New knowledge + more self-awareness = ?

Hi everyone! My name is Rachel Wong and I’m a 2019 graduate of Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. I majored in International Studies with minors in Geography and Asian Studies. As a Gilman Scholar, I studied abroad in Seoul, South Korea in Fall 2017 at Ewha Womans University. Following my college graduation, I served as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Taiwan for an academic year. For 2020-2021, I am serving as one of the Gilman Scholarship’s Alumni Ambassadors. 

Alumni Ambassador Rachel Wong with fellow Gilman Scholar (photo by Rachel Wong)

Studying abroad in Seoul changed me in ways that I didn’t expect. I expected to gain knowledge of Korean history and politics, make new friends, and immerse myself in a new culture. I expected to get culture shock and miss the familiarities of home. I didn’t expect to become more conscious of my identity, and I definitely didn’t expect to stumble upon a career interest.

Inside the classroom

Coming from a small liberal arts college, I was suddenly offered a plethora of course offerings on every subject imaginable at one of the largest women’s higher education institutions in the world, Ewha Womans University. I have always wanted to take courses on East Asia; as a result, I purposefully took courses that highlighted Korean history and East Asian geopolitics at Ewha. 

Throughout the semester, I read about Korea under Japanese occupation and, later, martial law, the chaebol influence on the Korean economy, and the collective clout that the Four Asian Tigers had in Asia. Looking back, I am so grateful for the opportunity to learn from Korean scholars, reading articles, and literature by East Asian academics. The coursework exposed me to knowledge that I might not have encountered back at my home institution. Little did I know then that my academic interests would shape my professional interests as well. 

A closer look inward

Besides understanding Korea and East Asia better academically, I also understood my own identity and personality better outside the classroom. Moving to Korea for 4.5 months for a direct enrollment program and not knowing anyone was extremely daunting. I had to step outside my comfort zone and be independent. This was difficult for me; I don’t like to stand out as a tourist, so I did extra research whenever I navigated the Seoul Metro system alone. I memorized subway lines and remembered directions before every trip. Eventually, I got to a point where I felt confident enough to go places without the additional prep time. So, I met up with another Gilman Scholar in Seoul for a short day trip outside of Seoul. Later, I even joined a group tour to the DMZ, where I was able to see North Korea with my own eyes across the Panmunjom. 

DMZ South Korea (photo by Rachel Wong)

In addition to being comfortable with independence, I constantly tried to interact with people that hold different opinions. My home institution can sometimes act as an echo chamber, and being at Ewha exposed me to other students who don’t necessarily share the same values or views as I do. Through different interactions, I learned to listen to others and communicate my opinions in an effective manner. Genuine dialogue doesn’t happen when both parties disagree and argue; it happens when both parties are open-minded and respected.  

New knowledge + more self-awareness =? 

I remember leaving Korea with a newfound understanding of myself and my new skills. I also remember leaving Korea with a sense of confusion. I’ve gained all this new insight, now what? For the majority of my college years, I struggled with finding my career interests. I jumped from considering academia to consulting to economics before even setting foot on Ewha’s campus as a junior. In the middle of my transcontinental flight, I realized that my interest in East Asia, my immigrant background, and my belief in global citizenship all points to a potential career in international affairs. 

I know for a fact that international experiences are more valuable than what it appears to offer on the surface. An opportunity to travel is an opportunity to learn about lifestyles different from my own. An opportunity to study in a different institution is an opportunity to learn from local scholars and experts. While I originally thought receiving the Gilman Scholarship was my goal for studying abroad, it turns out that the Gilman was only my first stepping stone in reaching my full potential professionally.

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Emily in the land of Oz

Hello! My name is Emily Sprecher and I’m studying abroad as an exchange student in Australia this semester. At home I major in civil engineering at the University of Maine in the United States, and am continuing my studies here at Deakin University in the state of Victoria! I’ve been in Australia less than a week now, but it’s been one of the most eventful weeks of my life. 

