whereby I can work towards education and social development in the MENA region.  The definition of national security includes economic sustainability.  I hope to use my language skills in a position with the State Department where I can work towards development policies and strategies related to refugees and asylum seekers in the Middle East and North Africa

I will be working in Washington D.C. this summer as an intern with World Justice Project. I will be working with research, communications, and data collection related to the annual release of the Rule of Law Index.  After this summer, I plan to stay in D.C. or move to the Middle East in order to gain experience in the field of international education and social development. My goal is to attend graduate school in the near future for an M.A. in International Development with a focus in Economics. I still hope to attend Oxford in order to interact with the world’s leading professionals in the field of Refugee and Forced Migration studies.

Madison Marks is from Jacksonville, Florida and is a recent graduate of Florida State University with a Bachelor of Arts in Middle East Studies.  Madison is currently based in Washington D.C. where she is a Rule of Law Index intern with World Justice Project. Her areas of interest include international education and social development and forced migration issues with a focus in the Middle East and North Africa region. 

© Victoria Johnson 2013, all rights reserved.