Studying Chinese takes PhD student Brendan Flynn to Taiwan via Boren Award

Boren Fellow Brandon Flynn
Boren Fellow Brendan Flynn

Becoming fluent in Mandarin is a goal PhD student Brendan Flynn has been working toward for several years. Uncommon for sure, but happening in August thanks to Flynn receiving an ultra-competitive Boren Fellowship.

Boren Awards, which fund research and language study for graduate students in world regions critical to U.S. interests, are an initiative of the Defense Language and National Security Education Office in the Department of Defense. Only 121 graduate fellowships were offered this year nationwide.

“This award is going to give me the incredible opportunity to study Chinese in Taiwan intensively for a year,” says Flynn. “I will be going to three to four hours of Chinese class for five days a week and just really immersing myself in the environment and speaking Chinese as much as possible. It’s why I’m so excited for the opportunity.”

Flynn says he’s been studying Chinese on and off for over decade, with his interest beginning when he was an undergrad. His studies are in political science.

“From 2015 to 2016, I was in Beijing teaching English, but that didn’t leave me a lot of time or energy for studying Chinese. It did, however, reaffirm my interest in China, the language, and the relationship with the U.S., so I’ve been committed to learning the language independently in addition to my Wayne studies ever since.

“I initially applied to study in Beijing, but I think due to COVID-19, Boren isn’t sending anyone to China. So even though I’ve been to the region before, I’ve not been to Taiwan. I’m not as familiar with the currency and I’m sure there are some big cultural differences. Taiwan has a different government structure than China; it’ll be interesting to study those differences.”

Flynn’s interest in China began with the language but progressed to include the nation’s history. Right now, he finds understanding the relationship between China and the U.S. particularly important.

“I don’t think it can be understated how important that’s been for the world, particularly the United States, “says Flynn . “The U.S. has been the most powerful country since at least World War II, and the rest of the world’s structure reflects that. But in some ways, China’s economy has already surpassed the U.S. economy. You have this transitional moment where China threatens to overtake the U.S., and a lot of our current tensions come from that. I really think the rest of the 21st century is going to be shaped by how the U.S. and China navigate this relationship. That’s the key thing driving my interest in the region.”

Flynn hopes to use his practical knowledge to work toward his long-term goal as professor of international relations.

“If I can lend whatever expertise I may develop to assisting U.S. governmental understanding of East Asia, that would be a bonus. If you look historically, any time you have an established great power and then a rising great power, that has resulted in a period of real tension and often times war, unfortunately. I don’t think that tension is going away, I’m interested in better understanding that and how we can navigate through it without a war outcome.”

Part of the application process for Flynn was making the case that the language he wanted to study was important. He says he believes his prior knowledge of China and Chinese greatly aided him in securing the award.

“They’re (the award committee) very interested in you demonstrating your commitment to the issue in the region you’re requesting to study,” says Flynn. “The fact that I had been there before, the fact I did an internship at a think tank in D.C. studying China and I’ve done presentations here at WSU on China’s international relations, the fact I’ve been keeping up my language studies, I think that demonstrated this was something I am really committed to.”

Flynn says he is thankful Wayne State University provides assistance with opportunities such as this.

“I also must thank a couple professors who helped put this application together and provided great recommendation letters – Professor Kevin Deegan-Krause and Professor Sharon Lean. Wayne State has been great. The opportunity to be a full time PhD student and focus on my studies - the department is excellent, my understanding of international relations has really come a long way at Wayne State.

“If you’re thinking of it all, absolutely do it. Try to get it started early, reach out to your department, and let advisors know you’re interested. Get as much advice and feedback as you can when putting together your statement of purpose, but it’s a phenomenal opportunity. I would absolutely encourage anyone to pursue this.”

By Jacob Stocking, OIP communications associate.

The Office of Fellowships helps students prepare and apply for international awards such as the Boren. It is part of the Office of International Programs, which leads Wayne State's global engagement by creating opportunities that foster international education and research, facilitate the exchange of individuals and ideas that promote global competencies and citizenship, and provide resources that support the expansion of the university's global agenda. Follow us @WayneOIP or email

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