It took about 24 hours in total of flying (excluding layovers) to reach Melbourne, Australia from Maine. Leading up to my departure I felt both nervous and excited, and saying goodbye to my family knowing I won’t see them again for four months was very difficult. I’m a planner by nature and was very on top of my preparatory to-do lists prior to leaving. This helped put my mind at ease and allowed me to focus on mentally adapting to the change. When I left home there was snow on the ground and it was -15°F/-26°C outside, and when I touched down in Melbourne it was 75°F/24°C and sunny. Unfortunately, my luggage was not as lucky as I was and missed my final flight connection. So here I was, overseas for the first time and without as much as a change of clothes to begin this once in a lifetime adventure. I did my best to brush off any anxiety induced by the mishap and surprised myself by how positive I could adapt to the unexpected circumstances. On the ride to my host university I began absorbing this new world around me: Trees and birds I’ve never seen before, vehicles driving on the left side of the road, buildings built into hillsides and farm after farm for miles between Melbourne and Deakin. The plants and animals are curiously different than those at home, but there are so many similarities that I often forget I’m so far away. The small differences—especially the way locals talk—are what remind me of my distance from home. I think the similarities are what have reduced the culture shock I’ve experienced so far, finding myself excited to be in a new place and meeting new people but also frustrated when I seek something specific from home. 

I’m thankful for the international programs offered by my host university that have definitely helped me during this transition. My third, fourth and fifth days in Australia were spent on a welcome trip to the town of Warrnambool with over one hundred other international students from three different Deakin campuses. While there I learned to surf, play footy (AFL) and lawn bowl! On the way back we visited a park where I saw my first wallaby (finally) and many koalas and emus in their natural habitat. We also had the wonderful opportunity to speak with an aboriginal man that taught us the proper way to throw a boomerang. 

The journey so far has been unforgettable and I’m excited to see what comes next!

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An Insight into Kyrgyz Cuisine

Kyrgyzstan’s cuisine is nothing short of different. I’m not saying this as an insult, in fact, quite the opposite. Part of what I was expecting when studying abroad was to experience a completely different culture. On my first day in Kyrgyzstan, I went to a little café which was popular among American ex-pats, where I had a sandwich and pumpkin soup. Nothing too extraordinary. However, my next meal was a little more of what I was expecting when I wanted to experience different food. I tried two traditional Kyrgyz foods called plov and borsook. Plov is a rice dish with potatoes, carrots, onions, and special seasoning fried in oil while borsook are little balls of fried dough traditionally served with sour cream. Plov and borsook are made to serve large amounts of people. While plov is commonly eaten as a normal meal, borsook is usually saved for special occasions like New Year celebrations and weddings. What makes plov so special to me is that each family makes it differently, depending on what spices they prefer and even what kind of carrot they prefer. It quickly became my favorite food in Kyrgyzstan. Though in the United States, plov isn’t a popular food, it wasn’t an extraordinary concept to me, so I was quite happy to try it. On the other hand, dishes with horse meat are foods I never expected to eat. Several times, my host family served me beshbarmak with horse meat. Beshbarmak is Kyrgyzstan’s national dish, which means “five fingers” in nearly every Turkic language, like Kyrgyz because traditionally it is meant to be eaten with your hands. Consisting of noodles, boiled meat, and root vegetables, beshbarmak is also easy, fast, and serves plenty. The horse meat variety has a different flavor, which isn’t revolting, but for me, it was an acquired taste.

In the States, for many, meals are not special. You just eat and get on with your day. In contrast, whatever a Kyrgyz family is eating, whether it is plov, beshbarmak, or soup, meals are incredibly important to them. It is a time when you can relax, spend time with family, laugh, and enjoy delicious food. For most families, meals are enjoyed with a cup of tea and a round loaf of bread called lepyoshka. With the presence of tea and lepyoshka at most meals, they become almost ritualistic. For Kyrgyz people, food is meant to be ENJOYED, not just something that merely provides you with necessary nutrition. When I was in Bishkek, I learned to use mealtimes as periods of reflection and peace away from school and the online world. I hope when I return to the United States, I can show people the magic of enjoying meals from a Kyrgyz family’s perspective, whether through their unique dishes or from their perspective on food in general.

