Wade Southwell, a Phi Theta Kappa member from Ozarks Technical Community College in Missouri, is spending nearly a year in Africa as a 2014 Boren Scholar. He is one of 160 college students – and one of just two community college students – to receive the scholarship award.
“My main feeling from this, more than excitement, fear or bewilderment, is gratitude,” Southwell said. “It’s very rare for this scholarship to be awarded to a student from a community college.”
Boren Scholarships are issued by the National Security Education Program and provide unique funding opportunities for United States undergraduate students to study less commonly taught languages in world regions critical to U.S. interests. These are also regions that are underrepresented in typical study abroad programs, including Africa, Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, Eurasia, Latin America and the Middle East.
Up to $20,000 is provided for programs ranging from a summer to a full academic year. In exchange for funding, Boren Scholars commit to working in the federal government for at least one year after graduation. Applications are now being accepted for 2015 and are due February 4.
Southwell is a 24-year-old non-traditional student. He dropped out of high school at 16 and received his GED. When he began college at 23, he earned membership in the Alpha Psi Tau Chapter, even receiving a scholarship to cover the cost of membership.
“Becoming a member of Phi Theta Kappa was a huge confidence booster, and it allowed me to see myself in a different light,” he said. “Feeling connected was always a huge contributing factor to my success and satisfaction in college, and Phi Theta Kappa was a great way to make strong, positive connections.”
Southwell has always been eager to study abroad. Because Ozarks Technical Community College (OTC) has no study abroad program, he reached out to the study abroad director at Missouri State University (MSU). He was basically given two options: be patient and wait until he transferred to a university, or apply for the Boren Scholarship.
“I was told not to get my hopes up because MSU students have applied every year for this scholarship, and no one has ever gotten it,” he said. “The idea of a first-year community college student receiving the Boren International Scholarship was absurd; but the more I learned about the scholarship, the more I realized that it was a perfect fit for me.”
Southwell left the United States on August 2 and arrived in South Africa two days later. He will spend the next 11 months studying isiZulu, an African language, at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. So far, it hasn’t been without its adjustments. The travel to South Africa alone reminded him that each country requires a different power cord. Also, he had to acquire insurance that covers war, natural disaster and civil unrest.
And then there’s the metric system. Upon his first trip to the gym, Southwell was concerned his strength was declining; it wasn’t until he remembered that weight is measured in kilograms rather than pounds that he realized he was trying to do a 60-pound bicep curl.
“I’ve lived in dozens of cities within the United States, and each certainly has its own culture; but living in another country is entirely different,” he said. “I’m taking everything with an open mind and constantly realizing that, growing up as an American and never leaving the U.S., my world view is incredibly limited. I’m hoping my year in South Africa opens me up to become a more cultured, intelligent and insightful person.”
The application process was rigorous and required hours and hours of research. Southwell wrote more than a dozen drafts of each essay before arriving at the ones he submitted. He attended every informational webinar that was offered.
“Wade is an amazing student who works hard and is not afraid to take on new challenges,” said Jo Fritts, advisor to the Alpha Psi Tau Chapter. “He has been a wonderful asset for our chapter by being willing to volunteer and assist with many of the chapter’s activities.
“I’m proud of his accomplishments within Phi Theta Kappa and at OTC, and I know that his future truly does look bright.”
Southwell has received six scholarships during his short role as a college student, and he has applied for more than that. One of his favorite bits of advice – other than knowing that you won’t win if you never apply – is to take advantage of the letters of recommendation, which often don’t have word limits.
“If there’s something you want to say in your essay but don’t have the room, ask your recommender to include it in their letter,” he said. “I gave my instructor two pages of notes, and she wrote a detailed letter of recommendation three pages long. Far from being pretentious, recommenders love this because it gives them something to write about.”
Another tip: be proud of being a community college student. Also, be flexible. Southwell was willing to prolong his graduation in order to spend two full semesters in South Africa. And finally, get involved.
“As a non-traditional student, being a member in Phi Theta Kappa is essential because scholarship committees traditionally look at a student’s high school accomplishments to determine their academic merit,” he said. “I don’t have the advantage of a strong high school transcript, so joining Phi Theta Kappa is a way of showing I’m a student who takes advantage of the resources available to me.”