When Spence Graves (‘22, Master’s in Public Administration) received a Boren Fellowship for Dakar, Senegal they never thought that one of their most memorable moments would have been a soccer game. 

Spence Graves

In early February, Senegal played against Egypt for the Africa Cup of Nations. Spence was at a small neighborhood restaurant, where people were packed in to watch the game. The score was 0-0, the game went into overtime, and it came down to penalty kicks. Senegal ultimately won, and the streets erupted with cheers. It was the first time the Senegal team won the Africa Cup of Nations. The celebrations lasted for days on end. “The happiness was so contagious. Everyone was on cloud nine for days and days.”

Before getting their Master’s in Public Administration from the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, Spence got their undergraduate degree in International and Intercultural Studies from the School of World Studies at VCU. Spence realized that many opportunities are only available to current VCU students. “I had foresight during my graduate degree to apply for some awards before the end of my program.”

While pursuing their bachelor’s degree, Spence had a transformational experience of studying French abroad. They sought more graduate opportunities to combine their French studies with public administration and that is what ultimately led them to the Boren Awards.

The Boren Awards are a National Security Education Program initiative within the Department of Defense that aims to build a broader and more qualified pool of U.S. citizens with foreign language and intercultural skills. Recipients agree to a one-year federal service requirement after studying abroad. 

Spence had the support of the National Scholarship Office (NSO) throughout the application process. The NSO supports all VCU students and alumni who are interested in applying to prestigious national and international awards. 

“The most important thing that the NSO provides beyond all of the support every step of the way, is to push students a little bit harder to synthesize their own life experiences,” Spence said.

Spence urges future applicants to start preparing application materials early, to not be afraid to write everything down (inspiration can strike anywhere), and sometimes people may want to offer up more ‘traditional’ experiences in their applications but that untraditional experience can offer up the best lessons learned, they said.

Immersed in the French language in Senegal, Spence has been interning with the Think Tank WATHI, the “Citizen’s Think Tank of West Africa.” In this role, they contribute to WATHI’s mission by completing research and writing articles in both French and English for their websites, newsletters and publications. Additionally, Spence is taking classes at African Consultants International Baobab Center in preparation for the DALF C1 exam for French Competency at the Institut Français in Dakar.

As a Boren Fellow, Spence has to fulfill a one-year federal service agreement after their abroad experience, with the option to work domestically or internationally. 

Spence’s Boren experience has become a fork in the road, “this is either a turning point or a stepping stone on the trajectory that I’ve already established.” They found that looking back at their original essay is a great temperature check to see if what was written remains true or sounds like a different person writing it. 

VCU’s National Scholarship Office (NSO) assists students and recent alumni with the application process for Boren Awards and other esteemed awards. To learn more about external funding opportunities, schedule an appointment with a member of the NSO staff.

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