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If COVID-19 Threatens Your Study Abroad Plans

Greetings, world travelers! If you’re reading this, there’s a high chance that you are either a Gilman Scholarship recipient or hope to be one. You want to travel. You have a deep curiosity about the world, and you’ve probably been told “no” in various ways already. No money for studying abroad, no resources, no way to fit it into your academic schedule. You’ve heard all the reasons that you can’t do it, but you’re far more interested in how you can. That’s why you’re here, researching, consulting, writing, and sending in applications along with your hopes.

If you’re like I was, you’re more than ready. This could be the pinnacle of your college experience; this could be your chance to interact in a culture or language that’s new to you. This is where you step outside of the classroom and into the wide world! It’s a challenge you’ve dreamed of – and you should. It’s exhilarating to think about, and will be even more exhilarating to experience. You might have sent in your applications to your study abroad program of choice, you might have already been accepted – and then COVID-19 happened.

International travel bans went into effect, and even domestic travel was discouraged. Then college and university classes started moving online, and study abroad programs began to be canceled. Many students have had to return to their home countries earlier than expected, while others have had their plans impeded before their Spring or Summer program was set to begin. Your intrepid spirit has been confined in the wake of COVID-19, and while we understand why these measures are being taken, it still hurts to be dealt yet another “no.”

I understand this frustration intimately. Like many of you, I had my hopes dashed too many times en route to finally reach that pinnacle of my own college experience. You see, before I became a Gilman scholar and Pickering Fellow, I was a rejected non-recipient. I’d like to take a few moments to share how my hopes of studying abroad were crushed before I achieved more than I dared to hope for.

The first study abroad program I ever applied for is called the “Monbukagakusho” scholarship. Administered by the government of Japan, this fully-funded program seemed like my only chance to study abroad. After all, I had a full-time job to be at and my rent wasn’t going to pay itself if I quit seeing the world. The application process was beyond tedious; self-photographs of specific measurements (in centimeters) had to be glued to paper application packets along with a medical evaluation form that had required multiple blood tests, to be handed in or mailed to my local Consulate General of Japan.

I hung all my hopes on getting it, which seemed destined when I received word from the Japan Consulate General of Seattle that I passed the first round and should come to the Consulate General for an in-person interview and assessment. When the big day arrived, I was clean-shaven and suited up. It was a serious affair; three bilingual interviewers came to quiz and question me in English and Japanese. I fumbled through the interview and written skills assessment. Being the only one there that day was encouraging at least – there was no one to compete against! I was hopeful.

About a week later another letter arrived notifying me that I was a semifinalist! Only one step remained between me and my dream; the final selection of Monbukagakusho scholarship recipients to be made based on application materials and embassy/consulate recommendations. I had already made it to the semifinalist stage, and with no one else from the Pacific Northwest competing for that particular scholarship, I felt confident I would receive it! Then the next letter arrived.

“You have not been selected” it read. I was crushed. Life went back to normal for me: go to work, go to class, study, go to bed, repeat. The bell had tolled, the judgment had come – my one chance to study in Japan had been missed and I was to slog on without it. But something happened to me within my dejection. As I was scrubbing toilets and wiping desks at 5 AM with my failure ringing in my ears; I got mad at the circumstances given to me. And I pulled out all the stops. This was MY dream and no one was going to take it from me that easily.

I applied for every study abroad scholarship I could find. The people at my university’s scholarship and awards office came to know me on a first-name basis. I had draft after draft critiqued, revised, and critiqued again. And you know what happened next – I found success! But it’s never that simple. I can put CLS recipient, Gilman Alumni Ambassador, or Pickering Fellow in my resume, but no one asks about what scholarships I didn’t get. And there are several!

