Summary

This post summarizes why and how to apply to the Boren Awards, a prestigious language program for US undergraduates (“Boren Scholarship”) and graduate students (“Boren Fellowship”) lasting 2 to 12 months. The Boren Awards present a great opportunity for EAs to gain career capital for US policy work, particularly in the federal government, by developing regional expertise regarding countries such as China, Russia, and India.[1]

To be eligible, applicants must be US citizens and be currently enrolled in an accredited undergraduate or graduate degree program located within the United States. Application deadlines for this year are listed below and are typically in January/February:

  • Graduate students: January 25th, 2023, for the Boren Fellowship
  • Undergrads: February 1st, 2023, for the Boren Scholarship

This post is informed by my (Grant Fleming’s) experience in 2016-2017 as a Boren Scholar in Shanghai, which I did after completing my degree requirements—while nominally still enrolled as a fifth-year undergraduate—at the University of South Carolina.

If you are interested in applying for the Boren Awards—even if you are still unsure or plan to apply in future years—please fill out this form to receive support for your application and potentially be connected with former Boren Awardees.

Program details

The Boren Awards provide US citizens up to $25,000 in funding to study abroad for up to a year, learn a language critical to US national security (e.g., Chinese, Russian, Hindi, or Arabic), and complete other (non-language) academic credits of the student’s choosing. Boren awardees must be willing to seek and hold a job relevant to national security as a government employee or federal contractor for at least one year after returning to the United States. Note that China and Russia have recently been unavailable as Boren countries (though China is available again for 2023), so awardees studied Chinese in Taiwan or Singapore and Russian in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Republic of Moldova, or Ukraine.

Rather than selecting their own study abroad program, applicants may also apply to one of the Regional Flagship Language Initiatives (FLI)[2], which can have very favorable admission rates. These programs involve significant language study, beginning in the summer with a mandatory language course domestically prior to a semester of mandatory language study overseas in the fall. Interested applicants can opt to continue their award with self-organized study overseas for the spring semester. FLI students receive more structure and logistical support than "regular" Boren awardees, but they’re subject to more rules and are not able to choose their own city and program of study.

After completing their time abroad, Boren awardees receive career support from the National Security Education Program (NSEP), including access to special hiring privileges, private government job boards, and online alumni groups to help them get a public sector job or a national security-oriented job in private industry. 

Jobs sought after program completion do not have to be directly relevant to an awardee’s language of study, country of award, or academic major, making the Boren awards a good opportunity to pursue for anyone who is seeking a career as a:

  • Public sector employee of the US government
  • Private sector employee of a public policy firm, think tank, or advocacy group working with the US government on projects dealing with national security
  • Private sector consultant specializing in public sector clients

In general, the Boren Awards present a good opportunity for students interested in working for, or with, the US government in any capacity.[3] For example, students interested in working on technical AI research at a government organization like DARPA or the Office of the Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Officer (CDAO) could leverage a Boren Award to improve their odds of obtaining such a position. 

The Boren Awards are extremely flexible by providing funding for the study abroad program of the awardee’s choosing, allowing the awardee to select the language, country, university, and courses that best fit their own goals and interests. These courses should constitute more than just language courses, as language courses are only required to represent a “significant component” of the student’s program. For example, language coursework only represented six of the fifteen credit hours I completed each semester.

Getting a Boren Award

Eligibility

The Boren Scholarship (for undergraduates) and the Boren Fellowship (for graduate students; collectively the ‘Boren Awards’) are open to US citizens who are enrolled in their academic program during the entire duration of the award. Final year undergraduate or graduate students are also eligible to apply while still enrolled and do their Boren Award after finishing their degree so long as they remain enrolled at their home university until their Boren Award studies are finished. I used this option to spend a relatively low-pressure, fully-funded “fifth year” abroad in China as I weighed my possible career options after finishing my home university’s degree. I did not have to pay tuition or any other fees to my home university during this period, which made this option tenable, but policies at other universities may differ. 

While the Boren Awards specify preferred fields of study for their applicants, the range of fields preferred is broad, including STEM, political science, economics, law, and other social sciences.[4] There is no explicit ranking of the preferred fields of study.

There is no security clearance requirement for applicants. However, traveling to countries with adversarial US relations (e.g., China or Russia) may lengthen future clearance processes. Those seeking to learn Chinese or Russian may wish to study in a country or territory with more favorable US relations, such as Taiwan or Kazakhstan. 

