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Mar 5, 2014

Maximized potential

Boren Scholarship winner Justen Silva develops the skill to make critical assessments in crisis situations

By Rosemary Girard

JMU intelligence analysis major Justen Silva

At JMU, Intelligence Analysis majors learn concepts and methods to analyze complex situations in the real world. Whether they are determining potential outcomes in Syria or focusing on national security issues, intelligence analysts are trained to make critical assessments with little time to prepare and with a great deal at stake.

But buckling under pressure isn't a problem for Justen Silva, a junior Intelligence Analysis major and Modern Foreign Languages minor. As one of JMU's top-tier students, Silva is a Second Century Scholar, a Boren Scholarship winner, a club soccer player, a fitness manager at the University Recreation Center, and a go-to student for undergraduate research projects in his field.

Academic challenges

The Boren Scholarship is a national-level award given to undergraduate students for traveling to underrepresented study abroad countries and who are advancing their skills in languages that are less commonly taught in the U.S. After competing against hundreds of applicants, Silva was recognized for his outstanding credentials and was awarded a scholarship to study in Jordan during the summer of 2013, where he advanced five levels in his Arabic proficiency.

'[We pledged] to speak in Arabic 24/7... by the end of the program, I was able to communicate with my teachers, my peers, and the locals on many different topics.'

"We had to sign a language pledge saying that we'd only speak in Arabic 24/7," Silva explained. "For the first two weeks, it was difficult and frustrating. I had a lot of thoughts that I couldn't express. But by the end of the program, I was able to communicate with my teachers, my peers, and the locals on many different topics."

What's remarkable, though, is that Silva only began his Arabic training at JMU recently, where he started the new language from scratch. Still, his Arabic language skills have improved at such a rapid pace since then that he is now able to help other JMU students who are less experienced.

For Silva, studying abroad in Jordan was not simply an exciting semester overseas--it was a peek into his life after graduation, where his interest in the Middle East might dictate the course of his career; it was a chance to experience the cultural context that is so vital to thorough intelligence analysis; and it solidified his work ethic and view of education. "I saw kids in Jordan who were yearning for education--kids who had become fluent in English on their own by watching American television," Silva explained. "I thought, 'Why can't we learn their language too?'"

JMU intelligence analysis major Justen Silva

Conference collaboration

Now that he's back at JMU, Silva continues to up the ante on his academic rigor as he works hand-in-hand with professors and fellow students on complex projects. In March, Silva will be presenting research at the Five Eyes Analytic Training Conference, an international conference representing the alliance of intelligence agencies between the U.S., the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.

'A partner and I are working on Middle Eastern-based terrorism and the large spread of that we're seeing into Africa...[gaining] insight as to how it will progress by 2030.'

"A partner and I are working on Middle Eastern-based terrorism and the large spread of that we're seeing into Africa," Silva explained. "We're observing trends and providing some insight as to how it will progress by 2030."

Simultaneously, Silva is working closely with JMU professor Dr. Tim Walton, a former CIA analyst who was responsible for much of the intelligence during the Bosnian conflict. Recently, the CIA declassified about 300 of the documents, which will be available for examination during JMU's "War to Peace" conference held in March. For future analysts like Silva, this opportunity provides a chance to evaluate intelligence efforts with the advantage of hindsight.

Amid his schoolwork, scholarship applications, research projects, fitness management position at UREC, and club soccer practices, motivation is paramount. For Silva, it involves a healthy balance of doing work and enjoying himself. "I'm constantly thinking about my future and what I want to do," he said. "You just have to be willing to put in some Friday and Saturday nights at the library. It's worth the sacrifice."

It comes from a selfless mindset as well. Describing his inspiration, Justen Silva explained simply, "I'm in an ideal situation, so I don't have an excuse. I have to do the most with my potential. I'm just trying to keep up with everyone else here at JMU."

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