Monbukagakusho, Freeman Asia scholarship, FLAS (Foreign Language Acquisition Scholarship), JASSO (Japan Student Services Organization), and Fulbright – I was rejected for all of these!

With the current coronavirus situation, my goal to study abroad again as a grad student is in serious jeopardy. I planned, and still plan, to go to Taiwan in the Fall. Will I be able to? I don’t know. If not, you can believe that I will try my best to make it happen next Spring. I won’t settle for less just because it’s what I’ve been handed for now.

I encourage you to do the same. It may be that your study abroad program has been canceled, or you simply can’t go to it due to travel restrictions, or that you had to return early already. But this is not the end. Yes, this is a time for everyone to travel as little as possible. But it might also be your time to get even more mad and motivated. We will survive the coronavirus, but that alone is not enough. Bring your dreams with you through this and show the world – show yourself – that while you might be delayed, you will not be deterred.

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First Impressions of Bishkek

Hello everyone! I’m Angie Bowen. I am a political science student at Minnesota State University Moorhead. I love learning about foreign affairs, U.S. politics, and above all, American law. I am going to go to law school next fall and am studying abroad because I want to live in another country before it becomes too implausible later on in life. I chose to study in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan because I wanted to learn Russian and found a program that goes through a U.S. university.

Before I boarded the plane to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, I didn’t feel the butterflies I had been expecting. Nothing seemed different. I went to school, worked, and played with my cat. The only that stood out until I left for the airport was that there was a very full suitcase sitting in the middle of my living room. I’m not sure why I didn’t feel nervous. Maybe it’s because I am a compartmentalizer, able to stuff away uncomfortable feelings, maybe it’s because I was just ready to go. Maybe it was because I have been preparing for this for over a year and so I have had plenty of time to come to terms with what studying abroad entails. I also made sure to set my expectations low. By this, I don’t mean that I was expecting to be miserable, just that I didn’t expect my adventure to be magical, or completely wonderful all the time. I knew it would be incredibly difficult and demoralizing at times. What do you expect when you choose to study abroad in a country whose culture and language are completely different from that of the United States? Aside from my mental preparation, I also made sure everything was in order. From the contents of my suitcase and carry on to the paperwork I needed to leave my family, I quadruple checked my affairs were in order, and then I checked again. Daily. Also, I made sure to work out as often as my schedule allowed. Not only would this put me in good shape to fly and live in a new city, but it also helped me cope with the fact that I was going to study abroad. It built up my physical endurance and it strengthened my will and mental toughness.

When I first arrived in my host country, I was, for some reason, taken aback by the amount of Russian they spoke, if not just because I have only heard English being the predominately spoken language. Now that I have lived in Kyrgyzstan for over a month, I am used to it. The people I have to interact with are accommodating to my lack of Russian speaking skills and can communicate with me in other ways. I was at first embarrassed and down about them. Now, I don’t get down about it, I just use those feelings to drive myself to continue to learn Russian. People don’t get mad at you because you don’t know their language; they enjoy your butchered attempts to use the right cases and vocabulary and are overall proud that someone wants to learn their language and live in their city. The language is the biggest difference that took me back right away. The rest were little things, like how the sidewalks are not cared for and that driving etiquette is different. You get used to that stuff quickly. If you don’t, you are just making yourself more miserable than you need to be.

Though there are differences in how Kyrgyz people and Americans live their lives, there are also similarities, which outweigh the differences. The people here, just like in the U.S. want to provide the best lives they can for their children. They value family and friends and are unhappy with politics, just like Americans. Kyrgyz people wake up in the morning, make breakfast, go to work and school, and talk about their day at the dinner table. My host mom is a grandmother, and I am reminded of my grandmother. Now that I have lived here for over a month, I don’t notice the differences, only the ways we are similar.

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