The U.S. Department of State’s Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship is a grant program that enables students of limited financial means to study or intern abroad, thereby gaining skills critical to our national security and economic prosperity. The Institute of International Education has administered the program since its inception in 2001.
Being a recipient of the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship has made me realize that I was part of a community that is dedicated to diversifying not only American students who study abroad but also diversifying the fields in which we all will enter as professionals. In this blog post, I’m going to share 10 things that I learned by being a recipient of the Gilman Scholarship.
ONE I learned to be more intentional and reflective.
All Gilman Scholars are required to complete a project to increase access to information regarding study abroad, especially for low income, minority, and/or first-generation college students. As part of my project proposal, I chose to utilize my blogging platform to showcase my experience studying abroad. While some of my posts focus on my semester specifically in South Korea, I wanted to share tips and personal experiences that other students can relate to as well, not just exchange students who study at Ewha or in Seoul. During my time in South Korea, I wrote two main reflections: one during mid-semester and one at the end of my time at Ewha. I touched on the process on how I chose the school I studied at, compared my experience at Ewha to my home institution, and appreciated the resources and opportunities that I had abroad.
TWO I learned that Gilman Scholars are a supportive community.
After receiving Gilman, I wasn’t sure how Gilman Scholars form a community. Aside from a published list of recipients each semester, it didn’t seem like there were opportunities to meet others. I was wrong. The Gilman Scholars Facebook group is super active, filled with new recipients introducing themselves, alums asking for fellowship advice, and alums planning informal dinner gatherings. While I wish the program itself organized events for us, Gilman Scholars are extremely proactive in organizing activities and meetups in a number of different cities.
THREE I learned to reach out and befriend other Gilman Scholars.
During my time in Seoul, I was able to connect with two other Gilman Scholars. Unexpectedly, one was my roommate, Darlene. (What are the chances?) Even though our personalities cannot be more different, there were moments throughout the semester when we talked late into the night about our families, our background, and current events.
Another Gilman Scholar I met with was Jacqueline, who studied at Korea University on the other side of Seoul. Although both of us wished we could have hung out and explored Korea together more, we were only able to meet once. In possibly the coldest day of November, we decided to do a day trip to Suwon, a city located an hourlong KTX train ride (or 2 hours if taking regular commuter trains) outside of Seoul. I’m pretty sure I nearly got frostbite, but at least both of us had a great time walking the Hwaseong Fortress and eating traditional Korean fried chicken! I’m so glad that the Gilman Scholarship provided me with the network and community to connect with other scholars.
FOUR I learned to write in a way for others to understand and experience my travels beyond the surface level.
I originally started Discovering Rachel as a way to document my life through my college years. I wanted to show my family in Atlanta and Hong Kong about my daily life, and the blog took on the form of a diary/journal in the beginning. Over the past year, I realized that my blog writing style has slowly evolved into a deeper form of communication. Travel blogs tell you where to go, what to eat, and what to see. College blogs tell you tips and tricks to avoid burnout and to pick the best classes. That’s NOT my intention with this blog. I want readers to be able to relate their emotional journey with mine. I wanted to tell my readers the emotions I felt when I saw North Korea with my own eyes, experienced prejudice firsthand, felt homesick with my other friends, and successfully ordered food in Korean for the first time. And while many study abroad blog stop after the student returns, I wanted to write about the struggle of readjusting back to the US. I want to convey meaning, gratitude, struggle, and awe in the words I write. I know my blog writing improved from a year ago, and I hope the quality of my blog posts increased as well.
FIVE I learned to diversify my experiences throughout the semester.
I knew I only had 4 months in South Korea, so making the most out of my free time became my challenge. I would schedule free and inexpensive things to do at least several times a week, going to new neighborhoods after classes end to make sure that I leave with NO REGRETS once the semester ends. If you take a look at the results of my bucket list, I think we can both agree that I checked off nearly everything on it. I visited the tallest building in Korea (Seoul Sky), ate delicious Korean street food, went to the DMZ, and much, much more. I even reconnected with a classmate from seventh grade (see left)!
SIX I learned to convey my identity to others.
