Food security, Middle Eastern history and agroecology may seem like very different subjects, but they brought three West Virginia University students to the same love – language.
As the 13th, 14th and 15th Boren Scholars from WVU, Sarah Campbell, Madeleine Hall and Audrey Geise will spend the 2016-17 school year abroad to fully immerse themselves in learning a new language. The three women will intensively study Portuguese, Arabic and Hindi, respectively, in a foreign country, becoming fluent by the end of their experience.
This year there were 820 undergraduate applicants for the scholarship, funded by the National Security Education Program, which selects students to travel to areas critical to United States interests and national security.
“The Boren Scholarship application is an intensely competitive process and for three West Virginia University students to win, for the second year in a row no less, is a testament to the high caliber of our applicants and their desire to give back to their country by pursuing work in the national security arena,” said David Hauser, the winners’ adviser. “Further, that our three winners will be studying three different languages in three different regions of the world is once again a reminder that WVU is a launching place for students who want to be global citizens.”
Campbell, a geography and Spanish double major from Indiana, has a deep commitment to food security. Her work with assistant professor Bradley Wilson in the WVU Food Justice Lab has opened her eyes to food access and security issues in West Virginia, which turned into a driving factor in her decision to travel to Mozambique.
“I started drawing parallels between West Virginia and Mozambique,” said Campbell. “Mozambique is very agriculturally dependent, especially in rural areas, so food access, distribution and security are big problems there. So this is something that affects both places.”
Her experience with Spanish was also a stepping stone for the trip. In the same family as Portuguese, Campbell is hopeful she will pick up the language quickly. She will be attending an intensive Portuguese study at the University of Florida this summer as part of the African Flagship Languages Initiative, a special program within Boren, before heading out of the country.
Once she has learned the language, Campbell says, it will give her the opportunity to immerse into the culture more quickly and really experience all Mozambique has to offer.
“It’s a global enterprise we have going now,” said Campbell. “We’re connected in every way, so there’s no reason not to know more than one language. It lets you expand culturally and connect with more people.”
A Wheeling native, Hall had different motivations for learning Arabic. With majors in both history and international studies, she wants to pursue the life of an academic, get a PhD and spend her career as a researcher.
While originally interested in Russian history, Hall read a graphic novel as an Honors College requirement her freshman year that chronicled the life of an Iranian woman during and after the Iranian revolution. This inspired a deep interest in 20th century Middle Eastern history that Hall has been voraciously pursuing ever since.
“I knew that I had to be fluent in Arabic by the time I finish my undergrad, because to get into a good PhD program I’d have to take a language exam and be able to do research in the language,” said Hall. “I knew I needed immersion for the fluency goal.”
And she will certainly get it. Currently in her second semester of Arabic classes at WVU, she has already traveled to Bahrain for a week and will be spending the summer in Oman as a Critical Language Scholar before she heads to Jordan for a year in the fall.
“I just think that it’s a fantastic opportunity,” she said. “I can’t even believe that I’m going to be going abroad, becoming fluent in a language most people don’t get to learn. And I’ll be immersed in a culture that there are a lot of damaging stereotypes about, so I would like to challenge those stereotypes in some way.”
Geise will also get an opportunity to start learning her language of choice before heading overseas. She will be spending her summer in Wisconsin as part of Boren’s South Asian Flagship Languages Initiative, where she will get a crash course in Hindi.
Originally from Allentown, Pennsylvania, Geise has always had an interest in India, so was thrilled to get the opportunity to travel there.
“Hindi is spoken in the northern region, the center of agriculture,” Geise said. “I always liked learning about the Green Revolution, when they were trying to increase their agricultural production. But there’s also a controversial side because of the technology they used, and now they have to look at fertility of the soil and things like that, needing to find another way to go about things.”
This interest in agriculture fueled Geise to become an agroecology major, studying everything from geography to conservation ecology and horticulture.
Ultimately, Geise wants to work in the policy side of things, so she is hopeful that her study abroad experience will be able to supplement that area of her education.
“I do have an interest in international policy, so to get that experience abroad will be wonderful,” she said. “Ideally I’ll be able to go back to India to do research, so to experience a system other than the western agriculture system would be great.”
Since 1994, more than 5,500 students have received Boren Awards. The Boren Scholarship program, which includes awards up to $20,000 for study, focuses on sending students to areas of the world that are critical to U.S. national security interests and underrepresented in study abroad. Scholars are required to study less commonly taught languages and complete a service requirement within three years after completion of the program. Under the service requirement, each scholar must work in a federal government position with national security responsibilities for at least one year.