UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – As a first-generation Gambian-American, Heidi Foon has always known she was destined for an international career. That’s what drew her to the Penn State School of International Affairs, and pushed her, in her first year of study, to apply to the prestigious and highly competitive Boren Fellowship. This April, she found out that she was selected as a 2018-19 Boren Fellow.
Boren Fellowships are an initiative of the National Security Education Program that provide unique funding opportunities for U.S. graduate students to study less commonly taught languages in world regions critical to U.S. interests, that are underrepresented in study abroad, including Africa, Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, Eurasia, Latin America, and the Middle East. Boren Fellows are highly motivated individuals who wish to work in the federal national security arena. In exchange for funding, Boren Fellows commit to working in the federal government for at least one year after graduation.
Though the application process was extremely rigorous, Foon credits and thanks the SIA family, including Director Scott Gartner, Career Services Director Grant Littke, and Academic Adviser Claudia Prieto for being in constant contact, and dedicating time and effort to compile everything successfully. She is also thankful to the University Fellowship Office.
“It definitely takes a team, but working with others who believe in you is an incredible motivation throughout the process,” said Foon. “I would encourage anyone who is interested in the fellowship to apply; just by applying you already have a greater chance of being selected than if you didn’t apply at all.”
Foon will spend her entire second academic year, September through April, as a Boren Fellow in Senegal. The program will include classroom study, in addition to an internship program with a local nongovernmental organization in the public health or social service sector.
“Heidi wonderfully reflects the spirit of SIA with her commitment to helping others, her global leadership and her passion for taking on critical, challenging problems,” said Gartner. “With the support of the Boren Fellowship she will contribute to improving public health care in Senegal while learning how to implement and refine vital policies in a cross-cultural context.”
As a key component of the Boren Fellowship, Foon will also have the opportunity to expand upon her fluency in Wolof, one of Senegal’s national languages. As it is her parents’ native language, Foon can currently understand Wolof when hearing it, but is looking forward to being able to speak it fluently herself, in addition to French and English.
Foon plans to work in international development, particularly in West Africa, upon her graduation, and she believes this experience will greatly affect that work, as will her heritage in diverse cultures and her interdisciplinary education. Eventually, her goal is to work in development policy that will positively impact the regions she is working in.
“It’s one thing to learn about development in a classroom, but I want to hear from the local people who are actually experiencing the challenges in their daily lives,” said Foon. “I want to know from the source how I can better implement policy and projects so that they actually make a difference.”
As an undergraduate, Foon studied abroad in France, and while she has visited Gambia and the region before, she knows this experience will be different from those previous trips.
“I don’t know what to expect, but I can foresee a lot of personal growth,” she said.