Interview with Sarah Sawyer - Boren Fellowship Winner

June 03, 2015

Sarah Sawyer is a recent graduate of the Elliott School of International Affairs with a degree in International Affairs and a concentration in Global Public Health.

As a Boren Fellowship recipient, Sarah will spend a year in Tanzania learning Swahili and gaining practical experience in Global Health.

About the Boren Fellowship: Boren Fellowships, an initiative of the National Security Education Program, provide unique funding opportunities for U.S. graduate students to study less commonly taught languages in world regions critical to U.S. interests, and underrepresented in study abroad, including Africa, Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, Eurasia, Latin America, and the Middle East. The countries of Western Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are excluded. For help with a Boren Fellowship application, please contact the Office of Graduate Student Assistantships and Fellowships.

As an undergraduate, Sarah developed an interest in public health research when she studied abroad in Madagascar. There, she conducted research on schistosomiasis, a devastatingly common parasitic disease carried by freshwater snails. Her case study of the public health effects of schistosomiasis was published in her program's Independent Study Program Collection.

Returning to GW for her senior year, Sarah continued to conduct undergraduate research as an Elliot School Undergraduate Research Scholar - an intensive research opportunity for outstanding Elliott School students. As a recipient of the Shapiro Public Service Award, Sarah also worked as a research assistant with WASH Advocates, an organization that helps solve the challenge of creating safe drinking water worldwide.

We caught up with Sarah to ask about her experience with the Boren Fellowship and the importance of applying to a range of fellowship opportunities. If you click on the image above, you can also check out our video interview with Sarah, where she discusses how she developed her fellowship writing skills.


1. How did you hear about the Boren Fellowship and what inspired you to apply for it?


I first heard about the Boren Fellowship through my knowledge of the Boren Scholarship, for which I knew several Elliott School students applied. Dr. Steve Wright at the Center for Undergraduate Fellowships and Research (CUFR) recommended that I apply to the Boren Fellowship, which is essentially the same, except that it is for graduate level study abroad. I already knew I was applying to Master in Public Health (MPH) programs, so applying to the Boren Fellowship seemed like a natural fit, and a great reason to defer my graduate studies for one year.


2. You applied for several awards this past cycle including Fulbright, Nat Geo Young Explorer and Princeton in Africa. Could you tell me what that process was like? Why did you apply to a range of options? Did you ever get discouraged?


I applied to seven fellowships this year, including Fulbright, the National Geographic Young Explorers grant, Princeton in Africa, the Boren Fellowship, the NIH IRTA postbac fellowship, Global Health Corps, Volunteers in Asia, in addition to nine graduate programs for Public Health. The process was difficult, but with the help of the CUFR, I was successful. The process started in the summer before my senior year with the Fulbright research grant application, which set the stage for all my other fellowship applications. Although I later found out that I was not a Fulbright finalist, my experience writing my Fulbright essays was incredibly beneficial for all my other fellowship essays. In fact, I drew mostly from my Fulbright essays when writing my Boren essays. My eventual success - getting accepted to two fellowships and four graduate schools - would not have been possible without meeting with Dr. Steve Wright on a weekly basis throughout the Fall semester to continually edit and discuss my applications. Applying to a range of options was important because it kept my options open. I'm aware that applying to fellowships is really competitive, and therefore being flexible and open-minded is essential. There were definitely points during the application processes at which I became discouraged. Applying to many fellowships helped with this, because there was always another opportunity to focus on if one had fallen through (i.e. Fulbright). In addition, Steve, Paul, and Allison at the CUFR were extremely positive and upbeat, so it was difficult to stay discouraged!


3. What was your experience with research as an undergraduate?


I first conducted research as an undergraduate while studying abroad during my junior year in Antananarivo, Madagascar. The SIT Study Abroad program allowed me to conduct a 4-week-long independent research project in western Madagascar on the public health impact of schistosomiasis, a common parasitic infection. In this project, I interviewed 17 Malagasy health professionals and schistosomiasis-infected persons. My research project - and published paper - encouraged me to apply for the Elliott School Undergraduate Scholars Program to continue my research on schistosomiasis in the form of a senior thesis.


4. What will you be studying in Tanzania and what are you most excited about for the year to come?


In Arusha, Tanzania, I will be studying Swahili, after completing the 2 month domestic language program in Gainesville, Florida this summer. I'm excited to meet my home-stay family in Arusha, and practice my Swahili with them every day after my classes. I'm also looking forward to climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro at some point during my fellowship!


Interested in the Boren Fellowship?  Be sure to contact the Office of Graduate Student Assistantships and Fellowships ([email protected]).  They will be happy to assist with the Boren Fellowship application process!