My name is Alexander Elias Azar, and I am a Gilman Alumni Ambassador. I was an exchange bachelor’s student at KU Leuven in Belgium during my service trip. I studied political science and assorted historical topics during my studies.
The town of Leuven is an excellent place to learn and live in Europe. It has been a center of learning since the time of the Holy Roman Empire to the European Union today. I cycled through idyllic forests nestled in between castles and modern amenities. One plaza I found particularly surprising was called Herbert Hooverplein. Why is one of the busiest parts of the town named after the 31st President of the United States? The story behind Hoover’s crucial relationship with the Belgian people shook me to my core and made me reflect on the reason why I became a Gilman Scholar in the first place.
Herbert Hoover and his wife, Lou traveled extensively during their early life. Herbert Hoover was a mining engineer and traveled to Australia and China on expeditions. He was a natural entrepreneur and earned a fortune mining while gaining an appreciation for global perspectives. Lou Hoover became fluent in eight languages! The Hoover families’ experience living with people around the world prepared them for responding to the humanitarian crisis in Europe during World War One.
Belgium was devastated during WW1 and faced widespread starvation. The ongoing battles left many civilians without stable food supplies. In 1914, Herbert Hoover was tasked with repatriating hundreds of thousands of Americans stranded in Europe. Afterward, Hoover became the leader of the Commission for Relief in Belgium which was an NGO dedicated to stopping the famine. The CRB raised millions of dollars in aid without government intervention. The organization was able to help 10 million Europeans escape starvation during the War, especially in Belgium.
Herbert Hoover’s extraordinary humanitarian efforts exemplify the mission of the Gilman Scholarship. Congressman Benjamin A. Gilman said that Americans studying abroad is important because it helps them become contributors to the world, rather than spectators. I learned about my place in the global community by living together with a diverse group of people. I listened and asked questions to people about their backgrounds and how they shaped their perspective on the world. People have different types of lifestyles but we all embrace the universal goals of acceptance and kindness.
Being a Gilman Scholar is building bridges between your community and the country you live in. As someone who studied American history since childhood, I was amazed I learned about a part of our own history across the Atlantic Ocean! It demonstrates how every human is living in the same storybook, and the best chapters are written together. My Gilman experience has broadened my horizons, and I feel prepared to engage with people of different backgrounds and identities.
It’s been an amazing couple of months being an Alumni Ambassador for the Gilman Scholarship and seeing that a new year is about to start, I felt it was appropriate to reflect on what has been accomplished thus far. The Gilman Scholarship funded my study abroad trip to Surabaya, Indonesia in the summer of 2019.
The fascinating place that is the Gilman Scholar network has provided scholars the opportunity to connect and share with alumni all around the world. It has been an interesting experience doing all of my outreach through Zoom meetings and other online meeting platforms. I knew I wanted to dedicate my time and efforts to the study abroad office at Miami Dade College since they helped me out tremendously when I was applying for the Gilman Scholarship. I worked with dedicated individuals at the international office who all did an amazing job setting up Gilman Info sessions for me to lead. They even hosted two successful virtual study abroad fairs which I had the privilege of attending. I made myself as available as possible and even participated in panels and think tanks for the Honors College at MDC where I graduated from in 2019. Gabriela Esteves, who is the director of the Global Student Programs, recently notified that five MDC students were awarded the Gilman Scholarship to study abroad in the summer of 2021. This was such great news for Gabriela and me, and now we are setting a meeting in January to meet up with our five Gilman Scholars and for me to offer my mentorship. I hope to see students studying abroad to Surabaya, Indonesia with Dr. Lenaghan and taking advantage of the amazing opportunities that come after returning home.
It has given students more accessibility to be able to log into a meeting from home so that they can learn more about the Gilman Scholarship and study abroad programs. I am grateful to be a part of such a strong Gilman Alumni community even through a pandemic. The Gilman Scholarship has such an active and strong presence on social media which makes it easy to share information about deadlines and upcoming activities. It is even more amazing to see Gilman alumni taking initiative and creating groups in the Gilman Scholar Network, doing podcasts and virtual networking hours. All the Gilman Alumni Ambassadors this year have been so helpful whenever anyone has a question. I always look forward to our meetings every month and hearing about all the wonderful outreach that is happening all over the country. It motivates me to keep reaching out to host more Gilman Info sessions and connect with future Gilman Scholars. The best part of being a member of the Gilman Alumni community is having a lifelong network of friends with different disciplines and similar interests. As someone who hopes to do a Fulbright sometime during my career, I love being able to reach out to Gilman Scholars who also did a Fulbright. This goes for anything such as job searching, grad school applications, and scholarship applications. I hope the year 2021 provides us with many more opportunities to connect near and far.
