Graduate student secures Boren Fellowship

Sean Yoder
May 08, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A graduate student from the School of International Affairs was selected as the winner of a Boren Fellowship, which will allow her to study for a year in Senegal and hone her knowledge of the French and Wolof languages.

Heidi Foon, originally of Atlanta and born in New Jersey, wants to continue studying development within the context of international affairs, and said the year in Senegal will give her a chance to delve into the topic and become more familiar with the culture.

“Going to Senegal was the perfect opportunity,” Foon said during an interview at the Lewis Katz Building at University Park. “As an International Affairs student, going abroad is one of the key elements to making you stand out in this program.”

Being selected as a Boren fellow wasn’t easy, she said. She and her application team — consisting of staff from SIA and the University Fellowships Office — worked for nearly two full months to usher her application through the process and refine her essays.

“It took months,” she said with a laugh. “There were many drafts, many revisions. There was constant communication with my advisers.”

Then, one April evening she saw Boren in the subject line of an email. She at first thought she didn’t get it and said it took about 10 reads of the email before it sunk it that she beat out the competition.

“It was a shocking moment,” she said. “When applying I thought I had maybe a 2 or 3 percent chance of getting it because it was highly competitive and I also didn’t know the distribution (of winners).”

Foon said the fellowship application was a team effort, with support from Caitlin Ting, interim director of the University Fellowships Office; Grant Littke, director of Career Services at SIA; SIA Director Scott Gartner; and Claudia Prieto, academic adviser.

“Even if I had applied and didn't get it, I would still be proud of myself and for the work that I put into it, as well as working with others to put my materials together.”

—Heidi Foon, graduate student and winner of the Boren Fellowship

“For the Boren Fellowship and Scholarship, applicants are expected to participate in a campus evaluation process and complete an interview with faculty and staff before the final submission of their application,” Ting said. “Therefore, I worked with Heidi quite closely on her application. Not only did I interview with her, but we went through multiple rounds of drafts and revisions, sometimes resulting in 8 a.m. meetings and other times resulting in volleys of emails, back and forth. Heidi responded to feedback with gratitude and thoughtfulness; it was as if I could see the gears in her brain processing through the comments and trying to work through the possible edits. We’re so excited to learn of her success and can’t wait to see how she grows as an individual as a result of this experience.”

Though it was tough, Foon said, there was value in the process and it helped refine her academic and professional goals.

“Even if I had applied and didn't get it, I would still be proud of myself and for the work that I put into it, as well as working with others to put my materials together,” she said.

Foon said anyone interested in applying for the Boren Fellowship should think long and hard about what would make their application and essays stand out to committees that are reviewing materials from thousands of other students.

“If anyone is interested in applying for Boren I think they need to realize it’s going to take a team of people to work with you on it. I don’t think it's something that anyone should go at alone. Despite how competitive it is, I think believing in yourself and having others that believe in you really make it worthwhile, regardless of whether you get it or not.”

“Heidi wonderfully reflects the spirit of the School of International Affairs with her commitment to helping others, her global leadership and her passion for taking on critical, challenging problems,” said Gartner. “With the support of the Boren Fellowship she will contribute to improving public health care in Senegal while learning how to implement and refine vital policies in a cross-cultural context.”

Now Foon will turn her attention to West Africa, where she hopes to begin her career studying and promoting development. She said she is also interested in the intersection of women and development, and said that many programs directly benefit men but not women.

Foon’s parents are both from Gambia, a country that is entirely surrounded by Senegal except for its coast. The two countries share the Wolof language, though Foon noted there are still differences in the dialects and stressed there are cultural differences despite the close proximity.

“I'm feeling a lot,” she said of her anticipation of traveling later this year. “I’ve been to Gambia, so I’m kind of familiar with what I should anticipate and see. What I'm open to is really delving into Senegalese culture. Even though Senegal and Gambia are right next to each other ... they are still a separate people. They have their own culture. Even the way they speak Wolof is different.”

While abroad, Foon will spend some time in classroom study, as well as participate in a local internship, likely with a local nongovernmental organization focused on public health or public service. In the spring, she said she will also have the option to conduct research that could eventually serve as a foundation for an academic paper.

“Heidi is a great student, deeply interested in the opportunities and challenges for the U.S. in Senegal and the West African region,” said Littke. “Her Gambian background is instrumental in preparing her for this opportunity, but she’s wise to broaden her language skills and regional expertise. She’ll be a great credit both to the Boren program and to Penn State.”

Her acceptance of a Boren Fellowship means Foon has an obligation to work for the federal government for one year after completion of her studies, but she said having the fellowship on the resume will open many doors.

To learn more about the campus evaluation process for Boren and about other scholarships and fellowships opportunities, visit the University Fellowships Office website. The University Fellowships Office is part of Penn State Undergraduate Education, the academic administrative unit that provides leadership and coordination for University-wide programs and initiatives in support of undergraduate teaching and learning at Penn State. Learn more about Undergraduate Education at

Last Updated March 10, 2021