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USD Student Earns Princeton in Africa Fellowship

Elena Freeman under the Mt. Kilimanjaro peak signs. Elena Freeman, a Vermillion native who will graduate from USD this spring with degrees in international studies and French, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania during her year in Africa as a Boren Scholar. She is set to return to the continent this year as a Princeton in Africa fellow.

VERMILLION, S.D. – Elena Freeman, a senior majoring in international studies and French and Francophone Studies at the University of South Dakota, recently received a Princeton in Africa fellowship, which will place her with a non-governmental organization on the continent for a 12-month service experience, starting this summer.

The fellowship offers financial support for housing and living expenses and a mid-year retreat with other fellows and professionals.

The program works with nearly 50 organizations that focus on such issues as economic development, public health and conservation. During her fellowship, Freeman hopes to work in economic development and serve in South Africa, Benin, Ghana or Rwanda.

Freeman, who graduates in May and plans for a career in diplomacy, has previously lived and studied in Africa and currently interns remotely for the U.S. Embassy in Gambia. As the recipient of a David L. Boren national security scholarship in 2019, she traveled to Senegal, but had to return eight months into her 12-month stint due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While Freeman said she hopes the Princeton in Africa fellowship will take place onsite, she will learn in April whether the program recommends the 2021-2022 fellowship be onsite or remote.

Freeman’s interest in Africa began with her French studies at USD. “I studied in France for a semester my sophomore year and I wanted to study abroad more, but I didn’t want to go back to France,” she said. “I ended up going to French-speaking Senegal for my Boren scholarship. That heightened my interest in Africa.”

This interest also extends to Freeman’s USD Honor’s thesis, which focuses on the informal economy of the country of South Africa. “The goal is to get as much experience in Africa as possible and try to use that in my career as a diplomat,” she said.

Freeman credits political science professors David Earnest, Ph.D., and Tim Schorn, Ph.D., for helping her apply to the internships, scholarships and fellowships she has earned as an undergraduate at USD. “Dr. Earnest has been a major mentor and Dr. Schorn has really helped shape my path to working in diplomacy,” she said.

Earnest, chair of USD Department of Political Science, praised Freeman’s commitment to helping others.

“Elena’s achievements and service are about overcoming literal barriers,” he said. “The COVID pandemic sent her home early from her studies in Dakar, Senegal, so instead she found a prestigious U.S. Department of State virtual internship at the American embassy in Banjul, Gambia. As part of her environmental studies, she spent 31 days traversing the Waddington mountain range in British Columbia. It’s no wonder that her service seeks to empower disadvantaged communities, to help citizens traverse the barriers they face.

“The mission of the College of Arts & Sciences is to educate the leaders who will solve the future’s most pressing challenges. But Elena won’t wait until tomorrow,” Earnest added. “In the Princeton in Africa program, she has found precisely the opportunity to start solving today’s real-world problems: safe drinking water, healthy children, reliable income and more.”


USD's College of Arts & Sciences offers students a top-notch undergraduate liberal arts education in the humanities, social sciences and sciences as well as graduate programs that have earned USD distinction as a research university by the Carnegie Foundation. The college's more than 22,000 alumni include famous journalists, Hollywood screenwriters, novelists, a Nobel Prize winner, South Dakota governors, attorneys, physicians, justices of the state Supreme Court, distinguished university faculty and international humanitarians.


Founded in 1862 and the first university in the Dakotas, the University of South Dakota is the only public liberal arts university in the state, with 202 undergraduate and 84 graduate programs in the College of Arts & Sciences, School of Education, Knudson School of Law, Sanford School of Medicine, School of Health Sciences, Beacom School of Business and College of Fine Arts. With an enrollment of nearly 10,000 students and more than 400 faculty, USD has a 16:1 student/faculty ratio, and it ranks among the best in academics and affordability. USD’s 18 athletic programs compete at the NCAA Division I level.


Hanna DeLange
USD News