From the Back of an Envelope: How NSEP Was Born

October 13, 2010

By Janice Mulholland

Yesterday evening, I had the opportunity to hear former Senator David L. Boren (D-Okla.), now president of the University of Oklahoma, recount the creation of the National Security Education Program. I found the story to be so interesting and refreshing considering today’s difficult and tenuous political environment that I wanted to share it with you.

It was 1991, and Senator Boren had just come out of a meeting about the need for national mineral reserves and was headed to the Senate floor for a vote on the Intelligence Authorization Act. The meeting about creating mineral reserves prompted him to start thinking about which other reserves the country could benefit from having. What he realized on his way to the Senate floor was that the country desperately needed a talent reserve – a reserve of graduates who could speak other languages, understand other cultures, and help provide the nation with a level of security it couldn’t have absent those skills. He said he got to the floor, discussed his idea with Senator Cohen (R-Maine), and then scribbled an amendment on the back of a torn brown paper envelope to establish a program that would begin to create this talent reserve. He then sent the envelope up to the parliamentarian as an amendment to the intelligence act.

At first, he said that the parliamentarian wanted to dismiss the amendment because it had not been through the proper bill drafting process. Adamant about offering the amendment, Senator Boren argued that as a Senator, he had the constitutional right to submit an amendment he wrote himself. It wasn’t until Senator Byrd (D-W.Va.) was called in to mediate the dispute that the amendment was accepted. As it turns out, Senator Boren was right. The amendment, which established the National Security Education Program (NSEP), was passed by voice vote.

NSEP has now been in place for eighteen years and has helped more than 4,200 students study abroad in less sought-after destinations, and to learn the languages and cultures of their host countries. That truly is a remarkable achievement for an amendment that was scribbled on the back of an envelope.

However, as Senator Boren said at the end of his remarks, it’s time to take the next step. As he put it, U.S. global leadership moving forward is going to be less about giving commands and more about the ability to form effective partnerships, and that will involve having leaders who are able to speak the languages and understand the cultures and histories of our partners. To get there, we need to do more to ensure that more Americans have the opportunity to study abroad and to learn other languages.


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