Economics student receives competitive Boren scholarship

Casey Rothberg sitting on a rock in front of a UB building.

Casey Rothberg will use the Boren scholarship to continue her study of Mandarin at Capital Normal University in Beijing. Image: Douglas Levere

Release Date: May 11, 2015 This content is archived.

“UB is making great strides in encouraging and supporting students as they study in countries of critical importance to the government while learning languages.”
Elizabeth Colucci, coordinator, fellowships and scholarships
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Casey Rothberg, only the second University at Buffalo student ever to win the competitive David L. Boren Scholarship, fits the scholarship program’s profile on paper well. Her application is the picture of a practical-minded, sensible student who hopes to work for the U.S. government one day, traveling to China for 10 months to learn the language so she can help the U.S. and China collaborate in Middle Eastern affairs.

In person, that image of Rothberg seems incomplete. She’s a natural communicator, a great listener, a dancer, engaging and with wide interests ranging from her saxophone to “adventure.” When listing what she loves, she writes “FOOD” in capital letters.

And there’s a playful touch to her lifelong drive to learn Mandarin that will take her to Capital Normal University in Beijing. She wrote down the Mandarin name she chose for herself the first week of class: 吴凯西. The phonetic pronunciation is “woo kai she,” part of which sounds like Casey, her first name.  

When asked to write something in Mandarin, she writes 我很喜欢饺子。

Translation: “I really like dumplings.”

The identity that is alive and well on her Boren scholarship essay certainly applies. Rothberg wrote about how her continuing expertise in Mandarin and experience in Chinese culture will be useful in dealing with countries crucial to the future security and stability of the U.S.

“The political positions and ideological principles of the U.S. and China, democratic and communist respectively, differ in many aspects,” Rothberg wrote to the Boren committee. “However, one thing we do agree on is a stable economic system.

“As an economics major, I understand the importance of this common interest in economic power that is bonding the two largest economies together. This economic bond must be strengthened in order to create political alignment and, in turn, alignment on many other issues. The capitalistic market of the U.S. will hopefully influence China, the most prominent Communist nation, to strengthen capitalistic and democratic ideas in their own market.”

Rothberg recognizes the more formal pose the scholarship committee is looking for. And she is willing and able to present herself this way, but with a qualifier:

“Only when I have to,” she says.

Either way, Rothberg – whose family lives in Beacon, a small city in Dutchess County, a short drive from Poughkeepsie – is another shining example of how UB students are successfully competing for national and international scholarships and fellowships.

“UB is making great strides in encouraging and supporting students as they study in countries of critical importance to the government while learning languages,” says Elizabeth Colucci, coordinator of fellowships and scholarships for UB. “Casey has immersed herself in learning Chinese and has already been to China through a UB summer program.

“The fact that Casey has won this prestigious Boren scholarship speaks to her engagement in the Chinese language and culture. After completing a year of study in China, Casey will have superior language skills to lead her into her future career plans of working in the federal government.”

This scholarship is a substantial investment for U.S. citizens to have meaningful and relevant international experiences, Colucci says. “Students have high levels of academic excellence, strong motivation to study languages and a clear tie to working for the federal government.”

For Rothberg, still only just finishing her sophomore year, learning the language is an avenue into really knowing about the culture.

“It’s a way to connect with people from all different cultures,” she says. “All around the world, people are learning English. It’s being required. In China, people are learning English in schools, but it’s a newer thing. Most people from generations older than mine — the majority of the working class — do not have English training. So it’s nearly impossible to survive in the country with no Mandarin language experience. You can’t really fake your way around China if you don’t know the language. You can’t get directions, order the food you want, get the right transportation.

“If you know the other person’s language, they are going to connect with you more and feel more comfortable with you.”

Rothberg began studying Mandarin during her first semester at UB. She says she completed first-year Chinese within two semesters and enjoyed every minute.

“I was amazed when what first seemed to be a jumble of abstract drawings started transforming into sounds and meanings,” she wrote in her Boren application. “I was shocked and proud when I began to ‘draw’ these characters myself.”

This fall’s trip to China will add to her already extensive world travel. She spent eight weeks in Beijing last summer at Capital Normal and traveled around China. In high school she spent three weeks in India with the family of a good friend she knew from Beacon. Rothberg plans to visit Israel this summer as part of the Hillel Birthright program. And she’s going to the Dominican Republic in July for a community service project. (She describes herself as having an intermediate proficiency in Spanish, but plans to be fluent within a few years through an extensive stay in South America.)

Her time in India was especially memorable and “eye-opening.” She saw relatively affluent people living “side-by-side” with people who had almost nothing. The problems people in this country cope with are so small compared with what she saw there, Rothberg says.

Her India trip gave her the experience of living in what really was a foreign environment.

“For three whole weeks, I was the only non-Indian person anyone there saw,” Rothberg says. “It was such an overwhelming experience. I was a complete outsider, like this strange animal.”

She attributes her love of travel to her parents, Tricia and Steve Rothberg, who she says saved their money to travel extensively. She knows she will miss her family during the 10 months in Beijing. And she is well aware the program will be challenging. Somehow, that’s reassuring for the unknown.

“I know it’s going to be difficult,” she says. “But I know it will also pay off and be worth it. I am going there on my own. I know the first few months will be the most difficult because my Chinese-speaking proficiencies are not up to par. It will definitely be hard not being able to understand people.

“But you learn the most and grow the most when you step out of your comfort zone. And this is a huge step out of that comfort zone. It’s halfway across the world, with no family there. I’m going to learn so much about the culture, and my language skills are going to improve. I’m going to gain more independence. But this is definitely outside of my comfort zone.”

If so, her Boren experience would follow her own words on what advice she would give other UB students.

“Step out of your comfort zone,” Rothberg wrote. “Whether it’s starting a conversation with a stranger, joining a new club, enrolling in a class you know nothing about, talking to a professor, studying abroad or applying for nationally competitive scholarships — this is the time you will learn and grow the most. This can be extremely tough in the beginning, but it is absolutely worth every risk, awkward conversation, feeling of insecurity and embarrassment.”

The Institute of International Education on behalf of the National Security Education Program this year awarded 171 David L. Boren Scholarships to undergraduate students and 101 David L. Boren Fellowships to graduate students to add important international and language components to their educations by studying overseas in world regions critical to U.S. interests.

Boren scholars and fellows will live in 40 countries throughout Africa, Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, Eurasia, Latin America and the Middle East.  They will study 37 different languages, the most popular including Arabic, Mandarin, Russian, Portuguese and Swahili.

This year, 750 undergraduate students applied for the Boren scholarship and 385 graduate students applied for the Boren fellowship.

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