Political Science student lands prestigious U.S. State Dept. scholarship


After his graduation in May, Tom Nelson takes another step toward his goal of joining the U.S. Foreign Service when he heads to the Middle East or North Africa to study Arabic on a prestigious State Department Critical Language Scholarship.

The French and Political Science major from Reading, Mass., already has built an impressive set of credentials. He’s governor of the Maryland Student Legislature, co-head of the McDaniel Model U.N. delegation and participated in the Model European Union and North Africa Conferences. Nelson is fluent in French and studied in Brussels at Facultés Universitaires Saint-Louis, where all of his classes were taught in French.

Now, he’s one of only 630 selected from 5,200 applicants for the scholarship that fully funds travel, room, board and studies in one of 13 languages determined critical by the U.S. Department of State. Participants hail from all 50 states, D.C. and Puerto Rico, and represent 239 colleges, universities and community colleges. Nelson is in his second semester of Arabic at McDaniel – and, since applying for the scholarship, has been taking on extra assignments from lecturer Carol Zaru.

Nelson doesn’t yet know where among four Arabic language institutes he’ll go for the group-based studies. He’s hoping for either Tunisia or Morocco, but may be assigned Jordan or Oman. After the language studies this summer, he has applied to teach English to native French speakers in France for a year before looking into graduate school and his next step toward a role in government. 

But don’t look for Nelson’s name on the ballot for U.S. president – or even mayor.

“I want to be somewhere where I can affect foreign policy and represent the United States,” Nelson says. “I have no interest in elected office.”

His passion for foreign affairs began in high school when as a sophomore a friend invited him to join the Model U.N. club. He joined – and savored every moment representing Botswana at the mock United Nations that year.

“I just fell in love with it,” says Nelson, who has participated in a model U.N. conference every year since. “It led me to study Political Science, and then my interest really took off here at McDaniel with all of these opportunities.”

This year McDaniel represented Nigeria, the African Union and Save the Children. For Nelson, it was a homecoming of sorts.

“From Model U.N., I know people now on every continent – this year I hung out with the kids from the Netherlands,” he says, adding that it’s exciting to walk into opening ceremonies with everyone waving their country’s flag and cheering. “There were 3,500 people from 34 countries – people from all over the world with so many different perspectives.”

The more complicated and heady U.N. issues are more intriguing to Nelson, but he still enjoys his work with the Maryland Student Legislature, where he is wrapping up his term as governor and chief executive of the mock legislature.

His professors have no doubts about Nelson’s future and see the Critical Language Scholarship as an extraordinary step toward his goal of international service.

“Tom is well read and well informed about a range of international and geo-political issues from development, humanitarian and democratization challenges in Africa to the issue of identity in Belgium,” says Debora Johnson-Ross, Political Science and International Studies professor and Nelson’s advisor. “He is a student leader now and has the potential to be a leader on a much larger stage.”