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Citadel News Service
9 May 2014

The value of asking questions

As seen in the Post and Courier

By guest columnist Cadet Erin Burcherl, The Citadel Class of 2014


How did you find yourself in Swaziland?" I asked.

"I did a lot of research, and I asked a lot of questions," Dr. Don Sparks answered.

The conversation took place my junior year during a seminar he was teaching on fellowships. Dr. Sparks is the professor of international economics and director of the Office of Fellowships at The Citadel where I am now a senior cadet. He has been awarded three Fulbrights, is the president of the S.C. chapter of the Fulbright Association and serves as a member of the review committee for the Fulbright Specialist Program.

There were four other students in the class with me. I initially enrolled in the class to learn about scholarship opportunities, hoping to plan for an advanced degree. But I learned something more important: I learned the value of asking questions.

In August 2010, I found myself leaving my home of Indianapolis for Charleston, where I had been recruited to play volleyball on an athletic scholarship. I have a double major: biology, because I think the human body is an amazing machine and I have a passion for learning how it works; and German, because I have a love for the language and the culture of the people.

Dr. Spark's answers to my questions inspired me to apply for a Boren Fellowship offered by the Department of State's National Security Education Program. Boren Fellowships are awarded to American students who will make contributions in countries critical to U.S. interests, countries not typically represented in study abroad programs. I chose to apply for the Boren because I wanted to learn another language and about another culture, go someplace I'd never been before and, at the same time, I wanted to put my biology education and experience to use.

So what would I tell other college students searching for scholarships to advance their education and experiences to the next level? I'd say you'll learn only by being assertive and asking questions. I learned that knowing a foreign language will open doors. I learned that deadlines for national scholarships are not flexible. I learned that thoroughly researching the scholarship, the founders and former recipients, you show your respect for the scholarship. And with that respect, you potentially increase your chance of earning a scholarship because you differentiate yourself from others when outlining your interests and how your qualifications align best with the program.

During the semester-long fellowship seminar, I had business cards made. I wrote a personal statement. I wrote a resume. I learned to give a 30-second elevator speech (a personal pitch). I engaged in mock interviews. I met deadlines. I did research. I learned that if you ask someone for their time, you need to acknowledge your appreciation; thank-you notes are essential. I learned that you never know who is going to make a difference in your life. The connections you form with the influential people who will take the time to answer your questions are very important. They also could connect you with essential people.

A couple of months ago, I made a proposal to the Boren committee to study Swahili on the island of Zanzibar in Tanzania in East Africa and intern in a hospital where I could get hands-on experience in the medical field. Before that, I posed a lot of questions. How do I make my argument stronger? What things should I include in my application to make myself more competitive? What are the United States' interests and policies in Africa? What do Tanzanians eat? How do they dress? What is the origin of Swahili?

My ultimate goal is to be a Navy physician's assistant, specializing in tropical diseases, and I want to work in global humanitarian health efforts.

After I prepared my proposal, I knew that regardless of whether I received the fellowship, the exercise in preparing my application had given me some valuable life tools. ... Soon I'll be trying to ask my questions in Swahili.

Erin Bucherl was awarded a Boren Fellowship in April to study Swahili and intern in a hospital in Zanzibar, Tanzania, during the 2014-15 academic year. She is a two-time Star of the West Scholar for summer study in Germany in the summers of 2012 and 2013. On May 10, she will graduate from The Citadel.

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