Several years ago at a Navy football game, I heard an officer talking about his next assignment. He was heading overseas to Paris to study French and complete a master’s degree in political science at the Sorbonne University, all while remaining on active duty. It sounded really exciting and almost too good to be true. After a bit of research, I discovered that he was an Olmsted Scholar. I was determined to find out more about the program - who was eligible, what the requirements for acceptance were and how to apply. I quickly learned the program really was as good as it sounded, a fellowship created by Army Maj. Gen. George Olmsted and his wife Carol, that provided young officers the opportunity to study at a foreign university, in a foreign language while being immersed in that culture with a general purpose of broadly educating career military line officers who exhibit extraordinary potential for becoming future military leaders.
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Gen. David Rodriguez and Lt. Cmdr. Karlie Blake.
Although there is latitude, the Olmsted Foundation requires graduate studies in the field of social or political sciences, history, or international affairs to further capitalize on the rare opportunity to combine advanced education with increased sensitivity to languages, viewpoints, histories, interests and concerns of people around the world. The program is deliberately timed at an extremely challenging period in an officer’s life and career which has a unique maturing effect. I would later find this to be a quintessential summation of my first year. However, I was soon disappointed after finding it was only open to line officers. I pursued a nomination for the Supply Corps’ Civilian Institutions 810 Program, and as I was researching MBA programs, I heard the Olmsted Scholar Program might be opening to Supply Corps officers in 2014. I couldn’t believe it, I had to apply!
The application process is fairly complex and if you are interested in applying, the best advice I can offer is to thoroughly review the NAVADMIN message annually released in April and allow yourself plenty of time. In addition to taking the Graduate Record Examination, you are required to take the Defense Language Aptitude Battery, have an official picture taken in service dress blues, gather three letters of recommendation, write a personal essay detailing your motivation for applying, and research and compile a list of 10 geographically diverse countries in which you are interested in studying as well as potential universities and the graduate programs they offer.
For me, the most daunting parts of the process were composing a well-developed, cohesive personal essay and preparing a list of countries I was interested in living in for the next three years. My personal essay conveyed my interest in the opportunity to blend my professional goals and my personal passions. I wanted to ensure it would leave a lasting impression on the three boards that would review and nominate my package; the Supply Corps Board, the Naval Education and Training Board and the Olmsted Foundation Board of Directors. I considered that each of these boards would view my application from slightly different vantage points. I spent time thinking about my personal motivation, then asked a few of my mentors to proof read my essay and provide constructive feedback since only 14-18 scholars across all services are selected to participate each year.
Secondly, compiling a list of countries, most of which I’d never visited, as well as universities and master’s programs that I knew next to nothing about and had done the majority of research on in a language other than English was a challenge. I knew that if I was invited for an interview, the board would question my choices and possibly my knowledge of the region. It was a difficult decision, I had a background in Spanish language, my husband was living in Germany and my personal interests were in francophone Africa. I wanted to study in a location and a language that would be strategically important to America and in particularly, the military over the course of my career. That helped me narrow the list down to everywhere. While speaking with colleagues, mentors and friends, strong arguments were made for nearly every region around the globe. There were so many more political, civil and military areas of interest than I had been exposed to in the various regions that I served in.
Lastly, I considered the stability and physical security of each region as well as the quality of the universities. After much deliberation, I selected French speaking countries as my top three choices, in line with the program’s requirements for geographic diversity. Those selections filled all of my Western European and African slots. Though I knew little about it, my first choice was Brussels, Belgium. Located North of France, West of Germany and known for…chocolate and diamonds. It did however, have the distinct advantage of being the home to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters and Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. There’s definitely a measure of luck and faith in this part of the application. Nearly three months after beginning the application process, I submitted my completed package to the Navy Center for Personal and Professional Development. I can honestly say after speaking with my program counterparts, the Supply Corps has been exceptionally supportive throughout the entire application process.
In November, I received notification that I had been selected as a Navy finalist and was invited to a one-hour phone interview with the Olmsted Foundation Board of Directors in December. Over the next month, I read every current political, military and foreign affairs article I could find. I read through former scholar reports and contacted everyone I knew who knew a Navy Olmsted Scholar. Much like the Supply Corps, the Olmsted Scholar community is extremely close-knit and proved to be a tremendous resource. Each person recounted their experience with fondness detailing their personal and professional fulfillment. Now, the pressure was really beginning to mount.
