Opportunity and Community: Why the Gilman is not “just a scholarship”

Hi! My name is Veronica Tuazon, and I am a 2020-21 Gilman Alumni Ambassador. I was awarded the Gilman Scholarship for the Fall 2018 semester, which I spent studying abroad in the rainforest of Madagascar. I graduated with a BS in Geology from Stony Brook University in 2019, and I was a 2020 Fulbright ETA in Malaysia.

Part 1: “Just a scholarship”

I was on my way home from another day at my internship in Washington DC when I received an email notification on my phone. “Congratulations! You have been awarded the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship,” the email began. I went on to read that within a few business days, the State Department would wire funds to my bank account to cover the costs of my study abroad program in Madagascar for the upcoming semester. After reading the email, I was mainly relieved that I didn’t have to save a portion of my internship stipend, which was already stretched thin (DC rent is no joke), to cover the program costs.

Considering that my Gilman experience has been the catalyst for most of the academic and professional opportunities that have since come my way, I now consider my initial reaction to my Gilman Scholarship a bit naïve. My understanding of Gilman at the time was more transactional; I write the application essays, they give me money, and we all move on with our lives. Through my study abroad experience and the following years after my return, I found that being a Gilman Scholar granted me access to a wealth of opportunities and an incredible community that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

Visiting the House of Representatives during my internship in DC! Little did I know how my life was about to change…

The main appeal of getting the Gilman is, of course, having the means to fund a life-changing international education experience. I know everyone says studying abroad “changed their lives,” but the cliché definitely holds true. My study abroad program in Madagascar was an incredible experiential learning opportunity. I gained hands-on experience in conservation field work, and I observed endangered animals in their (dwindling) natural habitats. I also had the invaluable opportunity to form friendships with local people working as experts in the field. Through these connections, I got to experience the rich and diverse culture of Malagasy people and learn more about community initiatives in sustainability, conservation, and public health.

Part 2: Opportunity

It’s not just studying abroad that changed my life, it was studying abroad as a Gilman Scholar. My Gilman scholarship was already opening doors to exciting opportunities before I got back to the States. Within my first month in Madagascar, I was selected for a virtual internship with the State Department through the Virtual Student Federal Service program. My new bosses at the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs explained that they selected me for the position specifically because I was a Gilman Scholar. I was excited for the opportunity to intern with the State Department, because I aspire to work as a Foreign Service Officer someday. My internship lasted the duration of my time abroad, and I created social media content highlighting achievements of U.S. International Exchange Alumni in an effort to build community. My favorite piece of content that I created was a video celebrating International Education week that featured my study abroad cohort in Madagascar.

My video for International Education Week!

I was working on my application to the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) program in Malaysia at the same time. I hear that a fair amount of Gilman Scholars go on to become Fulbrighters, and I’m not surprised! Creating a strong application for such a prestigious program can be daunting, but my previous experience applying to Gilman made me feel more confident and equipped. I found out I was selected for Fulbright the following March, and I had the incredible opportunity to teach English at a Malaysian high school. As an English Teaching Assistant, and the only foreigner at my school, I was fully immersed in the day-to-day life of a culture that was entirely different from my own. Working abroad comes with it’s challenges (language barriers, different cultural norms, etc.), but my previous experience studying abroad gave me the tools to adapt and thrive as a new member of the community. Unfortunately, my grant year in Malaysia was cut short due to the pandemic, but the friendships I made, beautiful places I visited, and delicious food I ate made the experience rich and worthwhile. I am so grateful for my time in Malaysia, and I can’t wait to go back someday.

In the classroom and posing for a picture with some of my students in Kelantan, Malaysia!

Part 3: Community

In my opinion, one of the best parts of being a Gilman Scholar is becoming part of the alumni community. Upon my return to the United States, I was amazed at how many unique events and networking opportunities were held specifically for Gilman Scholars. One of my favorite opportunities of this kind are the U.S. Future Leaders Seminars. These seminars bring Gilman Scholars from all over the country together for a weekend of panels and events pertaining to a certain topic or field of interest. I attended a U.S. Future Leaders Seminar on Energy and Natural Resources, and it was such a fun and fulfilling experience. I was flown out to the University of Wyoming for a weekend to connect with about 100 other Gilman Scholars. I was in a room full of like minded peers that also had the invaluable global perspective that comes from spending time in a different country. It was exhilarating. We bonded over our experiences abroad, discussed and debated current events, and networked with professionals in our fields of interest. We also had a lot of fun exploring the tiny college town of Laramie! I am still connected with the people I met during the seminar via social media, and it’s so inspiring to see what great things other Gilman alumni are up to.

Visiting a wind turbine farm in Wyoming with other Gilman Scholars!

The past year has been isolating for all of us, but even though in-person Gilman opportunities have disappeared for now, serving as a Gilman Alumni Ambassador has kept me connected to the community throughout the pandemic. As an Alumni Ambassador, I’ve conducted outreach at universities for potential Gilman applicants, advised students on their applications, and organized alumni networking events, all from the safety of my apartment in Texas! Finding new ways to adapt and maintain the vibrant Gilman community has given me a lot of hope for better things to come, and I can’t wait to go to my next in-person Gilman event as soon as I can!

As I explain in my outreach presentations, getting the Gilman is not “just a scholarship.” It’s not a one-time transaction to study abroad. Instead, being a Gilman Scholar means you are part of a community that invests in their members far beyond their study abroad program end date. One of the most important tenets of the Gilman Scholarship is giving back to your community once you return from studying abroad. As I continue on my professional and personal journey, I’ve found that Gilman continues to give back to me too.

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