Weilu Tan, Fluent in Four Languages, Is First Pitt Student to Win Carnegie Endowment Junior Fellowship

Issue Date: 
May 2, 2010
Weilu TanWeilu Tan

Weilu Tan received her American citizenship just in time to become a citizen of the world.

“I feel very spoiled,” said Tan, a Wexford resident who was born in China, came to the United States as a teenager, and graduated from North Allegheny High School in 2005.

“Not being a citizen until now, I think I was lucky to have benefited from so many opportunities at Pitt.”

Tan, who became a U.S. citizen in March, is receiving a Bachelor of Philosophy degree in political science and Japanese from Pitt’s University Honors College and School of Arts and Sciences. She also is the first Pitt student—and one of only eight students in the country—to win a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Junior Fellowship. Each year, the Carnegie Endowment offers 8 to 10 one-year fellowships to college seniors who have graduated during the past academic year. Winners are selected from a pool of nominees from about 400 colleges. Carnegie Endowment Junior Fellows work as research assistants to the endowment’s senior associates.

Beginning in August, Tan will spend one year as a research assistant in the Carnegie Endowment’s China program in Washington, D.C., conducting research on China-U.S. relations and Asia-related foreign policy. She also will review literature and coauthor publications about the U.S.-Japan security alliance.

Tan’s preparation for a future in international relations began as a child. Her parents, who are molecular biologists, moved Tan’s family to Japan for work-related reasons when Tan was in primary school. The family returned to China when Tan entered middle school and came to the United States when she was in high school.

Initially, Tan applied for Pitt’s premed program, but she began to have second thoughts, particularly because the major wouldn’t make the best use of her language skills. Tan is fluent in Chinese, Japanese, English, and French.

“I also realized that I didn’t quite enjoy science,” said Tan, who had initially wanted to be a cartoonist until she began high school. “It didn’t stimulate my curiosity.”

She switched gears and chose a career in international studies, immersing herself in her academic work and taking classes in world affairs and political science. Her parents have fully supported her decision.

Tan’s international focus received a major boost during her sophomore year, when she was selected for a United Negro College Fund Institute for International Public Policy (IIPP) Fellowship for underrepresented students majoring in international affairs and public policy. The fellowship provides funding for internships, summer studies in policy or language, studies abroad, and graduate school, totaling $100,000 per fellow.

“My second year of school was my golden year in terms of scholarships,” said Tan. “Receiving the IIPP fellowship opened my eyes to what I could do and helped to solidify my choice of a career in international relations.”

With the IIPP Fellowship, Tan completed summer institutes at Spelman College, a historically Black liberal arts college for women in Atlanta, and the University of Maryland. During her junior year, she also completed an IIPP study abroad at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, also known as Sciences Po and one of the most prestigious universities for political and social sciences in the world. Tan chose the Parisian location because of a Pitt-Sciences Po student exchange program.

Through a teaching assistantship program with Sciences Po, Tan was assigned to Paris to teach English to French students ages 5-13. She spent half of her time teaching and the other half doing course work.

“My teaching experience helped to improve my French language skills,” Tan said. “Oftentimes, the students corrected me, and I got a French grammar lesson. Sometimes I felt I was getting paid to learn French while teaching English.”

Another facet of her global studies was provided through a Pitt teaching assistantship under the direction of Xinmin Liu, an assistant professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures, whom Tan considers to be a mentor. Tan’s skills were fine-tuned during the summers of 2006 and 2009, when she participated in advanced Chinese language studies in China with the support of Study-in-China scholarships from Pitt’s Asian Studies Center, a Freeman Asia Scholarship, and a Henry Luce Scholarship.

“These intensive language studies were decisive for the completion of my BPhil thesis on Sino-Japanese relations, which utilized primary sources in Chinese, and my selection as a fellow by the Carnegie Endowment,” Tan said.

Tan, who completed her BPhil degree under the direction of Dennis Hart, assistant director of Pitt’s Asian Studies Center, also has received additional international study funds for independent field research that expands on her thesis.

In addition, Tan has just completed an internship in the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives working with the Education Committee, where she has been preparing bill analyses, resolutions, amendments, and attending hearings and committee meetings. Tan has drafted and will present an original piece of legislation titled “Critical Language Instruction Program” as part of a dual enrollment program.

Prior to beginning the Carnegie Fellowship in August, Tan will travel to Osaka, Japan, in May to intern at Panasonic Electric Works’ Ambient Technologies Research Lab, an opportunity obtained through Pitt’s Asian Studies Center. She will conduct field research on how to improve family communication through technological innovation in Japanese society. Tan is the only U.S. student and the only person with a background in the social sciences to be chosen in a worldwide competition for the Panasonic internship; normally, only engineering or computer science students receive this honor.

After completing the Carnegie Fellowship next year, Tan plans to attend graduate school. She hopes to someday work for the federal government, the United Nations, or a think tank.

Tan says that she particularly treasures her newly adopted country for its acceptance of people with different cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.

“I’m Chinese,” said Tan, “but I have multiple cultural identities. Being an American citizen allows me to say that.”