“My greatest advice for aspiring and current Gilman Scholars is to define what makes you a Gilman scholar and how this scholarship helps you achieve your greatest aspirations.”
Hello! My name is Quincy Yangh and I am a 2020-2021 Gilman Alumni Ambassador from the Twin Cities, Minnesota, and a senior at Gustavus Adolphus College majoring in Geography and Political Science with an academic focus on Climate Change and Environmental Justice. Additionally, I am a Doris Duke Conservation Research Fellow at the University of Washington, Seattle and a Midwest Organizing Fellow for Power Shift Network, a national climate justice organization. I was awarded a Gilman Scholarship in the fall of 2019, where I studied abroad in Kathmandu, Nepal and interned at iProbono, an international humanitarian NGO in Delhi, India.
Whenever I think about my Gilman journey in Nepal and India, I’m inundated with nostalgia. I miss seeing the Himalayas on a clear day and the warm smiles reflected in the eyes of strangers, the smell of fresh street food, and connecting with new people through conversations about place, identity, resilience, and belonging. What I miss most is the person I was while abroad–a novice academic, delighted guest, part-time English teacher, and U.S. cultural ambassador. To say I am humbled and grateful for these experiences as a Gilman scholar would be an understatement.
As a first-generation and low-income college student, being enrolled as a full-time undergraduate student at a private institution in itself felt like an immense privilege–the thought of study abroad felt even more daunting and distant. Truth is, undergraduate students of color, especially first-generation and low-income students are amongst the least likely to study or intern abroad. This is largely due to financial obstacles and the historic lack of sufficient study abroad resources. Although better than in the past, this reality remains true. For me, it was precisely this reality that revealed the crucial nature of my participation in studying abroad. A study abroad experience enables me to broaden my academic and professional horizons while also signifying the importance of U.S. representation abroad. I owe it to the Gilman Scholarship Program for making my study abroad aspiration possible.
What compelled me to the country of Nepal was its rich history of migration and the Himalayas. As an aspiring academic interested in the intersection of global migration and climate change, Nepal was the ideal location. I specifically enrolled as a student under the School for International Training (SIT), an intensive and immersive field-based research program. As part of the curriculum, we had a two-week fieldwork/research excursion to Tsum Valley, a sacred Himalayan pilgrimage valley located in northern Gorkha, Nepal. My research focused on storytelling, specifically how storytelling is used as a medium to document climate change and traditional ecological knowledge in Tsum Valley. During this two-week period, I had the pleasure of having local co-researchers who helped me navigate the landscape and communicate with locals. Collectively, my co-researchers and I spent hours documenting stories through interviews, analyzed results with each other, and engaged in meaningful cross-cultural dialogue. This academic experience affirmed the importance of community-based research, especially when tackling climate change and finding solutions. Furthermore, it instilled in me a sense of confidence and curiosity that I did not have before. Now that I am back in the U.S., I find myself being more critical of academic research and asking more questions on ethics in my classes. This new sense of purpose I found in academia as a Gilman scholar ultimately landed me an Academic Assistant position in my department.
While abroad as a Gilman scholar, I also had the great privilege of interning at iProbono, an international humanitarian nonprofit organization dedicated to secure equal access to justice and opportunity for underrepresented communities. Isabelle Onians, the Academic Director of my program, and SIT’s one-month Independent Study Period made this opportunity possible for me. As a full-time intern, I researched relevant humanitarian issues in South Asia for numerous pro bono lawyers and provided input on existing programs. This legal experience reinforced my desire to attend law school, specifically for international policy and environmental law. In the distant future, I aspire to work at the intersection of law, policy, and research. My Gilman experience enabled me to get a foot in this career. For this reason, I am grateful.
