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American Magazine


Passport to Your Dreams

By Adrienne Frank

small European town by a lake with mountains in the background

Peace building in Morocco. Human trafficking in Bangladesh. Renewable energy in Germany. Financial stability in Japan.

It’s one thing to learn about a foreign country. It’s another thing, entirely, to live abroad, soaking up all the culture, history, and knowledge the global classroom has to offer.

American University’s Office of Merit Awards kicked off its 20th anniversary with a bang this year, helping more than 50 students land prestigious scholarships that will take them to 23 countries around the world.

For AU’s scholarly globe-trotters, these scholarships will help advance their research, broaden their understanding of the world, shape their values and ideas, and introduce them to rich cultural traditions. But more than that, a merit award is the passport to their dreams—their ticket to the world.

And while these merit award winners represent a range of majors and interests, they all have one thing in common: they successfully navigated what can be a long, stressful, and trying application process.

Here, AU students and alumni share their tips for landing a study abroad scholarship, and for living and learning overseas.

Ariana Curtis


Ariana Curtis

CAS, PhD candidate, anthropology

Award: Fulbright grant, which allows students to design their own course of study in order to promote mutual understanding between U.S. citizens and people of other nations 

Location: Panama City, Panama

Ariana Curtis’s 10-month stay in Panama is a homecoming of sorts. The Fulbright scholar’s father was born in the Central American nation, and she’s long been fascinated by the Panama Canal Zone—a 50-mile stretch marked by intense economic inequality and racism. Curtis anthropological research examines the ways in which marginalized West Indians “define themselves and create a space in contemporary urban Panama, given the rapid arrival of privatization, economic growth, and foreigners.”

Lesson learned: “Of course I make mistakes when I speak Spanish, but what people value most is the willingness to try and the ability to listen and learn. When speaking a different language, sometimes we wonder if our personalities will translate. Be who you are and the (grammatically correct!) words will follow.”

Surviving and thriving: Patience is key. “People have different ways of doing things, from waiting in line to buying food at the grocery store. Just be willing to learn, and don’t be afraid to try.”

Essential items: Curtis can’t live without her laptop and a small notebook, which “make research easy and mobile.” A dictionary is also a must: “as proficient as we are, there are always more words to learn!”

Professional pursuits: “I am constantly inspired by the people I have met and their willingness to help me accomplish my research goals. Each new contact leads to two or three more,” says Curtis, who aspires to work for an international research organization. “I hope to build a lasting academic relationship with Latin America.”

Meg White, CAS/BA ’09, German and Spanish studies

Meg White, CAS/BA ’09, German and Spanish studies

Meg White

CAS/BA ’09, German and Spanish studies

Award: English Language Teaching Assistantship, during which recipients spend eight months teaching English in Austrian secondary schools

Location: Kirchdorf an der Krema, Austria

After graduating from AU in May, Meg White needed some time to contemplate her future. A year-long stint as an
English teacher in Austria provided the Tennessee native with the perfect opportunity to mull over the future while basking in the present. White loves practicing her German, exploring a different culture, and cultivating new friendships. “I have actually become part of the community here,” she says. As for the future, White’s optimistic. “Before I traveled abroad, I had no idea how many different opportunities for international work really exist.”

Helpful hint: White recommends applicants get an early start on the merit awards process. “You would not believe how many drafts you’ll go through, and unfortunately, you don’t get to put the rest of your life on hold. Give yourself enough time to write a clear, passionate application—and then delete it all and start again.”

Surviving and thriving: Flexibility is important. “Living in another country is different from taking a vacation; you have to adapt to the schedule of a new country, whether that means grocery stores that close at 6 p.m. or restaurants that don’t serve dinner until 9 p.m.”

Essential item: A local cell phone is a must-have, says White. “Using an American cell phone is much more expensive, if it works at all, and you can’t expect that your friends and colleagues will check their e-mail regularly.”

Globe-trotting: White also studied abroad in Berlin, Germany, and Santiago, Chile.

Ethan Meick, SIS/MA ’10, U.S. foreign policy

Ethan Meick, SIS/MA ’10, U.S. foreign policy

Ethan Meick

SIS, master's candidate, U.S. foreign policy

Award: State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship, which funds intensive summer study of Arabic, Chinese, Russian, and Farsi

Location: Harbin, China

Ethan Meick can trace his interest in China back to his freshman year at AU. An introductory course in international
relations piqued his interest in the Asian nation and U.S. foreign relations. He began studying Chinese, founded AU’s Chinese Language Club, and studied abroad in Beijing and Yantai during his junior year. The summer after graduation, the New Hampshire native returned to China on a State Department Scholarship to polish his language skills.

Helpful hint: Cultivate relationships with professors—and keep in touch. “Professors or the mentors you consult in preparing the essays involved in the application are really the most important people in the process. They are an invaluable resource.”

Best memory: The highlight of the trip was climbing Tai Shan, the most famous mountain in China. “It was cold and rainy during the hike up, but when I finally reached the top it was one of the most amazing sights I’ve ever seen: a temple amidst the clouds. Just to think that all of the emperors of China had made the same trek, including Chairman Mao, I was in awe.”

