Meet two amazing SIPA students, Sevita Rama (MPA-DP ‘21) and James Paisley (MIA ‘21), who are current and previous awardees of the Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowship. They’ve shared insights about applying, how it fit with their SIPA studies, and application tips!

FLAS Fellowships are available for either the summer or the academic year and open to Columbia University students who are U.S. citizens, nationals, or permanent residents in a program that combines training in select foreign languages with international or area studies.  The FLAS Fellowships are administered by the Columbia University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS).  Graduate fellowships are $33,000 per year ($18,000 for tuition and $15,000 for stipend) The application deadline for FLAS fellowships is Friday, February 11, 2021 at 1:00PM ET. For more information, see the GSAS website, or email gsas-finaid@columbia.edu for more information.

James Paisley is a graduating MIA student at SIPA, concentrating in International Security Policy with specializations in East Asia and International Conflict Resolution. A 2015 Boren Scholar to China, James received his B.A. in History & Global Studies from the University of Kansas. He speaks Mandarin Chinese and is currently learning Japanese.

Sevita Rama is a graduating MPA-DP student at SIPA, specializing in Technology, Media, and Communications, and focusing on Food Systems and Agriculture. Prior to SIPA, Sevita lived in Egypt and Tunisia, working on rural economic development projects and building a keen interest in local food systems and transforming social fabrics through food justice. Since starting her degree, Sevita has worked with the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) at the United Nations as an intern with the Americas Liaison Office. Sevita is currently consulting with the World Food Programme of the UN and working with WFP on her Workshop project through the Economic and Political Development concentration. When not pursuing academic interests, Sevita has been honing her audiovisual skills with visual storytelling, podcasting, and photography related to projects at SIPA.

Tenzin: What made you want to apply for FLAS as an in-coming SIPA student?

Sevita: Coming to SIPA, I wanted to continue studying Arabic to maintain the intensive language and cultural learning I gained after spending four years in Egypt and Tunisia. I luckily met Connor McGuire (SIPA ‘19), a previous Arabic FLAS recipient, during his capstone research in Tunisia while I was working in Tunis on youth and entrepreneurship development. At that point, I had already decided to apply to SIPA but was worried about funding my degree. Luckily, I learned  about FLAS from Connor and ways to stay connected to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) while studying in New York. Applying for FLAS meant that I could get academic credit to maintain my Arabic learning and pursue a funding opportunity relevant to my interests and goals at SIPA that made attending grad school more financially feasible.

Not to mention, keeping up with Arabic came in handy when I went to Palestine through Paltrek in January 2020. I was able to speak with people and learn unique sayings and idioms from Palestinian Arabic during my week there!

Tenzin: What made you want to apply for FLAS as a first-year SIPA student?

James: I previously received a FLAS for Mandarin in undergrad, so I was eligible to apply again but at the beginner level of a third Asian language. I had just taken Dr. Scott Harold’s East Asian Security course that Fall and became more interested in U.S.-Japan relations. Talking with Scott showed me that many Asia specialists have two countries of focus, so I decided to incorporate Japan. I satisfied the MIA language requirement through my Mandarin, but learning Japanese was always something I wanted to do. I’ve tried learning languages outside the classroom before, but I knew I would have to do at SIPA if I was serious about learning Japanese. I didn’t have any financial aid or substantial savings coming into SIPA— it took almost everything to just move to New York from Missouri—so FLAS represented a serious amount of financial support for my academic endeavors.

Tenzin: Can you share what it was like balancing FLAS requirements with SIPA’s program requirements? Additionally, how has FLAS enhanced your SIPA experience, complimented other academic or professional coursework/ opportunities, and prepared you for your final year at SIPA?

