Olson Scholars Program Advanced research for high-achieving students

The Olson Scholars Program recognizes high-performing first-year students with a passion for social science research as they enter their sophomore year at SIS. Named for William Olson, a former Dean of the School of International Service whose dedication to mentoring students was renowned, the program provides a structured, challenging, and supportive curricular environment within which Olson Scholars have the opportunity to pursue advanced research work in international studies under the close supervision of a member of the SIS faculty.

Olson Scholars enroll in a dedicated section of the core SIS research methodology sequence (SISU-206 and SISU-306) over the course of their sophomore year. Each student is matched with an SIS faculty mentor whose research and professional interests closely correspond to the student's own passions and vocational goals; the faculty mentor guides the student through the research project that the student will work on over the course of the year. Olson Scholars take SISU- 206 (Introduction to International Studies Research) together in the fall, and SISU-306 (Advanced International Studies Research) together in the spring. As students proceed through SISU-306, they are expected to work more and more independently with their faculty mentor—perhaps the most exciting part of the Olson Scholars Program—while class time is devoted to exploring broad theoretical and methodological questions about the social sciences and the conduct and ethics of scholarship and research.

Olson Scholars are also invited to participate in a number of supplemental activities over the course of the year. 

Successful applicants combine a record of excellent academic performance with a talent for research. Indicators for the latter are:

  • the quality of the proposed research project (e.g., is it sufficiently focused? Does it build on existing scholarship?)
  • evidence of perseverance (e.g., following through on commitments, dedication to self-improvement, overcoming academic challenges)
  • self-reflection (specifically the ability to recognize and address presuppositions and normativity in formulating questions and engaging with learning materials)

Applicants should also note that the program is geared toward students who are analytically talented and intellectually curious, and less toward those who believe they already have the answers and feel compelled to speak "truth". 

Application Process

Applications for the Olson Scholars Program are available to SIS undergraduate students in the spring of their first year. Selection criteria include a student's overall and in-major GPA, a record of engagement with and demonstrated passion for international issues, and the quality of the proposed research project on which the applicant proposes to work. Approximately 15 Olson Scholars will be named annually.

The application deadline for Academic Year 2024-2025 is Monday, February 26, at 5:00PM EST.

With the exception of the letter of recommendation, all application materials should be sent as a single PDF file attachment to sisundergrad@american.edu.

Please include the following in your application package:

  1. A cover sheet containing your name, your AU ID#, your AU email address, and the name of your recommendation letter-writer. Please note, as well, whether you have applied (or intend to apply) to the Said Peace Scholars Program (you may apply to both programs, but if accepted to both, you will decide which cohort program you would like to join since space in these specialized programs is very limited).
  2. A current resume.
  3. An unofficial transcript.
  4. Three short essays addressing the prompts below. Please limit yourself to 400 words for each essay (single-spaced, standard 12 point font).
    1. Describe a moment of “intellectual clarity” that happened in or as a result of a class in your first semester. This might be an experience that stimulated you to think about something in a new way, that confirmed your interest in a given topic, or that challenged your preconceived ideas about a topic or problem in international studies.
    2. Conducting original research is at the core of the “2nd year experience” for SIS undergraduate students. Identify a topic that you would like to research in depth in your 2nd year, paying particular attention to why it constitutes something that merits substantial research, i.e., what do you think is not yet known and should therefore be researched? Formulate a tentative research question for this topic on this basis and then outline, briefly, two different approaches to researching it. 

    3. All the students in the Olson Program are pursuing different topics and using a wide variety of methods. As such, the Program requires students self-starters in order to complete some of their learning independently. Scholars should be self-guided in determining the steps needed to complete their project. For your third short essay, describe a challenge or experience that has prepared you for this kind of independent work.
  5. A letter of recommendation, preferably from an SIS instructor. This could include your Intro to International Studies TA, your First Year Seminar professor, your Intercultural Communication professor, or any other member of the SIS faculty who knows you and can speak to your suitability for the Olson Scholars program. In general, the more specific your recommender can be about your qualifications for the Olson Scholars Program, the more helpful their letter will be. Please ensure that the instructor who writes a letter for you is equally familiar with the selection criteria listed in this call for applications. Letters of recommendation should be submitted directly to sisundergrad@american.edu by the recommender.

Please direct any further questions to sisundergrad@american.edu.