By Frances Womble
Four years ago, Jeffrey Wood, a rising junior double majoring in global affairs and Chinese, had never stepped onto a plane. Since then, Wood has flown to Japan and visited China twice. He is now counting the days until Aug. 27 when he will leave for a nearly yearlong trip to China. That’s because Wood has received a Boren Scholarship to study Mandarin in China this coming academic year. The scholarship awards up to $20,000 to undergraduate students to specialize in area study, language study or increased language proficiency through linguistic and cultural immersion.
While in high school in northwest Washington, D.C., one of Wood’s teachers encouraged him to apply for a six-week summer trip to China offered by the D.C. China Scholars Program and sponsored through Americans Promoting Study Abroad (APSA). The program focuses on bringing study abroad opportunities to inner city students. Wood was one of seven local students and one of 40 American students selected. After completing the 12-hour flight to China, Wood tried to tackle Mandarin for the first time, which sparked an unknown interest.
“The program changed my life and ultimately brought me to George Mason,” says Wood. “I knew I wanted to choose a school with a strong Chinese program, and I wanted the option to study abroad in China.”
Wood learned about both of these things at Mason from LaNitra Berger, director of the Office of Fellowships in the Honors College.
Shortly after Wood returned home from his first trip to China, Berger visited Wood’s high school to give a presentation to the students on studying abroad.
“From the moment I met Jeffrey, it was clear that he was smart, driven to succeed and an excellent Chinese speaker,” says Berger. “When I moved to the fellowships office, Jeffrey was exactly the type of student I wanted to work with, so I convinced him to come to Mason. Since then, he has clearly thrived and seizes every opportunity to become immersed in Chinese language and culture on campus and in the larger community.”
At Mason, Wood and Berger have maintained an ongoing dialogue, and Wood says he first heard about the Boren from Berger.
“It was always the plan that I would apply for it for my junior year,” he says. “The application process was so rigorous and wasn’t something I could rush.”
The application requires a response to six essay questions. Three letters of recommendations and a campus interview are also required.
“I started receiving emails at the end of March saying my application was being considered,” says Wood. “I thought that just meant they had received it, but then I got an email asking me to update information two weeks before the committee was going to announce the recipients. I thought I might be in the running. I told LaNitra, and she told me to get excited because it meant good news.”
It was good news for Wood. He got the final word that he was a Boren Scholar while at work in the Writing Center.
“Naturally, I was screaming and jumping in front of everyone,” he says. “It’s going to be a huge stepping stone to improve my speaking, writing and reading skills.”
At the end of Wood’s freshman year at Mason, he returned to China for an APSA fundraiser, but on his upcoming trip he will have less guidance, something he is both excited and nervous about.
“We sign a language pledge our first day of class promising that we will only communicate in Mandarin,” he says. “I’m nervous that my peers will be more skillful than I am. We also are responsible for getting our own food. I need to make sure I know what I’m saying, so I can eat.”
Wood is also a recipient of the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship which he is applying toward the trip. The Gilman Scholarship awards up to $5,000 to undergraduate students to pursue academic studies abroad. Upon returning, recipients complete a service project relating to their studies. Wood is planning on returning to his roots and doing something with Washington, D.C., high school students.
“Mason has not had a student win both the Gilman and Boren Scholarships since 2009,” says Berger. “To achieve this, a student must be academically focused, committed to language fluency through study abroad and a community leader. Jeffrey Wood is all of these things. I am proud of his accomplishments, and I know that he will continue to be successful.”
Wood will study in Harbin during the fall semester and move to Beijing for the spring semester.
“I’m still in disbelief,” he says. “It’s already June. In less than three months, I’ll be there.”
Now a seasoned flier, Wood is not intimidated by the 13-hour flight to Harbin.
“I’m going to make sure I get a window seat, and then I’ll be good to go,” he says. “I see this time as a bridge. After I graduate, I want to do something with Foreign Service and Chinese relations. It’s an amazing country, and it’s so important for the two countries to have a growing relationship.”