Tuesday, March 19, 2024

During summer 2023, I had the privilege to spend two months in Japan as a recipient of a Critical Language Scholarship. My experience was exceedingly positive, and I want all Hawkeyes to be aware of the great exchange opportunities offered by the U.S. government. Read on to find out how you can have the experience of a lifetime for nearly or totally free!

Why a U.S. government-sponsored program?

  1. Full funding: These scholarships are meant to cover all or most of study abroad expenses, from travel to tuition and learning materials.
  2. Become an ExchangeAlumni: Successful completion of these programs makes you part of an alumni community with exclusive access to certain grants and resources.
  3. Non-competitive eligibility (NCE) for federal employment: For up to 12 months after successful program completion (with some opportunities for extension), alumni of these programs can receive job offers from U.S. federal agencies outside of the formal competitive hiring process, given that they have the necessary experience. Alumni can also compete for jobs only open to federal employees.
  4. Great on a resume: Not only are these programs competitive and prestigious, but you can also leverage your international experiences and connections.

Critical Language Scholarship (CLS)

Abby Fowler standing in front of Japanese temple
Abby Fowler, Critical Language Scholarship recipient, in Japan

About: CLS is an intensive and immersive language institute abroad for any students interested in or already studying Arabic, Azerbaijani, Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, Swahili, Turkish, or Urdu (language offerings are subject to change. See current languages: https://clscholarship.org/languages). Most languages do not require prior study. For 8-10 weeks during the summer, students live with host families or in university dormitories and receive formal classroom training designed to cover a full academic year of coursework. Students also attend extracurricular activities, including cultural excursions and activities, and one-on-one meetings with a language partner. Academic credit is available through Bryn Mawr College.

Funding: Fully funded, including travel and airfare, lodging, and textbooks. Students also receive a stipend for food and additional study materials. Students can apply for additional passport funding.


  • Must be an 18+ year old U.S. citizen or national.
  • Must be enrolled in an accredited U.S. degree-granting program at the undergraduate. (associate, bachelor's) or graduate (master's, doctoral, professional degree) level at the time of application. You can also apply to participate the summer after you graduate.
  • Undergraduate students must have completed at least one year of college coursework by program start date.
  • Some languages require prior study (at least one academic year of study for Arabic, Chinese, Korean, and Russian, and at least two academic years of study for Japanese).

Application Timeline: Applications typically open in September/October and are due in November. Applicants are contacted in December/January and notified if their applications have passed the first round. Final decisions typically come out between late February and early March.

Learn more about the Critical Language Scholarship

Boren Scholarships (undergraduate) and Fellowships (graduate)

Adelaide Brooks at Petra, Jordan
Adelaide Brooks, Boren Scholarship recipient, in Jordan

About: Boren Awards are an initiative of the National Security Education Program (NSEP). They provide funding for U.S. students to study less commonly taught languages in regions critical to U.S. interests, and underrepresented in study abroad, including Africa, Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, Eurasia, Latin America, and the Middle East.

Boren Scholarships and Fellowships can be used to fund study abroad programs in any country outside of the United States, Western Europe, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand. Students can choose to either work with the UI Study Abroad office and the Boren Campus Representative to identify a study abroad program or attend a Regional Flagship Language Initiative, which are credit-bearing language courses. Languages that can be studied through these initiatives include French, Swahili, Akan/Twi, Wolof, Zulu, Indonesia, Thai, Vietnamese, Hindi, Urdu, and Turkish (language offerings are subject to change. See current languages here.

Boren Scholarships and Fellowships are awarded with preference for countries, languages, and fields of study (social sciences) critical to U.S. national security (See current preferences: https://www.borenawards.org/selection-criteria). Preference is also given to proposals to study abroad for longer periods (over 25 weeks) and for those motivated to work in the U.S. federal government. In exchange for funding, awardees must commit to working in the federal government for at least one year after graduation.  Awardees are given access to the NSEP job board after the language study period, to view and apply for internships and jobs that are set aside only for people in the NSEP program.  

Funding: Up to $25,000 for 25-52 weeks, up to $12,500 for 12-24 weeks, up to $8,000 for 8-11 weeks (undergraduate STEM majors only), or up to $12,000 for domestic language study (optional, graduate students only).


  • Must be an 18+ year old U.S. citizen or national at the time of the application deadline.
  • Must be enrolled in an accredited U.S. degree-granting program at the undergraduate (associate, bachelor's) or graduate (master's, doctoral, professional degree) level for the duration of the program.
  • Must be planning to participate in an overseas program in a country outside of the United States, Western Europe, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand.
  • Must be planning to study in a country of which you are not a citizen.

