Mara Papakostas has won a highly competitive 2018 National Security Education Program (NSEP) David L. Boren Scholarship to study Mandarin in Shanghai, China. Hers is one of only about 225 awarded nationwide.
Boren Scholarships fund up to $20,000 for the study of less commonly taught languages in regions critical to U.S. interests, in exchange for a minimum one year of postgraduate government service.
Papakostas is already looking ahead well beyond that–she plans to pursue a career with the State Department, predicting trends and shaping U.S. policy as a dual specialist who shuttles between China and the Middle East.
"China is a rising power and will not be able to remain non-interventionist in the Middle East much longer," she wrote in the international security essay for the scholarship application.
By graduation, Papakostas aims to be fluent in Mandarin and Arabic.
Papakostas's father came from Greece to the United States to pursue his doctorate in computer science. Her American-born mother, a higher education administrator who studied abroad in France, enrolled their three daughters in a French immersion program at Dallas International School in Dallas, Texas, where the girls also studied Spanish and English. Dallas, of course, boasts its own particularities of language and culture.
Dinner table conversation was lively, to say the least. At one point, the sisters paired Greek and Spanish to form a sort of private childhood language, one they sometimes still use for fun to communicate amongst themselves.
In tandem with proficiency in four languages, Papakostas developed a quickness of mind for spotting patterns between whole systems of thought, from geopolitical history to current events. As a high school student, her horizons expanded toward Arabic and Mandarin Chinese language and culture.
She traveled to China, once with a host family during high school and once through the Hanban/Confucius Institute. A school-break visit to an uncle working for the Department of State in Morocco led to a gap year before college studying Arabic in the State Department's National Security Language Initiative for Youth in Marrakech, where she also tutored schoolchildren. Now she is considering adding a concentration in Arabic to her double major in political science and East Asian studies.
At Davidson, Papakostas has taken advantage of opportunities to stay on the move geographically as well as academically. Last summer, she volunteered with a medical NGO in Greece as a translator of Greek and Arabic while taking Greek classes five days a week. She is currently studying abroad at the University of St. Andrew's in Scotland.
Somewhere in the middle of all the globetrotting, Papakostas got her application in to the Boren Programs, created in 1991 by legislation authored by then-Senator David L. Boren of Oklahoma.
Papakostas credits Davdison's Center for Career Development student support staff for guiding her through academic planning, personal and geopolitical essays, letters of reference, transcripts, language assessments and budgeting nitty-gritty all the way down to books, meals and bus fare.
"I owe it all to them. They guided me completely through that process," she said of Executive Director Jeanne-Marie Ryan and the staff of the Center for Career Development. "I spent a lot of last semester writing, erasing and rewriting."
Papakostas will spend this summer with the Davidson in Washington program, working for the NGO U.S.-China Strong toward building and promoting Mandarin education in schools across United States.
In the fall, Papakostas will join a cohort of Davidson in Shanghai students at Fudan University. The Boren Scholarship will permit her to extend her studies at Fudan through the following semester, for a full year of immersion in Chinese language and culture.
And she's already planning ahead–when she returns from China, she'll apply for a Fulbright Fellowship.