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Foothill alum and Marshall Scholar reflects on his global experiences

March 13, 2023

nick shaferFoothill alum and 2021 Marshall Scholar Nick Shafer knows the value of global education and study abroad programs. While a Foothill student, after spending the summer studying intensive Arabic at Qalam Law Arabic School in Rabat, Morocco, he crossed the Strait of Gibraltar to participate in a Fall 2016 trip to Barcelona led by Anthropology Professor Sam Connell. Passionate about language study and learning about Catalonian politics, he also used the opportunity to work on Western Sahara and travel to Tindouf, Algeria, as part of the FiSahara Film Festival.

“It was a great experience traveling with Foothill students,” Shafer said. “Part of what makes community college so beautiful is the different pathways that bring students to campus, and bringing that out to the global context was a beautiful and empowering experience. Our cohort included veterans and fresh high school graduates, DACA students and seasoned travelers. Together we were able to explore and grow together through experiential education which enriched our studies and set several of us onto paths into global affairs. One of the best memories from that period was traveling to Algeria with several Foothill students to attend the FiSahara Film Festival, and it is a memory that we continue to cherish even years later since we returned to our lives in California.”

For Shafer, international experience had started much earlier. His first intellectual love was Spanish, which he started at Everest Public High School in Redwood City and credits Mr. Nelson and Mr. Prado with lighting the spark that would grow into his thirst for multiculturalism and international experience. After graduating from high school, he dove into his passion for languages and desire to travel by taking a Gap Year with Leap Now, an organization focused on experiential education and personal growth for young adults. Through that experience he participated in growth and bonding retreats in Calistoga, backpacked across Nepal and India, and worked with the High Atlas Foundation and living with the Jewish community in Morocco. After returning to the United States, Nick started college in Minnesota but after just one semester he knew he wanted more than the traditional college experience would offer him.

“I came back to the traditional educational environment of a private liberal arts school, and just knew deep in my soul that it wasn’t the right fit for me. I had grown so much so fast through experiential education, travel, and language study that it was all I could think about, and so I decided to return to my home in the Bay Area and continue at community college to get more flexibility in my education and open up new creative doors, while saving money that I would have otherwise spent on the expensive tuition.” 

From his experience in Morocco working with the Jewish community, Shafer knew he wanted to work with Emily Gottreich at UC Berkeley, one of the country’s preeminent scholars on Muslim-Jewish relations and focus his studies on the Middle East and North Africa region. He made it his goal to work with her and set about completing the rigorous Honors Program at Foothill with an eye towards Berkeley. Shafer’s brother was attending Foothill College at the time, and many in his family had gone to a community college, University of California, or California State University. In his words, the path just “made sense” to balance between his deep personal connections to California and the flexibility he needed to launch his global career.

While at Foothill, Shafer completed the Honors Program and participated actively in the Economics and Anthropology Clubs, while also co-founding Use Your Voices to help mobilize protests and public action around various social issues following the 2016 election. He also created and maintained lasting relationships with professors across campus such as Brian Evans, Kathryn Mauer, Samuel Connell, John Fox, and English Professor Scott Lankford, who Nick credits with the inspiration to dream big, shoot for the stars, and apply to opportunities like the Marshall. They supported him in applying to and winning his first funded fellowship to the Middle East, the Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Program in the Middle East, in Summer 2017 which funded him to travel across Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Oman, and the UAE as well as to study intensive Hebrew at Tel Aviv University. He worked for years with the Ibrahim Program since 2018 as a trip leader and program manager, running program logistics and guiding dozens of students on month-long trips across the Middle East; several past Foothill alums followed in Nicholas’ footsteps to participate in the program.

Foothill faculty were among his biggest champions when he transferred to UC Berkeley and began to take advantage of the scholarship opportunities available there, including the Boren Scholarship from the Department of Defense to study Arabic at the Center for Arabic Studies Abroad in Jordan and completing undergraduate internships at the U.S. Embassy in Algeria and the Smithsonian Institution. Nicholas thrived at Berkeley, working with Dr. Gottreich and becoming a campus leader both for the Middle Eastern studies and transfer communities while living in the Berkeley Student Cooperative System and participating in multiple on-campus research projects. He was one of the top students in his fields, graduating with degrees in Anthropology, Arabic, and Public Policy with Honors and High Distinction, and was the recipient of the 2019 McCown Prize which is awarded to the most Outstanding Anthropology Graduate.

