Student Spotlight: Sabine

Interviewer: Jamie Hoversen

First-Year Master’s Student at George Washington University (Washington, DC)

Sabine Topolansky is from Budapest, Hungary and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Corvinus University in 2012. Sabine was motivated to extend and deepen her knowledge in the field of international affairs, specifically relating to European and U.S. foreign policy, and came to the Fulbright EducationUSA Advising Center to learn more about master’s programs in the United States. Sabine applied to top graduate schools in International Affairs and eventually made the decision to attend the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University which is situated in the heart of America’s capital, Washington, DC. The following interview with Sabine Topolansky offers perspectives and advice on applying to and attending a graduate program in the United States.

School Profile

Founded: 1821

Location: Washington, DC (four blocks from the White House)

No. of Graduate Students: Approx. 14,000

What motivated you to apply to graduate programs in the United States?

As a dual citizen – Hungarian/American I always had the option of choosing to study and eventually work in the United States, however my final decision of applying to a graduate program was made in my second year at Corvinus University, where I spent my years as a BA student. The field of International Affairs is so broad that all students will eventually move their focus towards a region or a particular global issue. In my case this interest was Europe and U.S. Foreign Policy. I felt that the best place to broaden my knowledge and perspective would be in a graduate program either in New York or Washington DC. Additional deciding factors were: the number of future possibilities, the ability to gain relevant experience in the field, to ameliorate my English, maybe start learning a new language, and to challenge myself professionally.

What were the most important criteria for you when deciding which universities to apply to?

First, I looked at several rankings with the best 25 graduate programs in International Affairs. I looked at locations (New York and Washington DC), tuition (though I knew I was going to pay most of it from Financial Aid), available scholarships, and fellowships. After asking for feedback from my friends, family, and professors I chose three programs that I eventually applied to.

What advice can you give to Hungarian students looking to study in the United States?

I think the most important question is whether you have a good reason for choosing this particular country. When weighing options and the pros and cons of studying abroad, especially in the United States, regrettably the financial aspect becomes a large focus. Tuition is extremely high and the studying and working Visa process can be tedious. If this is your dream, you should pursue it and try everything within your reach to succeed, but initially it won’t be easy. During the application process, you should take your time and actually study for the tests (TOEFL, GRE). Learning new words every day is vital and in this case practice does make perfect. If you go through the entire test several times (taking the test exactly how you will be taking them on your test date) you will feel more confident and familiar with the exercises which can save you a huge amount of time. As for being a new student at a university, there are two things that I personally feel are extremely important. First, to accept that this is a new situation and in order to make the most of it, you have to step out of your comfort zone. Try new things, go to new places, meet new people, and don’t miss out on opportunities just because you are not sure whether you will feel comfortable or not. Second: Networking. Networking. Networking. Meet new people, talk to your professors, talk to your fellow students, colleagues, and make time for attending events.

What was it about George Washington University that convinced you it was the right choice?

The Elliott School at GWU was my first choice of the three programs I applied to. Besides the fact that I was born on the same day as George Washington that I might have taken as a sign in the end, J there were several reasons. Their programs are developing and getting more and more popular each year, along with a very active campus life. The GWU community is known to be great (students and alumni also) with various partnerships and collaborations with different institutions, agencies and organizations. The location of the school is also quite amazing, since it is in the heart of DC right next to IMF, World Bank, Red Cross and of course the State Department.

What was it like settling into a new school and culture?

First, it was really hard. Living alone in a city you barely know, far away from friends and family is never easy but it did get better each week. Besides getting to know the school and meeting fellow students, getting used to the amount of reading for each class was extremely difficult even though I was quite confident with my English. Thanks to the seminars, lectures, student events, and Thursday happy hours I was fortunate to meet new people from all around the world. Culture-wise there were small day-to-day differences to Budapest that put me into funny situations, but I haven’t experienced a culture shock so far. I do feel though that in addition to my professional advancement I also need to learn many social traditions, slang etc., in order to assimilate and to understand all aspects of different conversations (professional and casual) around me.

Are there any special programs or opportunities available to GWU students that you plan to take part in?

There are hundreds of events each month organized by GWU and I have attended quite a few so far. I went to several career discussion panels (CIA, State Department, NGO’s, etc.) and several lectures on various current issues. There was even one event I attended in October with Kathryn Bigelow (Oscar-winning director of Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker) that was extremely interesting. Unfortunately I haven’t joined any student organizations just yet, but I will definitely join in the near future. There are also concerts, social, networking and sports events, though unfortunately I can only pick a few as I have to work and study a lot week by week.

What do you plan to do after completing your masters at GWU?

I’m hoping that I will feel confident in my field as a newly graduated specialist and to be able to use all my skills productively. Naturally I also hope get a full-time job (either in the Public, Private or the Non-profit sector) that will be challenging, interesting with a fair salary.