Application Timeline: Applications for both awards are due in late January or early February. Applicants are typically notified of selection in April. The award funding can be used for programs that start between June of that year or March of the following year.

Learn more about the Boren Awards

U.S. Fulbright Student Program

Anna Correa at Holi festival in India, Fulbright
Anna Correa (center), Fulbright recipient, in India

About: This program allows students to design their own study/research projects in approximately 140 countries, with opportunities to earn graduate degrees. The details of each award (grant period, graduate degree opportunities, and fields of study) vary by country. Special study programs and grants are also offered by certain countries. See the specifics here.

Fulbright also offers English Teaching Assistant Awards for awardees to assist with language instruction.

Funding: Funding varies by country, but most are fully funded.


  • Must be a U.S. citizen.
  • Must have a bachelor’s degree or equivalent before the start of the grant period (many people apply their junior to senior undergraduate year).
  • Must meet language and other eligibility requirements of the award they are applying for.

Application Timeline: The application opens in April and is due in October. Applicants typically will learn if they are a semi-finalist in January and are notified of selection between March and May, depending on the award.

Learn more about the U.S. Fulbright Student Program

Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarships

Safeya Siddig in London
Safeya Siddig, Gilman Scholarship recipient, in London

About: This scholarship enables undergraduate students with financial need to attend a study/intern abroad program of their choosing. Students are encouraged to study or intern in a diverse array of countries or areas and world regions, especially those deemed critical to national security.

Funding: Up to $5,000, with up to $3,000 available for students studying critical languages and an additional $1,000 for students conducting STEM-related research when abroad.


  • Must be a U.S. citizen or national.
  • Must be an undergraduate student in good standing at an accredited institution of higher education in the United States (including both two-year and four-year institutions).
  • Must be receiving a Federal Pell Grant at the time of application or provide proof that you will be receiving a Pell Grant during the term of your abroad program or internship.
  • Must be in the process of applying to, or accepted to, a credit-bearing study abroad or internship program.
  • Selected program must not be in a country or location designated as either a Level 3 (“Reconsider travel to”) or Level 4 (“Do not travel to”) travel advisory.

Application Timeline: There are two rounds of applications every year, one in March (for programs or internships starting between May 1 of that year and April 30 of the following year) and one in October (for programs or internships starting between December 1 of that year to October 31 of the following year). The application opens two months before the deadline.

Learn more about the Gilman Scholarship

General application tips and resources

  1. If possible, start early! These awards are essay-intensive and thus require a lot of time and thought.
  2. If your program requires letters of recommendations, select and contact your recommenders as soon as you can. See advice for working with your recommenders here.
  3. Know the ins and outs of the program you are applying for, especially the selection criteria. Do a deep dive into the award’s website to learn everything you need to know.
  4. These programs seek to represent the diversity of the United States in the broadest sense. This ranges from race, sexuality, and gender to region and personal background. Think, what parts of you and your personal history are underrepresented on the global stage?
  5. Have a clear plan for how you want to leverage the skills you gain from the experience in both the near and far future and write about this in your essays.
  6. These programs offer webinars or pages on their website that discuss what goes into a great application. Take advantage of them!
  7. Reach out to program alumni to hear more about the program and ask for more specific application advice.

Critical Language Scholarship, Fulbright, and Boren applicants are highly encouraged, if not required, to make an appointment with Dr. Karen Wachsmuth. Dr. Wachsmuth is very experienced at helping students refine their application essays. Submit your preliminary application form far before the deadline to start your application process.

Gilman applicants should contact Teresa Kout with any questions.

Learn about all student funding options


Abby Fowler is a senior undergraduate double majoring in international studies with a business focus and Japanese language and literature. As a recipient of the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS), Abby studied Japanese language and culture in Okayama, Japan, during the summer of 2023 and is a CLS Alumni Ambassador for 2024. She works as the communications coordinator at Global Ties Iowa, a communications assistant at the University of Iowa Pentacrest Museums, is an International Studies and Japanese Ambassador, and a member of the 2024 Global Ties U.S. Emerging Leaders Program.


International Programs (IP) at the University of Iowa (UI) is committed to enriching the global experience of UI students, faculty, staff, and the general public by leading efforts to promote internationally oriented teaching, research, creative work, and community engagement.  IP provides support for international students and scholars, administers scholarships and assistance for students who study, intern, or do research abroad, and provides funding opportunities and grant-writing assistance for faculty engaged in international research. IP shares their stories through various media, and by hosting multiple public engagement activities each year.