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UND student wins coveted Boren scholarship to study language overseas

Nathan Foster, a junior, will spend 41 weeks in Taiwan; graduate researcher Frances Eby is selected as Boren Fellowship alternate

Nathan Foster

As they say in China, Qiānlǐ zhī xíng, shǐyú zú xià.

And as UND junior Nathan Foster might agree, ain’t it the truth.

The saying is by the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, and Foster can interpret it in a number of ways. The first is literal, because Foster is a student of Mandarin. So, the words from Mandarin translate into a saying familiar in English: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

But Foster has a deeper connection to the saying, because his own journey began in a way that a modern Lao Tzu would appreciate: with a single check mark on a high-school course selection form.

“I was in eighth grade, and was looking with a friend at our choices for the next year,” Foster recalled.

“We saw the language courses available, but weren’t all that interested in Spanish. Then we saw Chinese, and thought, ‘Sure, why not? Could be fun.’”

The Boren Awards

That was in 2014, as Foster was preparing to enter James B. Conant High School in Hoffman Estates, Ill. He continued to study Chinese throughout high school and at UND; and now, he’s preparing to depart in the fall for Taiwan.

That’s because earlier in April, Foster won a Boren Scholarship, a prestigious award from the federal government that’ll pay for him to live and study Mandarin in Taiwan for the upcoming academic year. After that and a December 2022 graduation from UND, he’ll be called upon to serve in a U.S. government post for a year.

After that, if all goes well, Foster is hoping to continue to pursue a U.S. government intelligence or foreign service career.

“And it all started from a conversation back in eighth grade,” Foster said. “It’s very crazy.”

Yee Han Chu
Yee Han Chu

First in 18 years

The last time UND had a Boren scholar was in 2003, said Yee Han Chu, Academic Support and Fellowship Opportunities Coordinator at UND.

“Nathan has amazing humility that masks his incredible achievements as a student,” said Chu.

“He has been learning Mandarin since he was a freshman in high school. He has served as the president of UND’s Chinese Club and in the same year was a research assistant to his Chinese professor, while maintaining exemplary grades.

“I am so glad that Boren was able to see his potential to work successfully in the government intelligence field.”

‘A significant achievement’

In fact, 2021 is proving to be a standout year for UND language scholars, because another student — Frances Eby – has been chosen as an alternate for a 2021 Boren Fellowship. The Boren Awards hosts two programs: scholarships, for undergraduates such as Foster; and fellowships for graduate students.

Eby earned her undergraduate degree magna cum laude from the American University in Paris and her master’s degree in forensic psychology at UND. She’s now a graduate researcher at UND, conducting research at the University’s Sexual Violence Prevention Lab.

“Frances’ selection as an alternate represents a significant achievement, given the hundreds of students who applied for funding,” Chu said. In other words, being a finalist for a Boren almost inevitably means a student is a top prospect for other honors, she said.

Thank you, Teacher Chan

For his part, Foster credits his high-school Chinese teacher, Lichien Chan, for helping him maintain his interest at a critical time. “We called her Chén lǎoshī, or Teacher Chan,” he said. “She was the teacher for my class throughout all four years of high school. And she really inspired me, as we learned about all the components of the language – the tones, the culture, the Chinese characters that are used in writing.”

In Taiwan, Foster will live with a host family that speaks no English, and he’ll study Mandarin at a language school for at least four hours a day. “So it’ll be total immersion,” he said.

“I have studied Mandarin for about six years now, but the opportunity to finally immerse myself in the language is something I could not do without the Boren.

“My Boren experience will not only be the experience of a lifetime, but here’s hoping it also serves as a starting point for a career in government,” he continued. “I cannot even begin to explain how excited I am to have been selected for this scholarship.”