James: I came at the language a little different than most SIPA students because I didn’t decide to take on another language until my second semester, when only the 2.5 credit intro classes were available. That made fitting language into my overall schedule the first two semesters easier —this semester is actually my first 5-credit language course at SIPA. For FLAS, we have to take an area and language class each semester. My specialization in East Asia made this an easy requirement to fulfill. The FLAS coordinator even helped get my SIPA capstone to count as an area course. FLAS has made my other classes richer as well—I could read some of the basic language on graphs in Dr. Takako Hikotani’s Japanese Politics class. Beyond that, FLAS has made it possible to focus more on my classes because of the stipend and tuition support. I didn’t qualify for any financial aid from SIPA, so I’ve worked through my time here at SIPA both through Federal Work Study and as a barista. With FLAS, I quit my barista job to focus on my coursework and professional job search.

Sevita: FLAS requirements are no joke! Each student must take a language course (ranging from 3-5 credits depending on your level) and an area studies course. I placed into intermediate colloquial Arabic (Spoken Arabic with May Ahmar), which was 4 credits. The class met twice-a-week and in terms of homework, was generally my most time-intensive course. Language classes also require you to dedicate several hours of your study/homework time to get the most out of the opportunity. Also be conscious of group work with students across the university, so managing schedules could prove to be a challenge.

Luckily, the Middle East Institute (MEI) helped me design my core SIPA courses in the MPA-DP program as area studies courses by specifying my research area to the Middle East and North Africa. This worked well as I was built on my experiences in Egypt and Tunisia and examined the region’s development sector. Last Spring, I wrote two reports on Egypt’s agriculture and climate action, both of which I shared with ex-colleagues to support their ventures. Taking Arabic with the Middle East, South Asian and African Studies Department also exposed me to other parts of Columbia and introduced me to new faculty and research methods. I became better acquainted with the MEI and had closer ties to its events and speakers as a FLAS scholar. I plan to return to the MENA in a greater technical role involving food systems and agriculture, and my Arabic and area learning with the FLAS will certainly help me in future roles.

Tenzin: What advice do you have for current SIPA students who are interested in applying for FLAS?

James: Remember, there’s no downside to learning languages— at worse, you can talk to your neighbors about how their cat is, but the upside is immeasurable. I highly recommend adding language because it only sharpens SIPA students as individuals capable of making discernable impacts.

I would also recommend talking to professors or professionals working in your identified field to give a frame of reference for what language may best suit your own research interests. Scott recommended I consider Japanese or Korean because of my interest in East Asian security dynamics — the U.S.-Japan alliance is the cornerstone of U.S. defense policy in the region, and I have long wanted to learn Japanese, so it was an easy decision to make. I made that belief clear in my application and how the intent behind my learning Japanese was to become a triple threat in East Asian security knowledge – the United States, China, and Japan – because I feel there is a current disregard in the U.S. alliance system in East Asia.

For current first year students, a FLAS can provide a way to set a whetstone to old language skills or broaden your regional skills. There was also a recent change in credit policy – language classes can count towards a regional specialization now!

Sevita: My general advice to FLAS applicants is to be specific and honest about why you need to study a language and the ways in which you have shown already how it would benefit you and how this fits into your vision of your future career and research interests. In my application, I referenced my interest in food systems and working with rural communities and made clear the need to be able to communicate fluently in foreign languages to build trust with program partners.

For applicants looking for FLAS opportunities in a language they have already studied, they should be prepared to discuss how they have studied the language in the past and how they have used it thus far. Being aware and thoughtful about your gaps in knowledge to reach your goals is also a key part of the personal statement.

Different FLAS opportunities are associated with different departments and centers at Columbia. Be sure to do your research and get in touch with these departments or offices to introduce yourself and notify them you are applying for FLAS (especially if you are applying for your first year, which coincides with the SIPA application deadlines for the Fall). Different languages may have different requirements as well, so I suggest reserving the FLAS scholarship for your second year where you are likely to have fewer required courses and you may have more flexibility in your courses.

Finally, for those who do get the FLAS, be sure to use the opportunity to not only take your courses but to integrate your interests into the course! This is a chance to bridge your SIPA interests with another academic opportunity with departments that usually think differently from SIPA. There’s a great deal to learn from your fellow classmates, your language instructors, and the department under which your language is housed.