Q&A with Boren Award Winner Julia James

Tell us about yourself!

I am a fourth year History major. I grew up in Northern Kentucky, about 15 minutes south from UC (much to my parents' happiness) and have lived in the general Northern Kentucky/ Cincinnati area almost my entire life. Throughout my four years at UC, I have switched around my major a few times, from International Relations to Arabic, eventually settling on History after taking Dr. Karr's “Rulers, Rebels, and Rights” class my freshman year. I even briefly wanted to switch over to CCM to study costume design, but ultimately I decided it was a more of a hobby, less a career for me.

What drew you to the Boren Scholarship? How did you first hear of it?

I first found the Boren Scholarship when searching for scholarships to study abroad. It stood out to me because it was long-term, as opposed to other scholarships like CLS which are for the summer, and because of the government-service component. This part is how Boren scholars and fellows (graduate students) "pay back" the US Government for funding the scholarship. Within a certain number of years after graduating from either undergraduate or graduate school, Boren scholars and fellows are required to work for the US government for at least a year. For someone who already wanted to work with the US government, this is a great perk.

During my sophomore year, the Office of Nationally Competitive awards hosted a seminar that offered more insight into the program and, among other things, discussed the special flagship programs they offer: Indonesian, South Asian, African, and Turkish. Each one was created to promote a language not commonly taught in America but of particular interest to the federal government. The Indonesian Flagship Language Initiative perked my interests in particular.

Why did you want to study Indonesian? Had you studied it before Boren?

Prior to Boren, I had not studied Indonesian and had minimal exposure to the language and country’s history, since UC does not offer many Southeast Asian history/culture courses. However, the NCA seminar encouraged me to look into Indonesia. The complex history of the many kingdoms and empires that shaped Southeast Asia, contested European colonialism both on land and sea, and created a continuously flourishing artistic and theatrical culture was unique. I wanted to learn more about the language so I could learn more about the country.

What was your program like?

My Boren program began in Madison, Wisconsin in the summer of 2019. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, there are a multitude of summer language programs offered, and Boren partnered with SEASI, the South East Asian Studies Summer Institute. With SEASSI, we also had fun extracurricular events like a dangdut night; dangdut is a form of Indonesian pop. We would dance around with our teachers and other students and learn specific dances for popular songs! These two months really helped me prepare for my academic year overseas, so I was able to arrive in Indonesia with at least an intermediate understanding of the language.

My four months with IFLI took place in Malang, Indonesia, a city in East Java. Like in Madison, most of my day was taken up by Indonesian courses, but we also had four cultural courses available to us (I took all four) of dancing, cooking, batik (a traditional form of fabric dying including wax), and pencak silat (a form of martial arts). We also would go on field trips every other weekend to various places across the country, most notable Blitar, a town in East Java where the first President Soekarno was born and is home to Temple Penataran, built as early as the twelfth century, and Mount Bromo, an active volcano also in East Java. I stayed with a host family while in Malang and some of my fondest memories are from sharing meals or me shyly asking how to do something around town and my host parents laughing at my confusion.

For my second semester, I did the ACICIS Law Professional Practicum, a six week legal internship designed for Indonesian speakers and non-speakers alike. ACICIS is an Australian based program that offers a wide variety of in-country Indonesian language and cultural programs. I was placed with the Human Rights Working Group, a collection of Indonesian NGOs focused on fighting for social change, whether it be better religious freedom, abolition of the death penalty, or better conditions for migrant workers. I worked at HRWG full-time during the program and was able to attend meetings and public events with them. It was a very informative experience and offered an interesting insight into the Indonesian legal system in regards to human rights. After I finished that program, I planned to take one-on-one classes with a former teacher of mine in Madison, Bu Amelia Liwe and start a new internship at FPCI, the Foreign Policy Committee of Indonesia. Unfortunately because of the coronavirus pandemic, I was not able to take part in the internship, but my teacher did accommodate me with online classes after I returned to the United States!

What was the (1) best thing, (2) most challenging thing, and (3) most surprising thing about being in Indonesia?

One of the best things about being in Indonesia was the food. Perhaps that is a cliché, but I genuinely loved trying all different types of Indonesian cuisine and other Southeast and East Asian foods available. Especially in Jakarta, there was a beautiful array of foods available. One of my favorites was HaiDiLao, a chain of hot pot restaurants originating in Sichuan, China. In Malang, my classmates and I would often order Ayam Geprek, fried chicken mixed with sambal (a mixture of chilies, garlic and other garnishes) and white rice. It is VERY spicy but oh so delicious.

The most challenging thing would be forcing myself to hold more complex conversations with my Indonesian friends and coworkers. Often I wanted to play it safe when speaking Indonesian, limiting myself to basic conversations or vocabulary. My teachers always reminded me that the only way to become confident in a language was to push myself, however I did not want to embarrass myself by speaking incorrectly. Eventually, with the help of my tutors and teachers, I became more comfortable using the language!

The most surprising thing about living in Indonesia was how easy it was to move around. Both locally and across the country, there are ample resources for transportation. Additionally rideshare apps like Gojek or Grab are available across the country (and Grab is available in many Southeast Asian countries as well), and these offer other services as well like food delivery, at home massages, and can even send doctors to your home.

Looking back, what do you wish you had known before you went?

Before I went I wish I'd prepped my taste buds! Javanese food is usually sweet, however there is a BUNCH of food that contain hot peppers and other spices that really tested my spice tolerance.

Think back to your application process. What was that like?

I definitely struggled with the essay sections of the application. I do not consider myself a super skilled writer, and there were a multitude of topics that I had to touch on for both essays, from the current political climate of Indonesia, personal interest in the country, and more specific details of both my programs overseas including plans after Boren. Boren does offer a lot of webinars that help guide students through the application process and additionally quickly respond to both emails and phone calls if you have questions. Dr. Hyest with the NCA office also helped me a lot during the process with refining my application and finding resources.

What advice would you give someone who is thinking about applying for a Boren award?

Plan ahead for outside of program travel! While I am unsure how non flagship programs work with leisure travel, but both during and between my programs I had a good amount of time to travel around Southeast Asia. I definitely recommend setting aside some funds beforehand, especially since you cannot work while on the scholarship. Additionally, I would recommend researching cultural norms before leaving, specifically things like appropriate body language and eating etiquette.

What's next for you after you graduate?

After I graduate, I hope to pursue a Master’s in Translation and Interpretation with a focus on the Indonesian language. So far, I have found two universities in Australia that offer this degree. Hopefully, by the end of this upcoming Spring semester and my application process, international travel to Australia will be allowed. After that, and after I complete my government service, I am unsure what I want to do exactly with my degree, however I am excited to see what comes!