Fellowships can help students and recent graduates gain hands-on experience in international affairs and bolster their résumés for their desired career paths. In this episode of Big World, Chris Swanson, associate director of the Office of Merit Awards at American University, shares his expertise about landing a top fellowship in international affairs.
Swanson discusses the landscape of major international fellowships and scholarships available to students as well as the benefits of applying for them (1:13). He shares when undergraduate and graduate students should start looking into applying for such programs (5:13), and he explains what kinds of experiences students should pursue to stand out from the rest of the applicant pool (8:19).
Are there any skills that students can acquire through their coursework at SIS that can help them prepare a competitive application (14:43)? What are the common mistakes students make when applying for fellowships (18:05)? Swanson answers these questions and shares his personal experience of applying for—and receiving—a Fulbright grant as a graduate student (20:04).
During our “Take Five” segment, Swanson gives five insights into applying for fellowships in international affairs that would surprise most students (10:45).
0:07 Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World where we talk about something in the world that truly matters. The longtime listeners to our podcast will know that about once a year, we feature a guest who specializes in some aspect of career development. We're a podcast based within a school and we know that advice about how to advance careers in international affairs is extremely important to a big part of our audience. So today, we're talking about fellowships in international affairs. I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Chris Swanson. Chris is the associate director of the Office of Merit Awards at American University, where he primarily works with students applying for the Fulbright grant and Boren Awards. Chris, thanks for joining Big World.
0:50 Chris Swanson: Happy to be here.
0:51 KS: Chris, financial assistance, especially when paired with a unique professional opportunity, is a dream come true for many students. So to get us started, what kinds of major fellowships and scholarships are available for students to seek out during their time at SIS? And what are the benefits of applying for those awards?
1:13 CS: There is no such thing as a complete list of all of the awards that are out there. Our office works heavily with students on a small number of opportunities because of interest and because there may be a larger number of grants available, but the list of possibilities is much greater than anything that I will ever get to today. So for study abroad, our SIS students are certainly interested in the Boren programs. There's an undergraduate scholarship and a graduate fellowship. Undergraduates might be interested also in the Gilman award, in some cases, the Freeman-ASIA. For language, there's the CLS, which is the Critical Language Scholarship. That's always been very popular with AU students, SIS students in particular. Again, the Boren—the Boren is a sort of a flexible award, but it does expect that you're learning a foreign language while you're doing it so that I would put in the language category.
2:14 CS: For some really spectacular students, typically graduate students with advanced language skills, there's something called the Blakemore—a wonderful award for the right student. For research my default is always the Fulbright program, that's certainly my baby and my favorite, and I'm a Fulbright. So I spend my days and nights thinking about Fulbright. For the service awards, it's a category that seems to be expanding. So in particular, we're thinking about the programs that start with Princeton in, Princeton in Asia, Princeton in Africa, Princeton in Latin America. There's also something called the MENA fellowship, which would fall in this category. And there's something called the Banyan Fellowship, which was, if we had this conversation a year ago, it was called something else, it was called the Clinton, and now it's been renamed to Banyan. That is a service scholarship in India. And all of those programs are sort of Peace Corps light, maybe a one-year commitment where you're working with a NGO or something in a far away place.
3:21 CS: And then of course the one that everyone is interested in is the tuition awards, which are the hardest ones to get—absolutely the hardest ones to get, but everyone is interested in them. Pickering, Rangel, Payne are all prominent awards where the end of the rainbow is someone pays for your graduate study, but we definitely have SIS students, undergrads and grads alike, who show interest in international teaching opportunities as a way of developing language skills and getting field experience. So that is the landscape. And as you can tell, there's a lot and I promise you that's just sort of like—those are the big ones.
4:03 CS: For most people, for most of these programs, part of the benefit is you get practice interviewing. Fulbright, Boren, Rangel, Pickering—these are programs that have interviews. If you were one of my Fulbright applicants, you get to the end of the process, meaning the competition that we run, the application process that you go through before you submit your application, and you'll get a faculty interview, which not everybody in the world gets. That's a unique experience. So I think that's a very interesting bit of life training to go through sort of a serious interview.
4:45 KS: And Chris, we know that students sometimes feel like they need to be doing everything already by the first day of classes. Our motivated students come in and they don't want to feel like they're behind on something, but it is impossible for them to already be doing everything by the first day of classes. So just to set some minds at ease, when should undergraduate students start looking into scholarship programs to apply to? And then what about graduate students, what's their timeline for looking at those programs?
5:13 CS: So everything I'm about to say is going to be general, broad statements and there's exceptions to everything. For the undergraduates, in general, sophomore year is the time when we would want you to pay attention or to start to pay attention in any case. For freshmen, the truth of the matter is there are very few scholarship competitions that I could even point you towards. There are a couple, but in general, scholarships, the competitions, the foundations, the organizations that run these programs target their grants at students who are a bit older, so they can look at your track record. And obvious exception is a CLS, you can certainly apply for the CLS in your freshman year or any other year of school for that matter. But you could think about a CLS or freshman year. Otherwise, it's very thin pickings.
6:07 KS: And the CLS is the critical language scholarship?
