UNC seniors earn State Department merit scholarships

Robert Seck wants to work for the Department of State’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

Ben Turman aspires to work abroad, also for the State Department, reporting to the agency about current events where he is stationed as they relate to U.S. interests.

Both rising seniors in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, they hope to realize these dreams through federal David L. Boren Scholarships, which fund study in regions of special interest to the U.S. government.

The two were among 152 recipients chosen from a pool of 944 applicants for the merit scholarships, which provide up to $20,000 per student. The awards are funded by the National Security Education Program, a federal initiative to build a larger pool of U.S. citizens with foreign language and international skills.

Boren Scholarships give U.S. undergraduates resources to gain language skills and experience in countries deemed critical to U.S. security. Boren Scholars must work for the federal government for at least a year after college.

Seck, of Charlotte, is the son of Tom and Dol Seck of Costa Mesa, Calif., and graduated from Providence High School in Charlotte in 2006. A member of the Army National Guard for two years, he is double-majoring in economics and Asian studies with a concentration in Chinese language. He has studied Mandarin for three years.

When Seck was 15, he went to South Korea for an international martial arts competition, where he placed second in the world for his age group. More importantly, he says, “This was the life-changing experience that opened my eyes to a culture of people that has driven my interest in the Asian community.”

He is using the Boren to study in China this summer and also will apply it to studies during his senior year at the Beijing Institute of Education. He hopes to become fluent in Chinese and take courses designed to familiarize students from other countries with the political, economic, legal and cultural mores of China. He also will participate in local educational and cultural events to boost his understanding of the country and its people.

“Some may believe that China’s economic influence is not a national security issue,” he says. “However, the fact remains that nations with power and money have the ability to take control of weaker economies, disrupting the balance of power and multilateral relationships.”

Turman, of Asheville, is the son of Keith and Chan Turman and graduated from Charles D. Owen High School in Black Mountain in 2008. A double-major in Asian studies and linguistics, he studied language, politics and culture in China his sophomore year. Now, he is in a U.S. State Department Critical Language Scholarship Program in Beijing.

While in high school, Turman lived in a simulated Tibetan village in Arkansas, which the nonprofit Heifer International built to let students experience lifestyles of the Third-World people the charity helps. The experience sparked a new interest for Turman, in independence movements in and connected to China and related human rights issues.

Turman focuses also on the island of Taiwan, claimed both by the mainland People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China, the resident government in Taiwan.

“To understand future possibilities of reunification or permanent division of China and Taiwan, it is important to look at the situation from both sides,” Turman said. He will use the Boren to spend his senior year at National Taiwan University and to study Chinese in Taiwan next summer.

University of Oklahoma President David L. Boren wrote the bill that established the scholarships while he was a U.S. Senator, from 1979 to 1994.

Boren Scholarships Web site: http://www.borenawards.org/boren_scholarship