Andy Mendez, MBA/SID’23
As of today, I have two more weeks of classes left and just five weeks until graduation. It’s hard to believe that I’ll be closing the book on graduate school. It feels like I just got here! While I’m sad to be leaving this community, I am very excited for what is ahead. This week, I was named a 2023 David L. Boren Fellow. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this program, the Boren Fellowship is a study abroad program that aims to provide foreign language training and cultural exchange opportunities for students pursuing a career in the federal government.
Boren has been on my radar for years. When I was first looking into graduate degree programs, part of my criteria were programs that would position me well for post-graduate opportunities abroad. Boren is a well-known opportunity among Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs). It came up a couple of times when I was still serving in Morocco and was put back on my radar when I started to research schools that were part of the Coverdell scholarship program for RPCVs.
Boren is distinct from other study abroad programs in its focus on preparing Fellows for careers in national security. In fact, one of the conditions of the scholarship is a one-year service requirement with the federal government after completion of the Fellowship program. Unlike Fulbright and the Critical Language Scholarship (which I applied to and was named an Alternate for), Boren has a specific career pathway and is used as a talent pipeline for federal agencies looking to hire students with advanced degrees, language skills, and international experience.
Applying to the Boren Fellowship program was, for me, an 8-month long process. I consider June 2022 the start of the process for me because that was when I began researching language programs. For context, there are basically two “flavors” of Boren Fellowship programs. You can either apply for a self-designed program or you can apply to one of the Regional Flagship Language Initiatives, which are pre-designed programs for African, Indonesian, South Asian, and Turkish languages. After speaking with Gabriella Lanzi and Phillip Aitken, two Heller recipients of the Boren Fellowship and 2022 graduates of the COEX program, I was pretty convinced that I wanted to pursue a self-designed program. With my past experiences in Morocco and Egypt, I figured it made sense to apply for an Arabic language program that could take me from my current intermediate level to an advanced level.
I had a really hard time trying to decide if I should study an Arabic dialect or if I should study standard Arabic. If I chose to study the dialect I was most familiar with, the only country option I had was Morocco. If I chose to study standard Arabic, I had many more country options, but would essentially have to start from the beginner level. I also struggled with other aspects of the language study plan proposal. I needed to be able to provide details on the cost breakdown of the coursework, books, and my preferred housing situation.
Aside from the language study plan, I also had to secure letters of recommendation and write two essays: one on the national security implications of my chosen language and country and the other on my plans for pursuing a career in federal service. For these essays, I was in ongoing conversation with the directors of the Academic Fellowships department and the staff at Heller’s Career Development Center, who helped me edit my essays and refine my arguments. Since I already had begun forming relationships with the director of the Sustainable International Development program and the director of the Social Impact MBA program, I let both of these professors know that I was pursuing this opportunity. In previous assignments I had submitted to these professors, I had focused on international issues, so they both were very familiar with my previous professional background and my aspirations to go abroad post-graduation. This meant that when it came time to ask for recommendations, I already had professors who knew me very well and who were invested in my professional growth.
As the end of fall semester was nearing last year, I began to notice more and more cracks in my Arabic language study plan proposal. I realized that the maximum time I could spend in the Boren program was still less than half of the time I spent learning and speaking Arabic with the Peace Corps in Morocco. I didn’t have a strong enough argument for how Boren would help me learn a language I already had a strong foundation in. For the national security essay, I also found it hard to articulate the importance of focusing on Morocco, given the current administration’s foreign policy stance away from the Middle East and towards China, Russia, and Iran.
For this reason, I completely scrapped my self-designed Arabic study plan and switched to the Turkish Flagship Language Initiative (TURFLI) in Azerbaijan. Due to Azerbaijan’s proximity to Russia in the north and Iran in the south, I was able to make a national security argument about the country’s relevance to US foreign policy, while also making a connection to the core coursework I had done on economic and business development and the elective coursework I had completed on conflict and coexistence. I was also able to argue that my prior experience studying Arabic (a harder language than Turkish by the federal government’s own standard) was proof that I could succeed in the Boren program.
While I will never know for sure what factors led the selection committee to choose me for this award, I have a feeling that it was partly because of my essay on career plans. Due to the service requirement, the Boren Fellowship really wants to attract people who are serious about a future career in the federal government. For this essay, I wrote about my plans to pursue the Presidential Management Fellows program which, two months before I submitted my Boren application, named me a Semi-Finalist. I believe having gone through and made it to the first round of the PMF process convinced the committee that I was not only serious, but also qualified. My success in the PMF program, as is the case with Boren, was a direct result of support I received from Heller’s Career Development Center, Brandeis’s Academic Fellowships department, and my professors.
As a recipient of the Boren Fellowships, I will be studying Turkish at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from June to August and then at the Azerbaijan University of Languages in Baku from August to December. It’s a relief to reach graduation knowing exactly what my next steps are and to know that I’m pursuing the exact international opportunity I learned about way back when I was a brand new Peace Corps Volunteer seven years ago.