Gillings School graduate student awarded Boren Fellowship

May 30, 2019

Nikki Behnke

Nikki Behnke

Nikki Behnke, a graduate student at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, is one of 106 students nationwide to receive a David L. Boren Fellowship for 2019.

Boren Scholarships and Fellowships are sponsored by the National Security Education Program. The awards provide undergraduate and graduate students in the United States with resources to acquire language skills in countries critical to United States security. In exchange for funding, Boren award recipients work in the federal government for at least one year.

This year, the fellowship will fund Behnke’s study of Modern Standard Arabic at the Qasid Arabic Institute in Amman, Jordan.

“I’m thrilled to be continuing my Arabic language studies as a Boren Fellow,” said Behnke. “Jordan is the ideal place to take this next step in my career in water, sanitation and international security.”

Behnke has been interested in water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) issues since high school. She received a bachelor’s degree from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2016, with majors in peace, war and defense as well as political science and a minor in environmental studies. She became interested in the Middle East in particular through her undergraduate studies, finding that the region was a place where research in WaSH and security intertwined.

Upon graduation, she moved to Washington, D.C., to work with Water 2017, a one-year effort to encourage the U.S. president and Congress to prioritize global water security. In the fall of 2017, she returned to Carolina to begin a Master of Science in Public Health in environmental sciences and engineering at the Gillings School.

“When I decided to return to UNC for graduate school, I shifted my focus to environmental health services for displaced populations, because they often are left out of international development frameworks and policies,” said Behnke. “More than 68.5 million people have been forcibly displaced, but due to their unclear and often stigmatized social and political status, they are frequently neglected and can easily fall through the cracks.”

Having chosen a geographic and research focus for her work, Behnke decided to begin learning Arabic. For the 2017-2018 academic year, she received a Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship to study Arabic through UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies.

In the summer of 2018, she traveled to Jordan to work with World Vision, a nonprofit organization that responds to the needs of refugee populations. There, Behnke conducted qualitative research on the sustainability of WaSH and waste management services in the Azraq refugee camp.

She looks forward to returning to Jordan this year as a Boren fellow.

“The fellowship will provide an unmatched opportunity to immerse myself in Jordanian culture and the Arabic language,” she said. “I am so grateful to be embarking on this experience, and for the support of my family, friends, classmates, professors and mentors over the course of my time at Carolina and the Gillings School.”

Two other Carolina students received Boren Awards this year: James Hepburn and Marissa Muller.

“Thanks to the National Security Education Program, three Carolina students will advance their language skills and understanding of other cultures, which will help them better serve our nation and the world,” Interim Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz said of the fellowships. “A nation’s major challenges usually have global dimensions that require global solutions. Nikki, James and Marissa’s accomplishments demonstrate their global mindsets.”

An article by University Communications details the accomplishments of all three awardees.

Contact the Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at

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