From as far back as I can remember, I had always dreamed of one day becoming a veterinarian. I began my undergraduate career as a veterinary science major, confident that I was exactly where I was meant to be and that after four years, I would be applying to all of my dream veterinary schools, as long as I stayed on track and followed the advice of my mentors. With this ambitious goal in mind serving as a catalyst for all of the decisions I had made in the past and planned to make in the future, I had never imagined that the most valuable piece of advice that I have received to this day would come from my chemistry professor.
Adopted from South Korea into a Caucasian family at a young age, I was raised in a relatively homogeneous environment, where the majority of my mindset was focused on what lay ahead, rather than what was left behind. My first year of college had, by all means, exposed me to the social, racial, academic, and economic diversities that exist beyond the stable community I had grown accustomed to, and I found myself intrigued by not only my own adoption, but the politics, culture, and economy of South Korea that has contributed to the country’s experiences with inter-country adoption, child welfare, and human rights policies as a whole. Stepping out of my comfort zone and becoming an active member in the Asian-American campus community by the beginning of my second semester, I no longer felt as though my initial goals were as certain as they once were, and by the conclusion of my third semester I had followed my chemistry professor’s advice to “Do what makes your heart sing,” and pursued my interests in political science and international education.
Under the Gilman Scholarship, I had the opportunity to return to South Korea for the first time. Although the purpose of my intern abroad program was to serve as an English language teacher to elementary and middle-school students in the Jeollanam-do province, it also allowed me to become the student as well, where I learned more about the language, culture, and my own passions through my colleagues and students. Being from smaller, more rural cities, the idea of someone Korean in appearance but fluent primarily in English language and American culture was foreign to the majority of my native co-teachers and students. Although we occasionally found difficulties communicating through our respective languages, it was culture that brought us together. Where I couldn’t express myself in words, history, art, music, and cuisine filled the gaps. My time abroad heightened both my curiosity towards and connection to South Korea, and my ability to teach my students and coworkers conversational English and American culture through innovative means like cooking, sports, and arts expanded my interest in education and upon my return home, I began to explore options through which I would be able to promote cross-cultural awareness and access to education in my own community.
Upon beginning my undergraduate career, I never would have imagined that I would be where I am today: pursuing my masters in public administration (with a focus in education policy) and traveling the country and working with students from all countries, ages, and stages of life to promote higher education. So, for those of you that are considering the Gilman Scholarship, as well as those that are wondering whether studying abroad is ‘right’ for you, I encourage you to take a step back and really think about it and reflect on it. Studying abroad, no matter where or for how long, is an experience that will remain with you for the rest of your life. Additionally, the Gilman Scholarship is more than just a scholarship; it is a means of sharing your experiences abroad and making a difference in an environment/community that is meaningful to you through your follow-on service project, as well as a community of scholars and recipients: past, present, and future.
As cliche as it sounds, approach traveling and being abroad with an open mind, because it may have a greater impact on your experiences, perceptions, and aspirations than you can even imagine.