Lesson learned: “I learned to be adventurous and try as many new things as possible. I ate fried scorpion, cicada, and locusts. You have to be respectful [of the culture] and give it a try!”

Essential items: Hand sanitizer and your favorite American snack foods.

Professional pursuits: Meick has his sights set on the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. “I want to be at the forefront of the policy-making process to advance U.S. interests in creating a better, more cooperative international community.”

Sarah Fischer, SPA, PhD candidate, comparative politics

Sarah Fischer, SPA, PhD candidate, comparative politics

Sarah Fischer

SPA, PhD candidate, comparative politics

Award: Boren graduate fellowship, which requires students to focus on less commonly taught languages and cultures

Location: Istanbul, Turkey

Sarah Fischer’s academic interest in the headscarf has led the Iowa native halfway around the world. Over the next year, Fischer will interview Turkish politicians, bureaucrats, and citizens to examine how the headscarf—banned in Turkey—affects women’s political participation. In addition to shedding light on the complex role of women in politics, White aims to educate others about the country that first sparked her interest on a backpacking trip in 2003. “Turkey lies at an important juncture geographically; it has a large, growing economy, and it’s been an important ally for the United States. I hope to help better educate others on Turkey, its people, and its politics.”

Best memory: “My best memory in Turkey thus far comes from last summer, when I was on a critical language scholarship in Ankara. I lived with a Turkish family and the mother was a fabulous cook. Every morning, she would make breakfast and we’d sit and eat together, which was sometimes hard, because I was in beginning Turkish at the time and she didn’t speak any English. Before I left to return to the States, I made an American-style Sunday brunch: pancakes, eggs, and mimosas. I made chocolate chip cookies, too, and my host mom tried to eat them with a fork and knife! (It was her first American-sized cookie; Turkish cookies are bite-size.) It was so nice to be able to repay a little of their kindness by sharing a little about America.”

Lesson learned: “Be thankful for the opportunity, and be grateful to the people who helped you get there and the people who help you once you are there. Gratefulness overcomes both language and cultural barriers.”

Essential item: Sturdy luggage.

Anne Hamilton, SIS/MA ’09, comparative and regional studies

Anne Hamilton, SIS/MA ’09, comparative and regional studies

Anne Hamilton

SIS/MA ’09, comparative and regional studies

Award: Fulbright grant and the Critical Language Enhancement Award, which provides three to six months of intensive language study to Fulbright recipients

Location: Amman, Jordan, followed by Kuwait City, Kuwait

Anne Hamilton will spend the next 14 months in the Middle East, exploring the recent alliance between Nationalist and Islamist political blocs in Kuwait’s parliament. But the former Peace Corps volunteer sees her mission as more than academic. “What intrigues me about
the region is the cavernous gap of understanding that continues to exist between the U.S. and the Middle East. There are loads of misconceptions about the U.S. and about Americans, and I have the opportunity to represent the side of America that many people in this region don’t see often.”

Helpful hint: Seek out merit awards that mesh with your goals and research interests. “Don’t pick a scholarship just because it offers a lot of money. You have to find something that really fits you.”

Best memory: “My best memories thus far are all related to the generosity of complete strangers: a friendly taxi driver refusing payment and welcoming me to his country; a young boy offering to show me the way to a store while carrying large cartons of pomegranates; and elderly Armenian men walking me through the tiny alleyways of the Old City of Damascus to show me to my hotel.”

Surviving and thriving: “Understand that you have a lot to learn about the country, even if you’ve been there before. Learn to enjoy the unknown.” Also, be patient and tolerant, and trust your instincts.

Globe-trotting: In 2007, Hamilton received an SIS graduate summer research award to work with an Arab women’s development organization in northern Israel.

Karun Tilak, SIS-CAS/BA ’11, international studies and economics

Karun Tilak, SIS-CAS/BA ’11, international studies and economics

Karun Tilak

SIS-CAS/BA ’11, international studies and economics

Award: Critical Language Scholarship

Location: Amman, Jordan

After studying Arabic for two years at AU, Karun Tilak took his education on the road. “I felt that learning a language within the context of a country would be an excellent way of furthering my skills,” he says. In addition to honing his Arabic, Tilak learned about pressing issues facing Jordan, including an influx of Iraqi refugees and a water shortage. And while the Oklahoma native is bound for law school, he looks forward to traveling throughout the region and developing an even better grasp of the language.

Lesson learned: Jordanians have an expression: “Inshallah, Bukra, Ma’alesh (God willing, tomorrow, no problem).” Tilak quickly discovered “that not everything—in fact, very little—happened on time. I realized that if I was going to enjoy myself and become comfortable in the culture, I would have to relax my regimented [schedule].”

Surviving and thriving: “Don’t be shy! No matter what you do, at one point or another, you are probably going to look stupid. But, nine times out of ten, those embarrassing experiences will be the best learning tools and perhaps your fondest memories.”

Essential item: “A voracious appetite. Try the food, the drink, the dancing, the music; see the sights; talk to people. You’re only going to be there for a short period of time, and limiting yourself to class and home only gets you so far. In order to really ‘learn,’ you have to get out there and absorb as much as you can.”

Globe-trotting: Tilak’s currently studying abroad at the London School of Economics.