After the interview, I was told I would be notified of the board’s decision in March. I was deploying several weeks after the results were scheduled to be released, so my focus shifted to pre-deployment training. I was notified of my selection while deployed. Fortunately, I was able to fly back to Washington, D.C., for 48 hours to attend the Olmsted Foundation orientation weekend. It was a great opportunity to meet past and present scholars, ask lots of questions and learn about all of the complicated details of the program. Early in the process, I opted to complete language training in-country rather than at the Defense Language Institute which further compressed my timeline. I developed a transition timeline that would find me moving to Brussels a week after I returned from deployment. The fact that I did not speak a single word of French influenced my decision to move quickly.
Ten months after setting foot in Brussels, writing this article while looking over a lush green park from my balcony on a sunny, yes, sunny morning, I can say that this has been the most complicated, frustrating, interesting and exhilarating experience of my career and life. Brussels is a vibrant, historic and truly multicultural city. A founding member of the European Union and a country slightly smaller than Maryland, Belgium has three official languages, Dutch, French and German. Nearly a quarter of its population is comprised of foreigners. It’s not unusual to hear up to six different languages spoken in the span of a few city blocks. However, I’ve discovered the real Belgian charm is found in the medieval cities like Bruges and Ghent; historic landmarks like Waterloo, Flanders’s field and Bastogne; the gorgeous, sprawling countryside in every direction just fifteen minutes outside the hustle and bustle of the capital; to my favorite regions along the exquisite coastal towns and beaches! Who knew Belgium hosted the oldest beach polo tournament in the world? Ironically, the most challenging obstacles were not learning the language, dealing with the maddening traffic jams or assembling the novel that is required to apply to a university; it was learning how to downshift from the excitement, pressure and comradery of military life. While scholars are generally administratively attached to American Embassies in their region, they have little interaction with the Embassy or military personnel. The nearest Personnel Support Detachment may be located thousands of miles away or in a different time zone and access to military information technology networks may be complicated which makes accomplishing military obligations or resolving personal administrative issues quite a challenge. Each time I begin to think I’ve finally hit my stride and figured out how things work here, I’m met with another challenge that is typically followed by a good laugh at my progressing French.
One of the added benefits of the program is the expectation of scholars to increase their cultural immersion by travelling throughout the region. Each scholar receives an annual stipend to offset the cost of travel. In the past year, I’ve travelled extensively throughout Western Europe and in the coming year, I plan to travel in conjunction with my educational requirements, as well as with fellow scholars located throughout the region. By studying French alongside students from all of Europe, I’ve already been amazed by the diversity in viewpoints on the current conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, neighboring nations to many of their home countries. These are perspectives I may have never been exposed to or considered. Additionally, as part of my capstone project and capitalizing on my location, I hope to apply my military and educational background to analyze NATO’s current security transition mission to the Afghan government.
I found this quote from Vice Adm. Kurt Tidd, Director for Operations, Joint Staff (J-3), Olmsted Scholar Class 1984, Bordeaux, France. “My Olmsted Scholar experience continues to pay enormous dividends as we wrestle with today’s security challenges. Our ability to communicate effectively with military counterparts from partners and allies around the world is a critical enabler as we build coalitions to address the threats we face. The language cultural expertise afforded me through the Olmsted Scholar Program are unmatched by any other postgraduate educational program, and provide an increasingly cost-effective means for interested future military leaders to build language and cultural expertise in today’s fiscal environment. The Olmsted experience provides a unique foundation to be able to work effectively across cultural boundaries, and serves as a natural bridge linking together fellow Olmsted Scholars from all branches of the Armed Forces as we build joint solutions.” It is still very early in my Olmsted Scholar experience and the largest challenges still lay ahead, but I aspire to echo a similar sentiment. I’m grateful for this opportunity and exceedingly thankful to all of the Supply Corps officers and Navy civilians who have helped me along the way. I would be honored to assist any Supply Corps officers interested in becoming an Olmsted Scholar.
For more details on the Olmsted Scholar Program, go to www.olmstedfoundation.org
By Lt. Cmdr. Karlie Blake, SC, USN, Olmsted Fellow