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 S
states. 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.