Language and country choice

Applicants must decide on a country and language of interest. The language of interest must be a language relevant to US national security interests, such as Chinese, Russian, Hindi, or Arabic, among many other options. The country of interest can be any country where the language of interest is widely spoken, so long as that country is located in Africa, Asia, Central & Eastern Europe, Latin America, or the Middle East. For example, an applicant interested in learning Arabic could choose a program of study in Algeria, Jordan, or Morocco. 

There is no language proficiency requirement for the Boren Awards, except for some Regional Flagship Language Initiative programs. However, applicants should make sure to choose programs of study that fit their level of ability. 

This table lists the countries with the most Boren Awardees in 2022 (source):

Countries and Languages

Boren Scholarships

Boren Fellowships

Grand Total

Taiwan (Mandarin)

54

17

71

Jordan (Arabic)

18

11

29

South Korea (Korean)

14

8

22

Kazakhstan (Russian)

19

2

21

Brazil (Portuguese)

10

10

20

Morocco (Arabic, Amazigh/Berber)

14

6

20

Azerbaijan (Turkish)

8

6

14

Japan (Japanese)

11

3

14

Senegal (French, Wolof)

11

3

14

Tanzania (Swahili)

5

7

12

India (Hindi, Urdu)

7

3

10

Latvia (Russian)

7

3

10

Ukraine (Russian, Ukrainian)

5

5

10

Indonesia (Indonesian)

4

3

7

Russian Federation (Russian)

3

1

4

Thailand (Thai)

1

3

4

Other countries with 3 or less

17

30

47

Total

208

121

329

While there is no explicit preference for a particular language or country, the largest groups of awardees are for Chinese, Russian, and Arabic. It is unclear to me whether applicants to those more popular languages have significantly lower award rates than for less common languages like Azerbaijani or Uzbek.

Regardless of the language chosen, the majority of Boren awardees I know (including myself) did not attain full fluency in our language of interest during our time abroad.[5]

Optimizing language and country choice for EA relevance

Barring a few exceptions, the vast majority of the languages and countries that the Boren Awards provide funding for do not currently seem directly relevant to individuals interested in core EA issues like great power conflict, global catastrophic risks, and nuclear war.

Applicants interested in these issues should likely select a program of study in Chinese, Russian, or Hindi, though Arabic could also prove relevant. Studying these languages may prepare you well for an 80,000 Hours recommended career in improving China-Western coordination, China-related AI safety and governance, or specializing in emerging global powers like Russia and India.

As noted above, China and Russia have recently been unavailable as Boren countries, but China is available again for 2023. Thus, awardees studied Chinese in Taiwan or Singapore and Russian in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Republic of Moldova, or Ukraine. As mentioned below, the South Asian Flagship Languages Initiative (SAFLI) is a promising opportunity to learn Hindi in India.

Application process

Applications for the Boren Awards typically open in mid-August and close in January, with winners being notified by mid-April. The application requirements for the Boren Awards are as follows:

  1. Two essays of 800 words or fewer (1,000 words for Boren Fellows):
    1. Explaining the significance of your proposed country, region, and language to U.S national security, broadly defined.
    2. Discussing a past personal experience that prepared you to undertake your course of study abroad, how your time abroad will help you achieve your career goals with the federal government, and what makes you interested in a career of federal service.
  2. A 250-word essay focusing on the basic structure of your proposed Boren-funded program, with a focus on language acquisition.
  3. Two letters of recommendation (three for Boren Fellows) coming from either academic or professional contacts

The official application essay prompts and essays advice can be found here.

Most large US universities have at least one faculty or staff member identified as a campus representative responsible for mentoring prospective Boren Awards applicants. The Boren Awards maintains a search engine for finding your university campus representative. 

While not all universities require applicants to contact their campus Boren Awards representative for advising, I found contacting my representative useful and highly recommend this to other applicants. They usually have intimate knowledge of the standards that the Boren Awards committee evaluates applications on and, in my experience, can be extremely helpful in editing your essays and helping you craft a coherent narrative as to why you are a natural fit for the Boren Awards.

Certain universities may have additional application requirements at the behest of the campus advisor. For example, the University of South Carolina had its own internal deadlines and interview process with an internal scholarship committee. 

Boren also provides webinars on its website and hosts live Q&A webinars in January prior to the application deadline, which you can find out about on their mailing list. The webinars are potentially very useful for understanding what Boren is looking for in your application. Many Boren awardees are happy to help students apply, and one EA Boren awardee received significant help from past program participants who had studied the same language by looking for them on LinkedIn.