6:09 CS: Yes, that is correct. It's a wonderful program, and it means fully funded summer language training in one of more than a dozen critical languages. So sophomore year though is when things start kicking in, and it also matters because students are thinking about junior year abroad. There are some awards that you can do right after graduation, Fulbright, for example, you can apply for that when you're a senior and do it if everything goes well, essentially the academic year after graduation. And then there's the graduate students, we do have graduate students in SIS who pursue the Boren Fellowship during... When I say pursue, they submit an application during their first year, but most of them wait until their second year and there's bureaucratically suitable ways so that you can do your year one, your year two, apply during your second year, and then go do the Boren as a subsequent year, sort of a third year of learning.
7:20 CS: For us, that is the most common configuration. For graduate students who are interested in the Fulbright, meaning, in most cases, a graduate student would be interested in a Fulbright research grant to spend a year someplace abroad, conducting independent research. Those students should be paying attention by the spring of the first year of graduate study. If you want a Fulbright waiting for you after your two year master's degree, then you must start the process spring of your first year.
7:58 KS: Thinking in general, before even applying for some of these prestigious international affairs fellowships, what kinds of experiences should students seek to stand out from the rest of the application pool? And that might not even be academic accomplishments. Are there any other kinds of experiences that they should have on their resume?
8:19 CS: The thing that I would say to anyone, and this goes undergraduate, graduate, it's all the same. The things that will help you are, first of all, to develop meaningful faculty relationships. If faculty are invested in your success, they will guide you, they will recommend you, they will connect you with resources, they will help you find affiliations, they will say, "Sure, you can say in your application that I will help you publish." All these sorts of things help tremendously. Another thing that I would recommend to anyone is simply to develop good research skills. I understand that really everyone in SIS is getting the message, do research, do research, learn research methodologies. There's a reason for that. If you're applying for a Fulbright research grant, like I need you to have those research skills. And this is a little bit of a narrow comment, because that really is about Fulbright.
9:22 CS: In Fulbright, the magic words are validity and feasibility, meaning is it worth doing, and can it be done? And the last one I would stick on the list is study languages. Certainly in international affairs, everything is language-based, even if it's not as a language scholarship, it's language-oriented, study abroad, languages, research abroad, languages, it's all about languages. Even if it's something like let's say a Pickering or Rangel, and the idea is that someone pays for your graduate study, and you joined the Foreign Service. Well, what do you do in the Foreign Service? You go to the Foreign Service Institute and they teach you languages. All of these things sort of lead to the same thought. And I understand that people are busy taking classes and they are like, "I don't really want to study Arabic this year." But honestly, I think that it's one of the persistently useful things you can do.
10:30 KS: Chris Swanson, it's time to take five, and we are changing it up a little today. Instead of five ways that you want to change the world, give us five insights into applying for fellowships in international affairs that would surprise most students.
10:45 CS: Number one, I think the Boren scholarship and fellowship programs are a better way to get to the developing world than the Fulbright program. We get questions like, "Hey, I want to go to Sub-Saharan Africa. I want to go to Southeast Asia." You can get to those places on a Fulbright, but the funding reality of Fulbright is that in those places it's more likely that there isn't a local commission, and that means there's probably less funding, and that means there's probably less grants. Number two, Indonesia is a favorite country for me, as a fellowships advisor. You can get there on a Fulbright, you can get there on a Boren, you can get there on a Critical Language Scholarship, and there's even some scholarships that are run by the Indonesian government that would work to get you to Indonesia. If it's a Fulbright, you're thinking, "But Chris, I do not speak Bahasa Indonesia."
11:40 CS: Well, magically, Indonesia is the one country in the whole entire world that actually says, "It's okay if you don't speak our language." So, the door is open for Fulbright in ways it might not be for some other country. Number three, I liked German. I think German is a great language to learn if your mercenary goal is to get a grant to go abroad. And the reasons are that there are a variety of programs that would get you to Germany. Fulbright is one. The Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange is one. There's a program that allows you to do an internship for a member of the German Bundestag. There are lots of programs that will get you to Germany, and the catch is, you just have to speak German. Number four, grades only kind of matter. Most competitions do not expect that you have a 4.0 and that you cured cancer that is not how the world works.
12:51 CS: If it's Fulbright, if it's Boren, like a 3.7, a 3.8 is tremendously ordinary. The people that get the grants are good students but students who live in the real world, who have a job or an internship, and so they don't have the perfect 4.0. Number five, diversity in foreign affairs is definitely a big conversation. There's programs—the Pickering and the Rangel are explicit examples of this where they're looking for groups of people who have historically not been well represented in international affairs. For the undergraduates, the PPIA program is another program where they distinctly looking for people who are interested in communities of color. But Fulbright has had a multi-year and quite serious effort to diversify who is applying. Whoever you might happen to be your unique experience will find a relevant niche somewhere in this big world of scholarships for students in international affairs.
14:09 KS: Thank you. So you've pointed out language skills and definitely research methods and then you also point out that students are going to classes and they're busy. So with that in mind, are there any additional skills that you think students can acquire through their coursework at SIS that can help them prepare a competitive application? Any types of analysis classes or communication classes? Or what do you think would help, other than the language and research methods?
