On the front lines
Marshall Scholar Brian Pellot prepares to take on the world
Brian Pellot, an MU senior with a double major in journalism and international studies, has won the prestigious Marshall Scholarship and a chance to earn a master's degree in modern Middle Eastern studies at Oxford University.
Insatiable curiosity, fascination with a distant part of the globe and a drive that never lets him stop. These are the traits that have helped MU senior Brian Pellot earn the prestigious Marshall Scholarship, and they're the reasons he continues to fully immerse himself in the people, language and culture of the Middle East.
The Marshall Scholarship is one of the top nationally competitive academic awards. Named for former U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall (famous for the Marshall Plan), the scholarship is an opportunity for U.S. students who have prior service and leadership experience, as well as plans to serve the international community, to earn their master’s degrees in Britain.
Wanting to work as an international journalist, Pellot, who is double-majoring in convergence journalism and international studies, saw an ideal opportunity when he learned about the scholarship. Because he knew he would be studying in Dubai just before the application was due, Pellot met with Vicky Riback Wilson, coordinator of the MU Fellowships Office, and Ted Tarkow, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, to start the process 18 months in advance. Relying on e-mail, he collected eight letters of recommendation and wrote several drafts of his statements. When he'd returned to Columbia, Pellot and his advisers really hit the application hard. Pellot was applying not only for the Marshall Scholarship but also for the Rhodes Scholarship.
“I had weekly meetings with them when I got back, and they were incredible,” Pellot says of Wilson and Tarkow. “They met with me whenever I wanted and were constantly there to help. I don’t want to say I couldn’t have done it without them because it’s cliché, but they helped me so much.”
In early November, Pellot found out he had interviews for both scholarships, but the Marshall was first. Before a panel of eight in Chicago, he was questioned on all aspects of his application for 30 minutes. The next day, he received a call from the British Consul General in Chicago congratulating him for becoming one of 35 students in the United States to win the scholarship.
“I was on the treadmill when he called, so I was completely out of breath,” Pellot says. “He asked me why, and after telling him, he said he hoped I had renewed vigor when I got back on there.”
Lure of the Middle East
Pellot has traveled throughout the Middle East as a scholar and a journalist. He plans to become an international correspondent after completing the Marshall program.
Pellot’s interest in the Middle East stems from a video conference that he and classmates in his Wausau, Wis., high school had with Kuwaiti students. Hearing about their lives and how similar they were to his own gave Pellot a connection to the region that quickly expanded.
Despite having met all his foreign-language requirements before coming to MU, Pellot took both Arabic language courses offered at the university, but that was not enough for him. Getting heavily involved with the international student leadership organization AIESEC, Pellot organized events specifically focused on Muslim communities in Columbia and in the Middle East. He also had an Arabic language partner and volunteered wherever he could.
Through that work, his high level of academic achievement and his clear goals, Pellot earned opportunities to study as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar and a William Jefferson Clinton Scholar in Dubai. He monitored parliamentary elections in Lebanon, staying in families’ homes in a region controlled by Hezbollah while reporting for Inter Press Service News Agency and Foreign Policy. He also reported for the Huffington Post on trips to Egypt, Qatar and Jordan.
“The pace I kept when living abroad was a challenge,” Pellot says. “I was going all over the Middle East giving different presentations every day. I even gave one in French. I just let all the experiences wash over me, though, and I never said no to anything because I never knew when I’d get to go back.”
Support from the Fellowships Office
Pellot is the fourth Marshall Scholar in MU’s history and the first since 1983. He credits the MU Fellowships Office — now in its fifth year of operation — with helping him so thoroughly prepare his materials. His success reflects the office’s goals of matching up students with scholarships, awards and programs that fit their personal and academic aspirations.
“Before we had a fellowships office, it was harder for students to learn about the variety of possibilities all in one place,” Wilson says. “If they didn’t happen to stumble across it and get some help from faculty in figuring out how it was a good fit, they were less likely to apply or be successful. Now we’re able to help students find exactly what they need.”
Pellot says his experiences have been beneficial to him in more ways than one. In addition to giving him educational and cultural opportunities, they have provided valuable contacts he was able to use in his application. A professor from the American University in Dubai, a tutor who taught him Arabic last summer in Morocco and an editor from the International Press Service's United Nations bureau were among the people vouching for him.
“He’s managed to really impress various academic and professional people in a way that speaks volumes about his potential,” Tarkow says. “The bottom line is that in the future, this is going to be a young man for whom MU should feel abundant pride.”
What exactly the future holds for Pellot is uncertain. After he has completed the Marshall program in 2012, he says, he’d like to work as a foreign correspondent — possibly for Foreign Policy, his favorite magazine, which he wrote for this past summer. Pellot also would like to do more work monitoring elections like he did in Lebanon; work as a speechwriter; work for the U.S. State Department in some capacity; and perhaps eventually get involved in U.S. politics.
In taking on so much work, traveling to many far-off places and meticulously planning the future, it would seem easy for Pellot to be overwhelmed or even a bit scared by it all. Pellot already has thought things through, though.
“The only thing that makes me nervous is that I’m studying at Oxford,” he says, laughing. “It’s so rigorous that I probably should be more than a little nervous, but they have so many great opportunities and great lecturers there all the time that I’m excited to go.”