The Boren Award experience

Upsides of doing a Boren Award

Substantial financial support for studying abroad

The Boren Awards provide substantial financial support for students studying abroad:

 Boren Scholarships (undergraduate)Boren Fellowships (graduate)
Up to $25,000 for 25-52 weeks (preferred)YesYes
Up to $12,500 for 12-24 weeksYesYes
Up to $8,000 for 8-11 weeks (STEM majors only)YesNo
Up to $12,000 for domestic language study (optional) the summer before leavingNoYes

Boren funding aims to fully cover tuition, room and board, visa fees, airfare, books, local transportation, and travel insurance.[6] For instance, I received a Boren scholarship award of ~$23,000 to complete a 52-week academic program in Shanghai, China at Shanghai University, which easily covered my tuition, room and board, and round trip tickets to and from China. I used my own money to pay for travel to nearby countries during academic breaks. Applicants should factor in the local cost of living into their budgets so as not to grossly under or overestimate their requested amount.

The award amount is credited directly to a checking account of your choosing in three installments, with the first payment arriving prior to beginning your program abroad and the third arriving after submission of your post-program report. Once the money arrives in your account, you can spend it as you see fit. 

Extreme flexibility regarding program chosen and material studied

Other than the previously listed requirements for preferred languages, countries, and fields of study, the Boren Awards do not restrict your academic experience abroad. This flexibility gives you a wide degree of latitude to choose whichever university and courses you see fit to best prepare you for your future career. For example, outside of a required six-credit hour language course each semester, I took courses in international business, Chinese/US politics, and econometrics to prepare me for a policy career (as well as a traditional Chinese cooking class at a local community center). 

I also completed an internship while in Shanghai, which was just as, if not more, valuable than any course I took at Shanghai University for improving my Chinese language skills (via speaking with my co-workers) and my data analysis skills. I benefited substantially from my experience studying abroad in China and would recommend that all Boren applicants be deliberate and careful in choosing a study program abroad that provides the courses, internships, and research opportunities that best fit their preferences.

Career support and hiring privileges

All Boren awardees receive access to the following upon their return to the United States:

  • Career support from staff in the National Security Education Program (NSEP): NSEP staff can be reached via phone or email to answer questions regarding crafting your resume, networking, or anything to do with finding a position to fulfill your service requirement. NSEP hosts multiple webinars and in-person events for awardees, including an annual large, in-person hiring fair with federal agencies (see 2021 event page). I did not attend these events but found NSEP’s resume assistance helpful.
  • Networking opportunities with other alumni: Beyond the in-person networking opportunities offered at events hosted by NSEP, there is a private (official and managed by NSEP) Facebook group for all Boren and other NSEP alumni (e.g., Fulbright scholars). Boren alumni (often themselves hiring managers) frequently post jobs for their offices in this group giving preference to Boren awardees.
  • Access to private job postings and other opportunities: After their return, all awardees receive access to NSEPnet, a private job board wherein government agencies post hiring opportunities exclusive (or otherwise featured) to awardees. While I did not take advantage of the NSEPnet job board, I know others who successfully obtained job offers through it.
  • Schedule A hiring authority: Schedule A is a special hiring authority that allows applicants to be hired for certain federal positions without competition from other members of the general public for a period of up to four years.[7] This means that anyone with Schedule A hiring authority is eligible for federal positions where the details for that positions indicate eligibility only for non-competitive, excepted service, or temporary applicants. Schedule A applicants are thus able to apply to the much less competitive job postings (since they have fewer applicants) that can be found using the “Excepted service” and/or “Special authorities” filters on USAJobs. Section 7 of this NSEPnet webpage even indicates that individuals with Schedule A can create their own position in a department or agency, so long as they have the support of a hiring official to do so (though I have never heard of that happening).

High admissions rate for specific programs

Admission rates for some of the Regional Flagship Language Initiatives appear to be very favorable to applicants. For example, staff for the South Asian Flagship Language Initiative (SAFLI) mentioned they typically accept 10-12 students per year out of only 25-30 applicants. Other Boren staff indicated that the acceptance rates for the other Flagship Initiatives are similar.

Credential and signaling

Receiving a Boren Award is a valuable signal of your interest in policy and national security, which is beneficial for getting jobs in those areas, including with the US federal government. Moreover, receiving one prestigious scholarship improves your odds of receiving further scholarships or fellowships in the future.

Downsides of doing a Boren Award

While obtaining a Boren Award can be a good option for individuals seeking to work in or with the US government, there are downsides to consider:

Flexibility in program choice can be a curse

There is a high degree of variance in the satisfaction of Boren awardees that can (anecdotally) be largely attributed to the country and academic program they chose. Consider carefully if the climate, culture, and standard of living within a particular country suit your preferences. Moreover, be careful to choose a study abroad or direct enrollment program (into a foreign university) that suits your academic needs and personal preferences. Even something like the housing situation on campus can highly impact your time abroad. Personally, I wish I had chosen a program that was more centrally located in Shanghai and had more course options in statistics and computer science that would have been relevant for my future career.

