In April 2023, RFG Fellow, JaKyah Beatty (UMD, 2024), returned from her travels abroad as a Boren Fellow studying Swahili in Tanzania. While abroad, JaKyah had the opportunity to learn a critical language, progressing from having no prior knowledge of Swahili to reaching an advanced intermediate fluency in the language after nine months of intensive study and immersion. She also had the chance to deepen her knowledge of international development efforts taking place in Eastern Africa, which is an aspect of her experience that ties not only into her professional background, but also her long-term ambitions of working in the global development field. In the following piece, JaKyah highlights different aspects of her experience as a Boren Fellow, including lessons learned, the rigorousness of her foreign language study, and how this experience has influenced her career goals.
The Boren Fellowship is a long-established initiative that provides funding for research and language study proposals by U.S. graduate students in world regions critical to U.S. interests. JaKyah is among a growing legacy of RFG Fellows, who have been selected as Boren Fellows. To date, more than 15 RFG Fellows have been selected for this prestigious award and have studied a diverse array of foreign languages, including but not limited to Arabic, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Polish, and Swahili. In fact, two new RFG Fellows, Cody Arigo and Jackson Rice are currently preparing to embark on their studies abroad in India and Taiwan respectively. For JaKyah, she chose to study Swahili in Tanzania because of her professional background working with a social enterprise in Uganda in 2018. She expressed that “I learned so much from that experience after undergrad and wanted to go back [to the region] with my increased knowledge of development.” She added that she was also excited to have the opportunity to learn a critically essential language that she might not otherwise have had the chance to learn without spending significant time in East Africa.
When applying for the Boren Fellowship in 2022, JaKyah felt that her previous experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Fiji made her more competitive. She leveraged the fact that she already had experience learning another foreign language in preparation for her service with the Peace Corps. She also underscored her background working in East Africa and her adaptability and hard-working nature. Thinking back to her application, JaKyah shared how she emphasized the skills that the Boren Fellowship values, including her “passion for the country and language and how the experience would make her a better public service employee.”
Her experience of learning a foreign language for the Peace Corps definitely was helpful as JaKyah adjusted to four-hour long, daily language classes while living in Tanzania. These classes were intensive and intimate with there being only four students per teacher. In addition to these classes, JaKyah participated in two-hour long sessions twice a week with conversation partners, who were representatives from the local community and college. She shares that these “conversation partner sessions were fun because we could watch movies in Swahili together, listen to music, and learn words and phrases used in non-academic contexts.” JaKyah discusses how her Boren experience also included field trips, culture, and history classes once a week to further her understanding of Tanzania. Outside of the classroom, JaKyah lived with a host family, who was not allowed to speak English to her, helping her to learn how to express her basic needs quickly upon arrival in the country.
An integral aspect of her foreign language learning was the local community. She shares how willing people in the community were to speak Swahili with her, despite her initially limited understanding of the language. “I felt like people I met in markets or around town generally encouraged me to continue learning the language,” JaKyah remembers. “This made me feel like I had a hundred teachers.” Despite this encouragement, JaKyah admits that she struggled with finding the confidence to be okay with making mistakes in Swahili. “Learning a new language is difficult,” JaKyah comments. “Pushing past the embarrassment of feeling like I knew nothing all the time was very challenging in the beginning.” She describes Swahili as a hard language to learn given it has nine or ten noun classes and agreements, making remembering which words go with each other difficult and a process she is still mastering. Despite these difficulties, JaKyah rose to the challenge reaching an advanced intermediate fluency in the language before departing Tanzania earlier this spring.
JaKyah shares that her experience as a Boren Fellow has been an extremely positive one and that she would wholeheartedly recommend it to other RFG Fellows. For those interested in this incredible opportunity, she encourages them to “think deeply about why you want to participate in the program and have clear professional and personal goals associated with your language and country of choice.” Given being involved in the local community is an integral aspect of the Boren experience, JaKyah recommends that those seeking to be a Boren Fellow look into NGOs that interest them and community spaces and activities relevant to the area where they are applying. “The more effort you put in before the program, the more you will gain from it in the end,” JaKyah states.
With her Boren Fellowship complete, JaKyah is now turning her attention back to school and her long-term career goals. She will be returning this Fall semester to complete her graduate studies at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy and is expected to graduate from the program in the Spring of 2024. Career-wise, JaKyah is considering two potential paths. The first is applying to Federal Government agencies in the international trade policy arena so that she can be actively involved in the implementation of socially inclusive trade laws that guard against any potentially negative social or environmental impacts for the populations they affect. The second is applying to serve as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer, either in the field of Public Diplomacy or Economics. “The Public Diplomacy Officer position interests me because it entails building bridges of understanding between Americans and the rest of the world,” JaKyah states. This mission connects directly to her previous service with the Peace Corps, where a large portion of her role was to share American culture with local communities in Fiji, while also learning about Fijian culture and bringing it home to share with her fellow Americans. JaKyah comments, “I believe that developing mutual cultural understanding is imperative to continuing strong foreign policy and foreign relations.” Her interest in the Economic Officer position with the U.S. Foreign Service is rooted in her desire to work with other countries on environmental and economic development issues in underdeveloped or newly emerging countries.
JaKyah remains extremely grateful for the opportunity to be a Boren Fellow. She shares how ultimately, she was able to broaden her knowledge of Swahili, East Africa, and international development through this experience, while also cultivating skills that will be instrumental to her future career in public service. Of great importance to her as well is the fact that she contributed to paving the way for other students of color to pursue similar experiences in the international affairs field, “a domain where these students are typically underrepresented,” JaKyah describes. The daughter of a U.S. military family, a former Peace Corps Volunteer, and now a RFG and Boren Fellow, JaKyah exemplifies a passion for public service, foreign language learning, and international affairs, and she is steadfast in her dedication to pursuing these areas not only for herself, but for future generations to come.