Moving forward, I’ve applied for numerous post-undergrad fellowships–one being a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Grant to Taiwan. In this capacity, I intend to be an effective English teacher, U.S. cultural ambassador, and an active community member. I am compelled to the intellectual and mental rigor of this grant as well as its emphasis on the importance of community engagement. I have strong faith that a Fulbright grant will sharpen my communication and leadership skills tremendously, making me a stronger candidate for higher education. Most importantly, I firmly believe that this opportunity (like Gilman) will prepare me for a lifetime of service devoted to cultivating meaningful relationships between world leaders, communities, and countries.
In many ways, I found the Fulbright application and mission similar to the Gilman Scholarship Program. Both invest in promising U.S. cultural ambassadors and leaders as well as the importance of public/community service. The Fulbright application was not at all easy. However, I felt much more confident going into it given my experience with the Gilman Scholarship application. Gilman not only sharpened my writing skills but also provided me with a unique study abroad, community engagement, and U.S. cultural ambassadorship experience that showcases my preparedness in pursuing a Fulbright Grant. Although the outcome of my Fulbright application remains a mystery, it is evident that my Gilman application and experience equipped me with the fundamental skills and expertise necessary for a future in international service.
With all said, my greatest advice for aspiring and current Gilman Scholars is to define what makes you a Gilman scholar and how this scholarship helps you achieve your greatest aspirations.
Thank you for reading, Quincy, 2020-2021 Gilman Alumni Ambassador
Hey there! My name is Jeydelyn Martinez and I’m a proud first generation, low-income graduate from Marquette University who was awarded the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship in 2015 to study in Madrid, Spain. This 2020-2021 school year, I work in a TRiO program and I am serving as one of the Gilman Scholarship’s Alumni Ambassadors.
Whenever someone asks me what I’ve been up to since graduation, they seem intrigued when I tell them I’ve taught ESL in multiple cities and countries in the past four years, while traveling the world. When they dig deeper and ask me what motivated me to embark on that journey my answer is unchanging and it begins with “I was awarded the Gilman scholarship back in 2015…” Being a Gilman scholar is something I say with such pride because I know firsthand the impact it has. It is so much more than a scholarship. It’s a springboard for a lifetime of opportunities.
Not only did it enable me to study abroad, it empowered me to believe in myself and know that I was worthy of incredible international opportunities. Following graduation I returned to Spain to serve as a Language and Cultural Ambassador in three different cities and public schools. I also applied for the Fulbright ETA in Argentina. Although I didn’t receive the Fulbright, I don’t think I would have felt empowered to apply had it not been for my Gilman experience and moving through its application process. Fast-forward to March 2020, with the pandemic unfolding, my work as an ESL Kindergarten teacher in Shenzhen was suspended and I had little choice but to return home early. I felt lost and coming back stateside after several years away was jarring, to say the least. I thought my time abroad had come unfairly and swiftly to an end. I started thinking a lot about the community I had formed throughout the years and wondered which community I could seek out that could provide support. The Gilman community quickly came to mind and I reestablished my connection with it through the Gilman Scholar Network. Some weeks later, I saw a post on the network promoting a professional development webinar titled “Now what? Setting and adjusting your goals after unexpected change.”
How’s that for timing?
Now as a Gilman Alumni Ambassador, I make it a point in my virtual presentations to share my story and urge prospective applicants to know they are worthy of international opportunities and to not let self-doubt hinder them. It’s been very rewarding and comforting to be an active member of this unique community again. I hope I can continue to empower prospective students to apply as well as encourage Gilman scholars to reconnect.
The Gilman Scholarship Program is seeking ways to engage in conversation around current issues. The U.S. Department of State and Institute of International Education’s Gilman Program team interviewed three 2020-2021 Gilman Alumni Ambassadors about the ways that their experiences abroad shaped their outlook and subsequent actions toward social justice. This interview article contributes to the Gilman Alumni and Scholar community of 33,000+ people, especially in current times where conversations around equity and justice are timely and relevant due to current global circumstances.
Please introduce yourself. When and where did you go abroad as a Gilman Scholar?
Alexander: My name is Alexander Azar. I am from Lincoln, Rhode Island, and studied at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Last Spring 2019, I traveled to Leuven, Belgium, where I studied at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. View Alexander’s Alumni Ambassador profile.
Veronica: Hi! My name is Veronica Tuazon, and I graduated from Stony Brook University in 2019 with a Bachelor’s of Science in Geology. I went to Madagascar as a Gilman Scholar for the Fall Semester of my senior year. View Veronica’s Alumni Ambassador profile.
