The second envelope

For political science professor Michael McFaul, getting admitted to Stanford was only the first step.

Political Science Professor Michael McFaul sits at a table smiling
Michael McFaul, once a scholarship recipient himself, considers financial aid essential to the university’s dynamism.

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Long before he’d become U.S. ambassador to Russia, before he had joined President Obama’s National Security Council at the White House, before becoming a prominent NBC News analyst and columnist for the Washington Post, a young Michael McFaul was working as a dishwasher in a restaurant kitchen in Bozeman, Montana. He was a high school senior and his world was about to change forever.

The oldest of five siblings, he’d grown up in the rugged mining town of Butte, Montana—“kind of a rough-and-tumble place,” he says. When his father, a country-western musician, took a regular gig at the Ramada Inn over in Bozeman in his junior year, McFaul’s interests changed towards more academic and political matters. Elected student body president at his high school, he got his first taste of foreign affairs in debate class, arguing for a recalibration of U.S.-Soviet trade policy. (Inexplicably, the White House failed to take the teenager up on his ideas. Thirty years later, McFaul actually implemented them as a White House official.) 

The move from Butte to Bozeman widened McFaul’s college ambitions. Instead of just hoping to attend Montana State, McFaul now picked up applications from out-of-state schools in the fall quarter of his senior year. That was when he first learned that Stanford was located in California and not in the east with the other Ivy League schools.

But money was tight in the family. That’s why McFaul had taken a full-time job washing dishes at a nearby restaurant even while attending high school. That’s where he was the day his father walked into the kitchen, a thick envelope in his hands. It was marked “Stanford.”

What should have been a moment of elation for McFaul quickly fizzled.

“I had this incredibly deflating conversation with my parents,” he recalls. “They said, ‘There’s no way we can afford to send you there.’”

But then, a few days later, a second letter arrived.

“I remember the financial aid number vividly to this day: My parental contribution for the 1981–82 academic year was $400. I paid that myself,” he says.

Along with a Pell Grant and student loans, McFaul had enough to get to the Farm.

By 1986, he had completed two degrees at Stanford with honors and distinction: a bachelor’s in international relations and Slavic languages and a master’s in Soviet and East European studies. He also won a Rhodes Scholarship, which allowed him to complete a PhD—a DPhil, as it’s called in the U.K.—at Oxford University.

In the late ’80s, he took his first role at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC)—the university’s hub for researchers addressing some of the world’s most pressing security and international cooperation problems. Since then, he’s held many roles at Stanford and beyond, from the National Security Council to his ambassadorship to Russia under the Obama administration.

None of this, McFaul says, could have happened without the scholarship he received as a high school senior.

Let’s be honest.
If not for financial aid, there would’ve been no kid from Montana at Stanford whose dad was a country-western musician playing in Ramada Inn bars.”
Michael McFaul, Stanford political science professor

Today he is the Endowed Director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies—Stanford’s hub for nonpartisan, interdisciplinary research, teaching, and policy impact in international affairs—as well as the Ken Olivier & Angela Nomellini Professor of International Studies and the Peter and Helen Bing Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

As a Stanford professor, McFaul considers financial aid essential to the university’s dynamism.

“I have lived this incredibly privileged life of interacting with people from Ukraine this morning and from South Africa yesterday, about as international as you can get as an American,” he says. “And yet this campus is the most diverse place I ever lived and most people will ever live. Certainly as a teacher, I love that.”

He also sees opportunities for the university to do more.

If you want students to make the world a better place
through public service, you have to start with the cost of their education, especially for those who need it most.”
Michael McFaul, ’86
Michael McFaul sits at a desk chatting with student Andrii Torchylo

McFaul serves as an advisor and mentor to many undergraduates, including Andrii Torchylo, ’25. Like nearly half of all students, Torchylo relies on financial aid in order to attend Stanford.

“Without question, you can’t burden students with tons of debt and then expect them to go work for an NGO when big tech’s willing to pay them five times as much,” he says, adding that this is especially true with first-generation and low-income students—and even more so for international students.

“They’re under a lot of pressure to make money,” he says.

As an advisor and mentor to many undergraduates, McFaul recognizes the expectations shouldered by his first-generation and low-income advisees.

“I was one of those kids. I mean, my mom’s instructions to me were clear: ‘You’re going to law school, and you’re going to get a real job.’ When I stumbled into academia, she was like, “Oh, my God. You’re going to be a teacher?’” he laughs. “I’m joking, but only half.”

McFaul sees financial aid as a direct means of bringing more student leaders into government and the nonprofit sector.

“If you want students to make the world a better place through public service, you have to start with the cost of their education, especially for those who need it most,” he says.

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