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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