Katherine: My name is Katherine Cabrera and I studied abroad in Surabaya, Indonesia, last summer in 2019. View Katherine’s Alumni Ambassador profile.
How did your experience abroad impact your understanding of diversity or of being a U.S. citizen?
Alexander: My semester in Belgium was the first time I lived outside of America with people from all six continents. It was wonderful to meet people from different locations because overall they were all generous and kind people. We were all excited to explore a new place as most people were exchange students. One day we all had a global potluck where we cooked plates from our cultures. Some brought tapas or goulash while I ordered McDonalds! I learned that no matter where you are from, empathy, kindness, and patience are universal traits that will make you friends anywhere.
Veronica: In the United States, I identify as a Person of Color (POC). However, as a non-black POC in East Africa, people in Madagascar saw me as White. They would refer to me as a “vazaha” which is the local term for a white foreigner. It was my first time experiencing “whiteness” and the privileges that come along with being a light-skinned foreigner. Everywhere I went, I was met with curious stares, people asking to touch my hair, and receiving special treatment, just because I was visibly foreign. This experience made me address my own intersections and privileges as an American. Though I am a POC, I am light-skinned and mixed race, which means I can benefit from white privilege, especially in a global setting. Though I have faced discrimination as a POC in the United States, I will never be subjected to anti-blackness that exists in my home country and permeates throughout the world.
Katherine: My professor, Dr. Lenaghan, took us on field trips here in the Miami area that deepened my understanding of diversity, not knowing that my city was as diverse as it is. We explored a Buddhist organization, attended a Sikh ceremony, and visited Hindu temples. All of this happened before my program abroad, and once we landed in Indonesia, I was able to really appreciate how diverse the world really is. While in Indonesia, I experienced all religious ceremonies, from Christianity to Hinduism. I learned so much about different religions and their different expressions around the world.
Did you have reservations about traveling abroad?
Alexander: I was very excited to study abroad and while nervous about having no prior experience, I was committed 100% to making the trip successful. My opportunity to study abroad gave me a chance to do something completely out of my comfort zone while building important skills to prepare for independent life and a professional career. Living on my own for the first time was a revelation, I learned that I had so much more resiliency and ingenuity than I realized. I also gained skills in finding reliable friends that could help in a pinch and becoming a part of a greater community in my adopted town.
Veronica: I traveled abroad before my Gilman, so I didn’t have many reservations. My semester in Madagascar was the kickoff of my year-long experience in East Africa, which was the longest time I had ever lived abroad. Though being far from home for that long was daunting at times, I’m so glad that I did it.
Katherine: The only thing that comes to mind was the language barrier. I was worried about how we would communicate with the locals in Indonesia, but I learned that for a lot of the locals, a simple smile went a long way. We had translators and interpreters with us, but I believe a lot of stuff got lost in translation. I remember still treating everyone with respect and thanking them for everything they did for my group that traveled together. We met so many people all across Indonesia and I still remember their smiles and happiness seeing us there with them.
In what ways do you feel your Gilman experience changed your outlook and actions toward current issues?
Alexander: Belgium has a shared history with New England being maritime trading empires on the Atlantic Ocean. As such, there is a very tragic history of slave labor. New England profited from selling trade goods produced by slaves while Belgium exploited the Congo in Leopold’s reign of terror in the early 20th century. Both cultures are now struggling to accept responsibility for a legacy that much of their wealth came from the inhumane treatment of impoverished peoples across the world. The good news is that Belgium and New England can work together to reconcile their role in the Triangle Slave Trade and build a new social contract that recognizes the vital role Africans played in the prosperity of Western civilization.
Veronica: Madagascar is one of the world’s poorest countries. Living in Madagascar as a citizen of one of the world’s richest countries made me realize the various inequities in our global society, and it helped me develop gratitude for all of the privileges and resources that I have access to as an American Citizen. My Gilman experience changed how I view poverty and environmental issues, and I believe that one of the most important things that we can do as Americans is be conscious of our over-consumption, as it directly and negatively effects the lives and environments of people in countries that are less well-off than our own. Even though Madagascar is “poor” and America is “rich”, Madagascar showed me a richness in culture and community that I had never seen in my home country. Due to this, my outlook and actions toward social justice to shifted from only focusing on my individual actions to prioritizing the needs of my community as a whole.