No guarantee of obtaining a government job

While the post-return assistance offered by NSEP and the Boren alumni network is substantial, finding a job that fulfills the service requirement is ultimately your individual responsibility. Specifically, the Boren Awards stipulate that awardees must attempt to first fulfill the service requirement by finding a job with (or as a contractor for) one of the following organizations:

Only after making a good faith effort (in the eyes of NSEP) that they have applied to available positions working at or for the above organizations can awardees seek to fulfill the service requirement at other government agencies or via educational opportunities.

Barring enrollment in another academic program, military service, or an extension request, not finding a suitable job within three years of your return will require repayment of your award amount, which about 10% of Boren awardees end up having to do.[8] Awardees in this situation can work out an (interest-free) repayment plan with NSEP. 

The path to acquiring and starting a government job is often long and winding, even for Boren awardees who have received a job offer. National security job offers are often conditional on the applicant acquiring a security clearance and/or undergoing other background checks. Altogether, it can take up to a year between an applicant’s acceptance of a conditional offer and that applicant’s first day of work. Applicants who expect to apply for these jobs should seek temporary employment that can provide them with the necessary income and other benefits (e.g., healthcare) to support themselves until they are able to start their position. Anecdotally, after having a conditional offer rescinded over a year after I initially accepted it, I would highly recommend anyone seeking national security government job to make plans to take other jobs in the meantime and as a backup.

Few professional opportunities to use Boren language skills

There are relatively few jobs within the US government that require regular use of Boren-acquired foreign language skills outside of certain careers in the State Department, Department of Defense, military branches, the intelligence community, and some tracks in trade / international economics. 

That said, as noted above, having study abroad experience and Boren on your resume can still be helpful even for jobs where foreign language skills are not required. Moreover, certain language skills, particularly Chinese, may also be very useful outside of the government (e.g., in think tanks, academic institutes, or for-profits working on US-China issues). 

Regional Flagship Language Initiatives (FLIs)

Rather than selecting their own study abroad program as in a “regular” Boren award, applicants may also apply to one of the Boren Regional Flagship Language Initiatives (FLIs). These programs involve significant language study, beginning in the summer with a mandatory language course domestically prior to a semester of mandatory language study overseas in the fall. Interested applicants can opt to continue their award with self-organized study overseas for the spring semester.

The list of FLI programs includes:

African Flagship Languages Initiative (AFLI)

French in Senegal

Swahili in Tanzania

Akan/Twi in Ghana

Wolof in Senegal

Zulu in South Africa

Indonesian Flagship Language Initiative (IFLI)

Indonesian

South Asian Flagship Languages Initiative (SAFLI)

Hindi in India

Urdu in India

Turkish Flagship Language Initiative (TURFLI)

Turkish 

FLI programs may better suit beginner language learners and those who desire more support and structure. Regular Boren programs may be better for students who want more personal flexibility or who want to design their own academic program.

Upsides of FLI programs

All FLI participants are required to spend the summer at a US university — i.e., University of Wisconsin-Madison or University of Florida depending on the language. This is ideal for people seeking to progress their language skills before going abroad. While abroad, FLI participants are placed in homestays with local residents of the host city, which can help students immerse in the culture and practice their language skills. Every other week, a Boren “resident director” in the host city will organize excursions for FLI students to explore the city (or country, if travel is allowed). 

While regular Boren awardees have to find their academic institutions and enroll, organize their own housing, and purchase their own travel insurance, Boren takes care of all those things for the FLI participants, which is useful if you know you want to study a FLI language but don’t know what language program you would do. FLI programs also provide students with a community of other FLI participants studying the same language domestically and abroad.

Downsides of FLI programs

FLIs primarily focus on languages that are likely less relevant to EA issues, with the exception of the Hindi language program in India. In particular, there are no FLIs for Chinese or Russian. 

FLIs offer significantly less flexibility than the typical self-guided Boren programs. They require you to commit your summer and fall to the academic institutions they choose. FLIs have mandatory excursions domestically and overseas. When abroad during the fall semester, FLI participants are subject to nighttime curfews (around 9 or 10 pm). Domestically and abroad in the fall, FLIs cannot take non-language classes. Additionally, in 2022, FLI students were not allowed to travel outside of their city. However, spring semester studies (if you choose to extend to the spring) are self-guided and have the same rules as “regular” Boren awards.

