Saturday, June 23, 2018

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From left: Aminata Ba, Charles McGrath and Kelly McEtchin. From left: Aminata Ba, Charles McGrath and Kelly McEtchin.

Above and Abroad

Three SDSU students received prestigious Boren Awards to study critical languages abroad.
By Michael Klitzing

When Aminata Ba checked her inbox a few months back, she wasn’t expecting a life-altering moment. But as soon as she opened an email about an upcoming Boren Awards application deadline, everything changed.

“As soon as I started reading that email, I could feel my heart pumping,” said the international business sophomore. “It was actually the moment where I think I found out what I really want in my life.”

She’s now on her way to achieving it. Ba is one of three SDSU students to earn the prestigious Boren Awards. She joins homeland security graduate students Charles McGrath and Kelly McEtchin. They will each study abroad this fall and receive between $20,000 to $30,000 in funding.

The Boren Awards are presented by the Institute of International Education, on behalf of the National Security Education Program. They support students studying languages overseas in world regions critical to U.S. interests. Ba will study the language Wolof in Senegal this fall. McGrath will study Russian and conduct research in Kazakhstan, and McEtchin will conduct research and study Bahasa Indonesian in Indonesia. In exchange for funding, recipients agree to work for the federal government for at least one year.

For SDSU — which had only one Boren recipient over the previous five years — three recipients in one year counts as a major haul. SDSU study abroad advisor Ryan McLemore credits an increased campus-wide push to connect students with scholarship opportunities, but he also sees it as a sign that SDSU students are becoming increasingly ambitious when choosing international experiences.

“This shows that there is more interest among our students in a variety of destinations and that students are looking for non-traditional experiences like studying critical languages,” McLemore said. “More broadly, it’s also encouraging that we’re having more students applying for heavyweight scholarships.”

Something more meaningful

McGrath was working as a financial advisor in Moscow when he reached a conclusion: he wanted his life to be about more than numbers and commissions.

“Every day I was watching the news about the markets, but I was also watching the news about Boko Haram kidnapping girls or about ISIS suddenly becoming this powerful group,” said the U.S. Army veteran. “I just felt like I wanted to do something more meaningful in my life and in my career.”

That’s what led McGrath to apply to SDSU’s graduate program in homeland security, a path that will now take him to Kimep University in Almaty, Kazakhstan in June. In addition to studying Russian, he will conduct research on recently discovered ancient geoglyphs for clues into the history of climate change and human migration patterns in the region.

“I felt to get awarded the scholarship, I had to come up with something unique – something that wasn’t just studying economic relations and Russian,” he said. “That’s a good topic, but a lot of people will be studying those aspects. A lot of my research will develop and evolve once I get there and get linked up with the scientists.”

A need to explore

McEtchin is no stranger to taking a chance on international travel. She once backpacked alone across Europe, visiting 17 countries along the way.

“I’m really excited about immersing myself in another culture,” McEtchin said. “I love to meet people and I love to make connections. I thought Indonesia would be really cool and I love what I’ll be learning over there.”

She will study Bahasa at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. The experience also happens to dovetail with her research project on Indonesian history and how current events abroad shape the country’s present-day politics.

“In order to do this, I needed to be there in the fall of 2016,” McEtchin said. “Getting this fellowship makes it better because now I can be there for a year instead of four months.”

Back to her roots

Ba experienced one of the more international upbringings imaginable. Born in the U.S. to a Senegalese father and Japanese mother, she grew up in Japan and attended high school in France. She now looks at her upcoming immersion in Wolof at Gaston Berger University in Saint Louis, Senegal as a chance to reconnect with an important part of her identity.

“Learning French was kind of a big step for me to lean toward my Senegalese side, but French is just their official language – not the ethnic language that my dad speaks,” said Ba, who already speaks English and Japanese in addition to French and is learning Chinese as part of her major. “So I can communicate with Senegalese people using French, but I always felt it wasn’t enough to connect.”

In addition to tracing back to her roots, Ba said learning Wolof is increasingly critical in a region where the threat posed by ISIS is growing. Mali, Senegal’s neighboring country, has been rocked recently by terrorist attacks.

“Of course Senegal is my country so I’m very concerned about this issue,” Ba said. “I would be happy to work to make the country’s security and economy more stable.”