Why It Matters

Hello! I’m Nancy Tumbarell, a senior at Michigan State University and current Gilman Alumni Ambassador. This past academic year I studied abroad at Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan as a Gilman Scholar. 

It seems to me, and it certainly was the sentiment surrounding much of my pre-study abroad conversations with friends and family, that many think studying abroad is something that only a select group can and should plan on doing. I’ve never accepted this, and I’m willing to assume most students who sought out funding from Gilman and other scholarships hold a similar view. But I understood where the idea came from, how frivolous or self-serving it can seem to go abroad when the undergrad experience for low-income students can already be riddled with financial instability. Even those who are not broke college students still have to deal with academic and extra-curricular stresses that increase the opportunity cost of being off-campus for a semester or two. However, the truth is that study abroad is not a luxury in the age we live in but rather an important part of 21st-century education. It can be affordable for low-income students who receive scholarships and grants. It can also be a resume booster for those who take advantage of extra-curricular or internship experiences abroad. And most importantly, it can teach lessons that no classroom could ever hope to. So now, months after my time in Tokyo and several global crises later, I am using my platform to tell anyone who will listen about the importance of a study abroad experience. And I hope that as fellow Gilman alumni, current or future scholars, and human beings you will too.

Day trip to Kawagoe

There are many reasons why a study abroad experience is an important part of undergraduate education. As an Alumni Ambassador, I usually start with the basics: 

  • It’s an excellent way of learning about a culture and its language! I spent about two years studying Japanese, but most of the vocabulary I use was learned during the seven months I spent speaking the language daily. 
  • The world is getting smaller, it’s important to be a citizen of the world! Diplomatic ties between countries have always been important, but cultural competence and understanding between individuals are increasingly more so as travel and the internet bring us closer. 
  • If you want to grow as a person then navigating another country is a great way to find out what you’re made of! This is true in any travel experience but as an undergrad studying abroad, you have a safety net that won’t be present if you travel solo or later in life.

However, there is so much more to a study abroad experience. Stepping out of one’s comfort zone comes with failures and rewards of differing proportions. An internship abroad can lead to a globe-spanning career or put you in a place to advise about country-specific topics because you’ve been there. It can open doors in communities and networks halfway across the world. It can make a difference in one’s academic, personal, and professional life. Everyone’s experience is unique and it’s important to know that as you prepare to depart and as you come home and giddily share your adventures. I hope that as a Gilman alumna I can inspire others to take this leap and help them to understand its importance. Not only as an important part of the undergrad experience but as the start of what they can accomplish as Gilman Scholars. 

Tokyo Tower from Shiba Park

Part of studying abroad as a Gilman Scholar is knowing that you have a community 30,000+ strong of students who have walked a very similar path. Being part of this community can provide you with support and opportunities both during your time abroad and once you’re back home. Being a Gilman Scholar is also a responsibility to take all of those experiences, that new understanding of how the world works, and use it in a meaningful way. Whether that’s immediately after through a follow-on service project, or years down the line. 

Having lived abroad as an undergrad is a unique experience. Perhaps one day it won’t be, but for the time being it’s good to acknowledge this and work on sharing its importance. Being a Gilman Scholar is even more unique in the sense that you have space and a community that will help you embark on new adventures long after you’ve come back home. So, go forth and debunk those myths! Let people know why these experiences matter to you, to us, and to them. I know I will.

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