Katherine: I definitely saw how people appreciate what they have, even when it’s the bare minimum. We visited a Kampong also known as a small village, very hidden in the streets of Surabaya. It was an experience I will never forget. Some will say they are living in poverty, however to them, in their small community, they make do with what they have. I was surprised at the end of our tour that they had an amazing meal for us. We traveled during Ramadan, yet they insisted we serve ourselves first and eat before them. This selfless act would rarely be seen here in the United States. It reminded me to take back this attitude to the Sstates. The way we treat people should not be based on their socioeconomic status. There is so much work to be done with our low income and homeless communities around the world. There is no reason to judge an individual or treat them any less for a mishappen that can happen to anyone. For example, a person can become homeless for not being able to pay off medical debt. I see no reason to not be able to provide housing and other necessities for those who had a misfortune happen to them. In Indonesia, I saw the respect everyone had for everything around them, animate and inanimate included. I believe their beliefs are way above ours for treating others and it is something we should be modeling as well.
How are you a different person today as a result of your Gilman experience?
Alexander: I cannot understate how much my Gilman Experience has positively impacted my life. I was very insecure as a person and was not growing staying at home doing the same thing every day. Crossing the ocean to write my own story gave me the confidence to live on my own. I made friends who taught me a great deal of the places they were raised. Traveling across Europe was another important milestone as I got to see in person how others people’s daily lives were like. Also, the local food was pretty great too!
Veronica: My Gilman experience brought so many incredible people in my life. I now have teachers, mentors, and friends from all over the world thanks to this experience. Though my time abroad is over, the connections and friendships that I made during that time enrich my life to this day.
Katherine: My experience as a Gilman Scholar has widened my scope towards everything. I experienced what my world looks like for someone on the other side of the globe. It really shocked me to see how Indonesia looks towards the U.S for cultural influences. I remember being in the “American Corner” of the library at Airlangga University and thinking to myself, why don’t we have Indonesia corners back home or this amount of respect for any other country? This really deepened my understanding of wanting to travel the world and talk to people about their assumptions of Americans. Traveling and studying in Indonesia really helped me decide that I wanted my career to be established in another country/countries. I love being able to promote study abroad as a Gilman Scholar and Alumni Ambassador because it really changes a person’s insights on the world. You really get to compare behaviors, beliefs, and expectations. It was so beautiful being able to be a scholar in another country, learning a new language, and meeting people who have the same beliefs as me living in another country. I loved being able to have intellectual conversations with the locals in Indonesia and never feeling nervous about sharing or disagreeing opinions.
What advice do you have for the Gilman Alumni & Scholar Community in understanding and engaging in current issues?
Alexander: I think that the American Atlantic coast has a shared history and heritage with other Atlantic countries. This is an important building block to address shared responsibility for the transatlantic slave trade and the negative consequences of it that pervade our society to this day. We can work together with our neighbors to create global recognition to uplift those discriminated against for the color of their skin.
Veronica: We all are so fortunate to have international experience, which is a privilege in its own right. Draw upon your global perspective to understand social justice issues in a wider context. Use your experience interacting with people abroad to empathize with those who are different from you.
Katherine: Understanding that there is this strong belief that the United States places itself in a whole other category above other countries. As Americans, we need to recognize this toxic belief that has been taught to us since we were young. I no longer have this sense of knowing I live in one of the most “wealthy” and “developed” countries. There is no right for us to believe that other countries are still developing when in reality, there is no comparison. In the eyes of Americans, everyone wants to be us, everyone wants to come into this country, where we, unfortunately, are not treated everyone equally or fairly. This goes for all immigrants across the globe, not knowing any better. To really understand diversity and social justice, having those difficult conversations is a must. Recognizing that not all countries are below us, and on the contrary, some countries out there are doing better things for their citizens and the United States needs to take notes. I am always open to learning more about other governments, religions, beliefs, etc. In order to really understand the injustices around the world, it’s important to do a reflection on what is happening right in our backyards. 2020 has been eye-opening for a lot of people, including myself. I see the injustices happening every day, whether it be in healthcare where someone cannot afford their treatment, to African Americans not feeling safe in their own homes in the “most developed” country in the world.