In Spring 2020, Nicholas received the John Gardner Public Service Fellowship, a prestigious award granted to three Berkeley Seniors per year to facilitate high-level professional fellowships in areas of public service. Through the Gardner Fellowship, he joined the USAID Middle East Bureau from 2020 - 21 where he worked primarily on Yemen & Gulf Policy while also working on larger non-traditional problem sets such as emerging Gulf donor strategy, China policy, and the Western Sahara Conflict. While at USAID and during the pandemic, Shafer turned his sights on graduate school and to try and find funding options to avoid taking out debt.

This led him to apply to the Marshall Scholarship, with the support of his Berkeley and Foothill communities. The Marshall Scholarship enables distinguished American students with high potential of future contributions in their field to study in the UK at any institutions of higher education. Shafer spent his first year as a Marshall Scholar at the Institute of Development Studies in Brighton, England, where he read for a Masters in Governance, Development, and Public Policy and focused on governance, digital economics, and the politics of foreign assistance. He wrote his dissertation on cryptocurrency mining in Lebanon as an emergent livelihood amidst financial sector collapse, which he published in short-form with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is currently finishing his second year on the Marshall Scholarship and is reading for a Masters in Middle Eastern Studies at Balliol College in the University of Oxford where he focused primarily on the Political Economy of the Indian Ocean community.

Grounded in his experiences navigating the world of scholarships and fellowships as well as the professional world of foreign affairs, Shafer co-founded Global Community College Transfers in May 2020 alongside five other community college transfers. GCCT focuses on building pipelines and advocacy for community college, transfer, and non-traditional students to break into global education experiences and access the competitive world of professional foreign affairs. Through direct mentorship programs and public conferences, GCCT has worked with hundreds of students to help them reach their full potential and access similar opportunities to the ones that Shafer has benefitted from. They also work collaboratively with institutions to help them build new programs, such as the Community College Global Affairs Fellowship (CCGAF) with the Meridian International Center and Community Colleges for International Developmentand the Community, Activism, and Social Entrepreneurship Program with Amideast. They have big plans to scale up their mentorship programs and community-building in the future and are excited to continue advocating for new bridges and programs to help talent in the community college system reach its full potential.

“My experience at Foothill and the challenges I faced in accessing competitive scholarships and mentoring for them was a direct impetus in launching the initiative, and part of our collective desire to continue building these pipelines on the community college level. There are millions of community college students across the country and the California Community College System is one of the largest system of higher education in the world, and it is a huge shame that there is not more efforts and attention paid by recruiters, universities, and fellowship and scholarship providers to the incredibly diverse, resilient, and creative talent pool that is lying right under their noses,” Shafer said.

Now planning for post-graduate school, Shafer is moving on his next steps. His most likely path is to return to professional foreign affairs work in Washington D.C or around the world, as he is interviewing for the Foreign Service and applying to national security jobs around the city. He is also in the running for a Research Fulbright in India and other various opportunities ranging from Beirut to Baghdad, but he is also considering a return to the Bay Area because of Silicon Valley’s innovative culture and what it can offer the world of foreign affairs.

“Growing up in the Bay Area and going to Foothill and Berkeley has shaped so many of my perspectives, as well as my frustrations with the inability of the traditional foreign affairs world to innovate at scale. I’m curious about exploring what Californian approaches to foreign affairs, especially in a world of growing subnational and tech-based diplomacy focused around Asia, has to offer both the United States and the world.”

Regardless of where he ends up geographically and professionally, he’ll continue to work on Global Community College Transfers and provide global opportunities for more community college students to follow in his footsteps, and he encourages students to dream big and shoot for opportunities like Fulbright, Marshall, and beyond.

“There’s so much talent at Foothill and in the community college system that just needs nurturing,” Shafer said. “The value of global education and study abroad programs – for me in my journey across four continents and into the world of foreign affairs and graduate education, that was integral. I can’t imagine my life without multiculturalism and travel and there is a moral, emotional impetus to provide access and opportunities to those who otherwise would not be able to study abroad or have the opportunity to work internationally. Our world is only going to be more interconnected, and making sure that we actively lean into that as Americans and higher education institutions is critical for our long-term success and prosperity. It's like a pyramid- if students at Foothill and across community colleges start small locally with confidence before transferring to a four-year university and beyond, then they have the ability to build careers and lives they can't even dream of. Students need to see examples of what is beyond their environment to dream big, and it is one of the deepest joys of my life to build communities of genuine uplift and mentoring for future generations.”

Interested in traveling abroad with Foothill College? Visit our Global Experiential Learning program for more information.