Ben Bissell, a fourth-year student at the University of Virginia that one professor lauded as “one of the most advanced undergraduates I have ever met,” has received a 2013 Luce Foundation Scholarship.
Bissell, 21, of Fairfax Station, is a double major in politics honors and Russian language and literature in the College of Arts & Sciences. He will be able to work in Asia for a year with the Luce award.
“It’s hard to overstate how much receiving this scholarship means to me,” he said. “The Luce Scholarship combines all of the things I am most passionate about.”
The scholarship program provides stipends, language training and professional placement in Asia for 15 to 18 American students who have had limited experience of Asia and who might not otherwise have an opportunity in the normal course of their careers to know and understand Asia. Bissell was selected from 168 applicants for this year’s scholarships.
He has been researching demography for his thesis in politics, which focuses on ethnic re-identification in the former Soviet bloc following the collapse of the U.S.S.R., and how it impacts Russian strategic depth in the region. While in Asia, he hopes to continue his work in demographic public policy. “This scholarship will allow me to fulfill a lifelong dream of traveling to Asia and intensively learning a language and culture, while affording me an unparalleled chance to experience how demography can unite with other disciplines to inform and guide public policy,” he said. “It will also prove invaluable by showing how different cultures and social structures can impact the viability of large-scale public works programs.”
The son of Michael and Marion Bissell, he is an Echols Scholar, a Lawn resident and a Truman Scholarship finalist. He has received Intermediate Honors, has been named to the Dean’s List every semester and is a member of the Raven Society.
Conversant in Arabic, Hebrew, Russian and French, he has been an English-language teaching assistant for 14 international graduate students and a delegation of 35 visiting Chinese professors from Nanjing, China. He has also been a teaching assistant for English as a Second Language with Volunteers with International Students and Scholars, and Staff Program. He has been a student teacher of “Introduction to Political Demography” in the Cavalier Education Program; student coordinator of a Jewish Alternative Spring Break trip to Kiev, Ukraine; an executive board member of U.Va. Hillel; and culture chairman of the Shea House. He received a $30,000 Boren Scholarship, which allowed him to study at Smolny College in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the summer of 2011.
He received a U.S. State Department Critical Language Scholarship in 2012, which allowed him to study Russian in Vladimir, Russia, and he is an alumni ambassador for the program. He attended an intensive summer program to learn Arabic at Middlebury College in Vermont during the summer of 2010 and is informally taking seminar classes at U.Va.’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service this semester. He created the blog “The Face of Things,” where he writes about demographic issues.
Bissell was raised in multilingual home and understanding language helps him understand people.
“Language is an accessible entry point for understanding not just how individuals think, but how individuals think in aggregation, as social groups,” he said. “I began studying Hebrew, Arabic and Russian partly as a result of my Russian Jewish background, and partly because Eastern Europe and the Middle East are very politically sensitive areas of the world right now that demand greater attention from Americans.”
A graduate of James W. Robinson Jr. Secondary School in Fairfax, he plans to pursue a graduate degree in demography because he sees people as individuals and parts of larger social networks. He said human decency can be measured in how people interact with each other.
“This perspective lends naturally to demography, which, as a discipline, is based on the idea that the most important life cycle events of individual human beings, such as birth, death, migration and marriage, can be aggregated to meaningful effect,” he said.
“I hope to pursue public policy, focusing specifically on urban planning and government responses to aging populations,” he said.
Bissell said he is interested in public policy because he sees significant problems ahead for the country.
“I have studied enough of government and history, including of my own personal family’s history during the Holocaust, to know that good does not always win, that problems do not always get fixed, and that meaningful change requires meaningful and sustained action,” Bissell said. “My interest in demography is not just academic; I want to use it and more to achieve a peaceful, higher standard of living for my parents, myself and my children.”
“Ben is a passionate young scholar who has contributed greatly to life at U.Va.,” said Katherine V. Walters, assistant director of the Center for Undergraduate Excellence. “He will certainly be a leader in the field of demography and will be an engaged and enthusiastic member of the Luce Scholars Program. He has been an absolute pleasure to work with over the years, and I am thrilled that he has been chosen for this opportunity.”
George Klosko, Henry and Grace Doherty Professor of Politics, supervised Bissell while the undergraduate taught a course on political demography.
“Ben is the first undergraduate student I have ever encountered who taught his own undergraduate course,” Klosko said. “Although political demography is not a subject that I know much about, Ben convinced me that he was qualified to teach the course, and I was pleased to support him.”
Bissell developed the course reading list and arranged for guest lecturers.
“I was impressed that he undertook so challenging a task,” Klosko said. “The fact that he brought it to completion is doubly impressive. The qualities of drive, innovation and creativity Ben demonstrated in this endeavor are wholly unusual and indicate a future of outstanding achievement.”
Associate professor of politics Gerard Alexander said Bissell stands out, even in a crowd of the talented students that U.Va. attracts.
“If most faculty members met and talked to Ben they would assume he was a Ph.D. student,” Alexander said. “Instead, he’s one of the most advanced undergraduates I’ve ever met. He is amazingly widely read, but combines that breadth of knowledge and interests with scholar-level depth.”
Alexander praised Bissell’s ability with languages.
“He speaks French, Arabic, Hebrew and especially Russian,” Alexander said. “So he has operated not just in four languages, but in four alphabets. To top it off, Ben is one of the nicest students I’ve ever taught.”
Alexander said Bissell will make a good ambassador for U.Va. “Ben’s academic accomplishments made him a very strong candidate for a Luce Scholarship that can take him to Asia, to study in a region where demographic trends such as aging are starting to have a tremendous impact on politics, policies and daily life,” he said.
The Luce Scholars Program is a nationally competitive fellowship program, launched by the Henry Luce Foundation in 1974 to enhance the understanding of Asia among potential leaders in American society.
Bissell is the 10th Luce winner from U.Va.