Jannat Saeed admitted she still hasn’t entirely processed the news.
Saeed is a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Brock Scholar in the Honors College, majoring in software systems, international studies and political science. She took her last Cleveland (Tennessee) High School class at the age of 15, then—after turning 16—immediately started taking classes at Cleveland State Community College with “a bunch of older people.”
So processing news should come quickly to her.
But it was an email message that threw her for a loop, she said, one she won’t believe until it actually takes place.
“Congratulations, you’re coming to Princeton over the summer.”
Saeed will spend June and July at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs after being awarded a Public Policy and International Affairs (PPIA) Junior Summer Institute (JSI) Fellowship, a rigorous academic graduate-level preparation program for undergraduate juniors committed to public service careers.
Saeed was one of two UTC juniors landing a PPIA JSI fellowship, joining Emma Sprayberry—who will spend her summer at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy in Pittsburgh.
“When I learned I got it, I was truly dancing around,” Saeed said with a laugh, “but I still haven’t quite processed it yet.
“I guess until I’m there, I truly won’t be able to say, ‘I’ve made it,’ but I’ve been bragging about it.”
According to its website, the JSI curriculum includes economics, statistics, domestic/international policy issues and leadership topics—all designed to sharpen quantitative, analytic and communication skills.
Participation in the PPIA program will potentially make it more economically feasible for Saeed and Sprayberry to attend graduate school immediately after obtaining their undergraduate degrees, as it offers a $5,000 scholarship at a PPIA consortium graduate school.
Along with Princeton and Carnegie Mellon, other PPIA consortium institutions include the University of Michigan, the University of Minnesota, the University of Washington and the University of California, Berkeley.
Saaed said she is interested in serving in roles where she can create public policy on the international front utilizing software and technology.
“We often don’t understand we’re now in an era where pretty much everything we do relies on some sort of software technology,” she said.
The Princeton experience will be new in many different ways for Saeed.
“I want to learn what it’s like being around people who have similar mindsets as me,” she said. “That’s not to say there’s nobody here that doesn’t, but I’m going to be seeing these people every day for seven weeks and we all share some similarities.
“I think it’s really interesting to know where they’re going to go, so I hope to gain some insight on what I can do in my future based on that.”
Saeed said she plans to soak it all in and take advantage of this opportunity.
“This makes me sound like a nerd, but I’ve done lots of research papers and cited some scholars who teach at Princeton. I’ve been thinking, ‘What if I run into them?’” she joked. “Being able to meet people who I’ve looked up to or who are symbolic of the field and then being able to be on a normal level with them is so exciting.”
Saeed has lived at home during her time at UTC, so her first actual “on your own” opportunity will occur at an Ivy League institution.
She told the story of an application essay asking, “What’s something that you want to learn here?”
“The first thing I wrote was, ‘This is an opportunity for me to gain independence and to find autonomy. I feel like people see me and know I have all these aspirations and goals. I’m ambitious, but they don’t understand that I’m still kind of sheltered in a way,’” she said.
“So when I go to Princeton, I won’t even have a friend there before I go. I will truly have to find my place there, and it’s incredible. There’s so much I want to learn and so much I want to take in.”
Unlike Saaed, Sprayberry is accustomed to being on her own while pursuing educational opportunities.
Sprayberry is currently in Spain participating in an international studies program at the University of Alcalá, located northeast of Madrid.
During the fall 2022 semester, she attended McGill University in Montreal after being accepted into the Killam Fellowships Program. That Canadian excursion came on the heels of a 10-week summer research opportunity at the University of Saskatchewan through the Fulbright Canada Mitacs Globalink program.
She previously spent the summer of 2021 participating in a study abroad opportunity in South Korea thanks to the U.S. Department of State’s Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship and a Freeman-ASIA Scholarship.
“Having the PPIA JSI under my belt will make me more competitive for graduate school, which I’m glad about because I feel like—since I’ve been everywhere—I don’t have a lot of depth in a certain area,” said Sprayberry, whose longterm goal is to work for an international nonprofit such as UNICEF. “I’m hoping this summer will help me clarify my goals after undergrad; I’m realizing there are so many pathways that I could go towards.
“We’re taking four classes: two are math courses, economics and statistics, and two are about international affairs. I’m looking forward to those classes and getting a different perspective.”
The Innovations in Honors student is pursuing two bachelor’s degrees—one in humanities: international studies with an emphasis in Asian studies and another in Spanish—along with a minor in anthropology. She grew up in nearby Rossville, Georgia, and is a 2020 graduate of Chattanooga Christian School.
Despite being the recipient of national competitive scholarships, Sprayberry acknowledged apprehension while waiting to learn if she would be one of the 30 collegiate students selected for the Carnegie Mellon program.
“It was kind of overwhelming because Jannat texted me after she found out and was like, ‘Did you hear back yet?’ Sprayberry said. “She had gotten her admission, and I hadn’t seen mine yet because it was in my spam. I was really stressed out.
“Once I found out, I’m getting used to the idea of being at Carnegie Mellon this summer.”