Montana State University

Engineers Without Borders inspires Boren Fellowship winner

June 22, 2012 -- By Angie Ford, MSU News Service


Matt Smith of Helena has received a Boren Fellowship to study Swahili in Tanzania and do economics research in Kenya for ten months. Smith is a graduate student with a focus in economics in Montana State University's College of Agriculture. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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A Montana State University graduate student has been awarded a prestigious Boren Fellowship, which provides funding for American graduate students to study languages deemed important to national security.

Matt Smith, of Helena, one of 119 awardees of the fellowship this year, will leave in June for the University of Florida in Gainesville where he will study Swahili under the university's African Languages Initiative's Domestic Intense Summer Program. In the fall, Smith will continue language study at the State University of Zanzibar, Tanzania.

Smith is the second MSU student to receive a Boren award this spring. Gabe Lavin, of Bozeman, received a Boren Scholarship for undergraduate studies. Lavin will study Arabic in Egypt.

As part of his fellowship, Smith will research economics in Nairobi, Kenya, work he will apply to his graduate studies in economics in MSU's College of Agriculture. Smith has a double bachelor's degree in business management and philosophy from MSU.

Smith credits MSU's chapter of Engineers Without Borders with inspiring him to apply for the Boren Fellowship. The student-run group has been working the past 10 years to bring clean drinking water and sanitation to thousands of school children in western Kenya. Smith traveled to Kenya three times since 2008, most recently as a project manager.

"If you don't face a risk of failure, success doesn't mean a thing. It's rare to find an opportunity as a student where your actions can have significant consequences on lots of lives, yet that opportunity exists within EWB," Smith said.

Smith is looking forward to returning to Nairobi, which he has visited numerous times with EWB.

"It's always exciting to go back and do research in a place where you already have friends," he said.

In addition to EWB, Smith was involved in a range of MSU groups and community outreach programs. He was member of the Associated Students of MSU Senate, the Campus Sustainability Advisory Council and worked on ASMSU legislative affairs. He was an opinion writer at the university's student newspaper, The Exponent, for three years; was co-founder and president of the Network of Environmentally Conscious Organizations, was a board member for the Bozeman Youth Initiative and involved with the Bio-Regional Outreach Network.

It was a strong finish to an undergrad career that had a slow start: For the first couple years, Smith says he was a live-in-the-dorms-and-party student. But that changed when he took an introductory writing course taught by graduate student Charity Jensen.

Jensen challenged her students and introduced them to "this idea that we all have this incredible potential," Smith said. "Having people believe in me ... that's what started changing things for me."

Jensen recalls that the students in that course were particularly lively, and she challenged them in every way she could think of.

"I try to teach in a way that sets up students for that moment of understanding rather than try and cram knowledge in their heads," said Jensen, now working on her doctorate in medieval literature at the University of British Columbia. "It's students like Matt that make it worth it."

After Jensen's class, Smith co-founded NECO, which eventually set him on a path that has now led him to the Boren Fellowship, and Africa.

"What makes him truly special is his amazing vision, dedication and energy to improving the world around him," said Kristin Intemann, one of Smith's philosophy professors at MSU.

Smith credits his success to an environment cultivated by MSU faculty and staff that encourages students to become leaders, start organizations and take the initiative on things they believe in.

"I like to think that a lot of the students I worked with were creating a lot of these opportunities for ourselves--not by ourselves, either, but because we had incredible faculty and staff benefactors and members of the community working on our behalf as well."

To learn more about applying for a Boren Scholarship or Fellowship, contact Sally O'Neill in the MSU Office of International Programs at (406) 994-7688, or email her at sallyo@montana.edu.