Nicholas Fegreus wants to work for the government and knows that being able to speak a foreign language would improve his chances.
But which language?
"I'll be honest with you, it was kind of a toss-up," said Fegreus, who is majoring in political science with a minor in public service and will graduate from Old Dominion University this summer. "I was kind of debating between Arabic or Farsi or Russian. I think what kind of steered me toward Russian was my interest in Western and European history in general, and I was just more familiar with it. So, I figured if I'm going to be involved within this specific region, why not study a language I'm already interested in?"
That pursuit has netted him a prestigious Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) from the U.S. State Department. He will leave from Washington, D.C., on June 7 for Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where he will study for two months at the American University of Central Asia.
Fegreus is the sixth student from ODU to earn a CLS. In all, Monarchs have claimed nine CLS awards; Daniel Shanks (2016, 2018) and Melodee Baines (2007, 2008, 2009) won multiple times. A complete list of ODU's CLS recipients is available at this link.
The CLS Program is a summer study-abroad opportunity for U.S. college and university students. According to its website, it is part of a U.S. government effort to expand the number of Americans studying and mastering 15 critical foreign languages. Participants are expected to continue their language study beyond the scholarship period and apply their critical language skills in their professional careers.
This year, approximately 4,500 students representing all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico submitted applications. The program has an acceptance rate of around 10%, and this year's finalists come from 583 institutions.
"The CLS Program is highly competitive because the reward is so great. The Center for Global Engagement was delighted to assist Nicholas in his application and even more delighted that he won," said Paul Currant, senior international officer at the center. "I am sure he will learn a lot more about Eastern Europe than just the Russian language, and this will positively impact him for the rest of his life."
Fegreus credited the center and its former outreach coordinator, Sharon Pitney, with playing a key role in landing the CLS. He explained that the application basically involves submitting narratives that describe your background with the language and what you plan to do with it.
"Ms. Pitney really helped me frame my narratives and how to make it personal to me. Honestly, I give her a lot of credit for what I believe helped me be successful and actually getting the scholarship," he said.
"Nicholas was a joy to work with," Pitney said. "It was evident from our first meeting that his dedication and level of discipline would serve him well. This scholarship is a wonderful opportunity to make huge strides in the study of Russian over the summer and will open doors to many new opportunities for Nicholas."
Fegreus, who moved from Detroit to South Hampton Roads when he was 13 and graduated from Deep Creek High School, took two semesters of Russian language classes at Tidewater Community College. After two years at TCC, he transferred to ODU and took two more semesters of Russian with Professor Maria Grise.
"She has done more than anyone to help me prepare for the program itself, and learning the language," Fegreus said.
Fegreus works full time as an engineering technician with the City of Norfolk's Department of Utilities, so having the scheduling flexibility that ODU's distance-learning program provides was important. He took about half of his classes at ODU remotely.
Fegreus has traveled overseas on vacations, but this will be the longest time he will spend away from home. He's looking forward not only to enhancing his Russian language skills, but also to the experience of being in Kyrgyzstan.
"I know they do a lot of organizing cultural excursions after class, exploring some of the local museums and tourist attractions," he said. "I believe there's one bigger trip sometime toward the end of the program where you spend a night or two outside of the campus or with a host family wherever you're staying."
Aaron Karp, senior lecturer in ODU's Department of Political Science and Geography, feels Fegreus is an ideal choice for a CLS.
"Nick's career goals stress American public service, as a civil servant, probably in diplomacy or the intelligence community," Karp noted, citing a letter he wrote nominating Fegreus for the CLS. "He is directed specifically toward the kind of careers where his language studies will pay off most.
"Nick's manner is quiet and careful. But there is nothing restrained about his performance," added Karp, who had Fegreus in four of his classes. "This is someone who sets ambitious goals, rapidly meets them, then responds by expanding his goals to embrace the next opportunity. He shows tenacious focus on major goals."
Fegreus will start a master's program in security policy studies at George Washington University after graduating from ODU. He plans to talk with Grise's students about his CLS experience following his return to the U.S.
"When I reflect on some of the courses I've had and a lot of the things I've learned and some of the interests I've been able to realize while taking some of the courses - things I never really thought I would have an interest in - I definitely am thankful to ODU for all of those lessons," he said.
Information about applying for a Critical Language Scholarship can be found at this link.