Maybe it’s because I have been in the US for a long time, but I find it weird that the majority of non-Americans tend to think that every American is Caucasian (people don’t migrate and then turn white. lol). After all, many of us are part of immigrant communities from all over the world. Essentially, if you don’t live in the US, chances are that there are Americans who have origins from your country. I have gotten the “where are you from” questions abroad (less in the US actually, maybe because I’m privileged enough to speak English without an accent), and people give me a confused look when I tell them I’m from the US. As I mentioned in a previous post, I have told people “저는 미국 사람입니다 (I am an American)” and have gotten the “where are you really from” question as well. For me, it’s not a big deal because PERSONALLY (so in my case), I actually am from elsewhere. Nonetheless, I hope the constant association of my outer appearance (and any other non-Caucasian physique) and the word American can become more frequent and accepted abroad.
SEVEN I learned to engage in conversations about the US with others.
On multiple occasions, I was asked questions about US politics and current events. Maybe this is surprising to Americans because we seem to view other countries as “dangerous” but other Korean students questioned the safety of the US.
“They have guns there. Can people carry guns everywhere? Is it safe?”
“I saw videos of white people screaming at Asians. Will I experience racism there?”
“What’s it like with Trump as president? How did he get elected?
“I’m going to visit California in a month. Should I cancel my trip?”
Through these conversations, I was able to explain US history and current events. I discussed the complexities of the 2016 presidential elections. I talked about the videos posted online of people screaming at minorities in public spaces (see the most recent event here). Most importantly, I explained about the polarization and divide that exists in the United States today. Using conversation, I wanted to explain the multifacetedness of the US on an everyday basis and not just what is being represented at the top level and through social media.
EIGHT I learned to be okay with being alone and independent.
Touching on something more light, I learned that navigating a foreign city by myself is okay (as long as I have cell reception and a map app). I’ll admit that taking the Seoul subway system by myself for the first time is slightly terrifying. I don’t like to look like a tourist walking in circles holding a giant map. I want to blend in and look like I know what I’m doing so I’m not targeted as a tourist on vacation. Korea is very big on group culture, and people seem to rarely do things alone (unless they’re commuting to work). It felt strange doing things alone. I went to the Seoul immigration office alone several times (we needed ID cards because we’re on student visas), studied at cafes alone, and ate out by myself a couple times as well. In all honesty, I still don’t think I would be completely comfortable being alone in Korea because of the language barrier. However, I do believe that I was able to be a bit more independent by the end of the semester compared to the beginning.
NINE I learned that the Gilman community goes beyond the study abroad experience.
Aside from just befriending others to hang out, I learned a whole lot about the lives of other Gilman Scholars. I mentioned my roommate, Darlene, earlier in this blog post. In October 2017, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico when Darlene’s family (along with 2 other Puerto Rican exchange students at Ewha) was heavily affected. Their family homes were destroyed, and the entire island lost power for months (and parts of Puerto Rico are still without power to this day). I remember when another student lost contact with her family for nearly a month, not knowing whether her family survived. Despite being the most destructive and devastating disaster to hit Puerto Rico, the government provided little aid and the recovery efforts waned in the following weeks. Being Darlene’s roommate allowed me to understand the impact of natural disasters and recovery efforts on a more personal level; I learned about the resilience of Puerto Ricans and their fight in recognition of their identity as part of the United States.
TEN I learned about other Department of State fellowships and opportunities that are available through receiving the Gilman scholarship.
If you have previously read my post on studying abroad and choosing career paths, you would have learned that my current interests lie in foreign service. In short, foreign service officers are government employees who are stationed around the world at embassies and consulates to maintain positive relations through public diplomacy, cultural exchange, and provide consular needs to expats. Without the Gilman Scholarship and its connection with the Department of State, I would have never discovered foreign service as a career option. Being a first gen college student, I didn’t (and probably still don’t) fully understand the immense scope and the wide range of careers available. After reading about fellowships that the Department of State also sponsor for students to enter the field, I realized that it’s possible for me to pursue a career in foreign service.
If you’re interested in applying for the Gilman scholarship, visit https://www.gilmanscholarship.org/.
Please note that you must be a US citizen, a Pell Grant recipient, AND studying at an accredited higher education institution in the US to be eligible.