Two Vassar Grads Embark on Study in China After Winning Prestigious Schwarzman Scholarships

Two Vassar alums have each been awarded one of the most prestigious and most competitive post-graduate fellowships in the world. On December 7, Aena Khan ’22 was awarded a Schwarzman Scholarship for a fully funded master’s program in global affairs at Schwarzman College on the campus of Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. She will begin her studies in the fall of 2024. Frank Najarro-Izquierdo ’18 was awarded a Schwarzman Scholarship last year and is currently enrolled in the program.

Group of people sitting at a table talking with notes on the table. The background room is filled with other round tables with people seated talking.
Frank Najarro-Izquierdo took part in the early planning phase of Vassar’s Engaged Pluralism Initiative.
Photo: Karl Rabe

Schwarzman fellowships typically draw more than 4,000 applicants, and approximately 150 graduates of colleges throughout the world are chosen. The students are taught by leading faculty from Tsinghua and a number of other internationally recognized universities, and they are afforded the opportunity to attend guest lectures by prominent global thought leaders. Beyond the classroom, the scholars gain exposure to China through internships, mentors, and high-profile speakers. Additionally, career development resources are provided for scholars as they complete the program.

Khan, who was Senior Class President and an editor of the Miscellany Newsmajored in International Studies. She specialized in political science and history but took a number of geography courses, including some that focused on China taught by Professor of Geography and Chair of Earth Science and Geography Yu Zhou. “I learned about environmental issues and urban planning with Yu Zhou,” she said. “[The classes] exposed me to how China functions differently from the United States.”

Person with long orange/brown hair with a black shirt posing in front of a white backdrop.
2023 Schwarzman Scholarship winner Aena Khan ’22
Photo: Lauren Eliot 

Khan, who was born in New York City to Pakistani parents, said she became even more keenly interested in the Chinese culture and economy when she returned to Pakistan while conducting research for her Vassar senior thesis.  Ultimately, that experience led her to apply for the Schwarzman fellowship. “The country is now the largest recipient of Chinese foreign investment, and what I saw there made me more curious about China’s economy and politics,” she said.

Prior to being selected as a Schwarzman Scholar, Najarro-Izquierdo earned a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, and he subsequently was awarded a Luce Fellowship, enabling him to conduct public health research in Laos.

He said he had intended to major in theater or biology, his two passions in high school, when he enrolled at Vassar, but his plans changed abruptly when he took an introductory anthropology course with Professor Candice Lowe Swift “just to fill out my schedule” for his first semester. “That course changed my entire academic trajectory,” he said. “For the first time, I had a vocabulary to understand poverty, inequality, and racial and cultural differences.”

Najarro-Izquierdo got his first hands-on exposure to Asian culture when he accompanied Professor of Anthropology Martha Kaplan on a research trip funded by the National Science Foundation to Singapore in the summer of 2016. “It was then that I realized that when you’re an anthropologist, the world is kind of your oyster,” he said. “You can study anything and go anywhere.”

Najarro-Izquierdo said he was thoroughly enjoying his first semester in Beijing. “You can’t really understand China until you’ve been here. Books or videos or other secondary sources aren’t good enough,” he said. “I am learning about a culture with a long history that is globally powerful, and the experience will guide me in the decisions I make about my career and my future.”

January 25, 2024
Alums Spotlight
Engaged Pluralism