Anecdotally, one FLI participant wishes they had applied as a “regular” Boren and independently enrolled in the same overseas institution that the FLI students enroll in. That way, they would have been able to study with the FLI students in the same institution but without the additional FLI rules.

Boren Awards relative to other US federal awards

For undergraduate or graduate students seeking a career in US policy, winning a national award like Boren can be one of the more direct paths. The following categories of awards are most likely to contribute positively to such a career path by providing substantial funding and/or internships for undergraduate and/or graduate students:

  1. Direct placement awards: In exchange for the funding, the student commits to spending one or more years after graduation working in a specific government role at a predetermined government agency. The student is guaranteed a placement within this role and does not have to apply for it. Failure to fulfill any associated work requirement will result in the award winner having to pay back their award. Awards that meet this criterion include the Pickering Fellowship (for graduate students seeking to become State Department Foreign Service Officers) and others.[9]
  2. Special eligibility awards: In addition to funding, the student gets access to non-public government job listings and special government hiring privileges for at least one year after graduation working in any federal agency. The student is not guaranteed a placement within this role and does have to apply for one. Except for the Boren Awards, there is usually not an explicit work requirement and no clause for repayment for other awards in this category.[10]
  3. Other prestigious government awards: These awards incur no specific employment obligation on behalf of the awardee and do not not explicitly aim to assist awardees in getting government jobs. However, winning any prestigious award will provide indirect benefits to the awardee, including useful experience and credentials when applying to other programs and jobs, in addition to accessing exclusive job listings, career support, and alumni networks. Awards that meet this criterion include the Goldwater Scholarship and others.[11]

Conclusion

The Boren Awards present a valuable opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students to gain career capital for US policy work, particularly work for, or with, the U.S government. The Boren Awards provide significant funding to help students spend 2 to 12 months abroad developing regional expertise in countries relevant to national security, including those of particular relevance to EAs such as China, Russia, and India. Students interested in minimizing the burden of choosing their own program of study and maximizing their chance of winning a Boren Award might be interested in applying to one of the Regional Flagship Language Initiatives. 

If you are interested in applying, please fill out this brief survey to receive support for your application. Anyone with further questions is also welcome to reach out to me directly through the EA Forum, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Many thanks go to Darius Meissner, Aaron Bergman, and Pranay Mittal for their contributions to this post and help editing.

Appendix: Other US policy fellowships

Are you looking for opportunities to pivot into or accelerate your policy career? If so, check out this database of EA-relevant US policy fellowships. It includes opportunities for people from various backgrounds (STEM, social sciences, etc.) and career levels (undergrad to mid-career). The database allows you to filter by cause area, degree requirements, location, and more. 

If you are eligible for the Boren Awards, please also consider these fellowships:

  1. ^

    Working in US policy, especially for the federal government, can be a highly impactful career, including for EAs seeking to minimize existential risk (factors) from AI, pandemics, nuclear security, (poor) institutional decision-making, great power conflict, or climate change. Government employees can have significant influence over the prioritization, structure, and success of policy initiatives. As the US government relies heavily on contractors from private industry to execute its work, private contractors working for governmental institutions tend to also have a high degree of influence over this work.

  2. ^
  3. ^

    Anecdotally, the Boren award helped me get into my graduate program of choice and subsequent role as a data scientist consultant for federal agencies. My quality of life (pay, work-life balance, etc.) as a government contractor is excellent, which is true for most individuals I know who work in (federal) government or at other government consulting jobs similar to mine.

  4. ^

    Those fields excluded from the list, such as English and philosophy, seem to be in the humanities. The website notes that “applicants from other fields of study will need to explain clearly how they will make competitive applicants for specific public service careers in their second application essay”. 

  5. ^

    Rather, most of us ended up around a B1-B2 level of fluency, as measured by the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.

  6. ^
  7. ^

    Schedule A hiring authority is most often discussed in the context of helping place individuals with disabilities in government jobs. Searching the internet for details about Schedule A will mostly yield resources that have this perspective in mind. 

  8. ^

    Source for the 10% repayment statistic.

  9. ^

    Other direct placement awards: the Charles B, Rangel Fellowship (State Department), the Donald M. Payne International Development Fellowship (USAID), the Foreign Affairs Information Technology Fellowship (State Department), and various different awards for members of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) or military (e.g., Project GO).

  10. ^

    Other special eligibility awards: the Gilman Scholarship (State Department), the Fulbright Scholarship, the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program (State Department), and the Truman Scholarship.

  11. ^

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