14:43 CS: Well, it goes without saying, especially for the undergraduates 206 and 306 are there for a reason—that's the undergraduate research design or research sequence that all of the SIS undergraduates take. And pay attention in class; I won't badger you any more than that, but there's a reason why you're being taught research design. One thing that I would say, it is my perception that the most favorite thing to do is mixed methods research—I think, with sort of a tendency toward qualitative research. So my tip, my answer to your question is I think there's real value in getting quantitative research experience. I say that in part, because historically, I guess I'm just thinking about undergraduates at the moment. Students who've earned an undergraduate SIS degree and a minor in economics have been probably my most reliably successful pool of Fulbright applicants.
15:57 CS: It's something about the way of thinking about research. It's this idea of like research is "how does X affect Y?" Economists are sort of simple and to the point about it, and that works. It works, that's a great place to start. Another thought, another answer to your question, which veers in a different direction is get teaching experience. Okay. Now you're like, "Whoa, why is he telling me to get teaching experience?" And it's because there are opportunities such as the Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship and some other programs that are also essentially teaching jobs abroad.
16:34 CS: Several governments—the Spanish government, the French government, the Austrian government, the Japanese government—have programs where you go teach abroad and broadly speaking. The expectation is not that you get an MA in teaching or something like that, the expectation is not professionalism. The standard is that at some point in your recent life, you've been a TA, a tutor, a camp counselor, a campus ambassador—you've been a swim coach, like any of these sorts of teaching and quasi teaching experiences that show that you could get up in a classroom, and you could do it.
17:17 CS: And it's basically—there's a whole bunch of opportunities that are quite open for the student who has a modicum of teaching experience, not a huge amount, just enough, just like, "I'm not making this up, I'm actually interested in the classroom." And then of course, the point is that those opportunities can lead you elsewhere, that means that once you're in the Fulbright door, and you're spending a year in Ecuador, then you have the time to do the other things you're pursuing.
17:45 KS: Chris, we always try with our advice episodes to help students avoid any trip wires that are obvious that they might not know about but that people in your position see all the time. And so would you say there are any common mistakes that students can make when applying for fellowships and then what should they avoid doing?
18:05 CS: Well, I mentioned two problems that we see. One is there's a sort of student who thinks that no help is required—does not come to the office of Merit Awards for advice from me or my various colleagues. We have a huge office; there's four full-time advisors plus graduate assistants. We have lots of people who are ready to help you apply for scholarships. Another thing that I would point out is—this is a mistake, this is a thing that applicants should avoid, getting started late. It's as simple as that, getting started late is a problem.
18:43 KS: Procrastinator alert.
18:45 CS: Procrastinator alert. Now it depends. I acknowledge that it depends. So if it is the Critical Language Scholarship, could you wait until the last month and throw it together competently? The answer is yes, but if it's Fulbright and you wait until the last month, can you throw that together competently in a month? The answer is resoundingly no. If you don't give yourself time, it can really hurt you.
19:22 KS: Chris, you have an interesting background. You have three degrees in dramaturgy and dramatic criticism. It so happens my very first job was doing media relations for a classical repertory theater, so I feel like there's another podcast episode buried in here where we talk about your top five Shakespeare plays to see staged in modern settings or who your favorite American playwright is. But what stands out to me in your bio and is really relevant today is that you were yourself a Fulbright grant recipient, as you mentioned. So just to close this out a little bit with some personal experience, can you tell us a little bit about that? Like where you went, what you did, and finally, why an experience like that is something that you recommend to others?
20:04 CS: That's an interesting question. I was a graduate student at the Yale School of Drama at the time when I applied for my Fulbright. My research interest at the time had to do with Hofmannsthal, who people might know as the librettist for the Strauss operas, and Oskar Kokoschka, who people would know as an expressionist painter predominantly—both of them very prominent in Vienna at the time, turn of the century, early 20th century. I was writing my dissertation about them. And the story that I tell frequently in advising is I applied, and I didn't get it. And that was terrific. I mean, with the benefit of hindsight, that was terrific because the—
20:56 KS: No, it wasn't. I mean, it was terrific in the later time, but at the time you were devastated, right?
21:02 CS: I don't know that I remember that part of the story.
21:05 KS: Okay.
21:05 CS: The part of the story I remember was that I realized that I had bitten off more than I knew how to chew. And I won't go into this, but basically I conceptually threw out some pieces of the original proposal,, and I reapplied and it was much tighter ,and I got it the second time. And honestly, a significant number of our successful grantees for a variety of competitions, but Fulbright is one example, don't get it on their first try. Now sometimes you only have one shot at something, and of course that's the end, but there are competitions where you just have to try a couple of times.
21:50 KS: Chris Swanson, thank you for joining Big World to discuss fellowships in international affairs. It's been a treat to speak with you and also talk about Straus.
21:58 CS: It's been my pleasure.
22:01 KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website on iTunes, Spotify, and wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you leave us a good rating or review, it'll be like a bottomless waffle cone. Our theme music is "It Was Just Cold," by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.