WASHINGTON, D.C. – When the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship program began in 2001, 302 students took advantage of the opportunity the program provided to study in other parts of the world.
Since then, some 10,000 Gilman scholars have gone through the program to visit 125 countries on five continents, gaining invaluable experiences they never could have gotten had they not left their respective comfort zones on campus, much less the United States.
The program’s 10-year milestone – and its broad growth in diversity – were celebrated Thursday at Union Station in an auspicious gathering that featured U.S. State Department officials, university presidents and dozens of Gilman International Scholarship alumni who’ve gone on to launch careers in a variety of fields – from nursing to engineering – with a more global perspective.
“You’re dynamic, you’re diverse, you’re energetic and you’re ambitious American youth,” Assistant Secretary Johnnie Carson, who leads the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, told former Gilman scholars during a gathering in the Columbus Club at Union Station.
“Diversity has been a cornerstone and a pillar of the Gilman scholarship program,” Carson said.
He noted that, last year, more than 60 percent of Gilman scholars hailed from ethnic minority groups – a percentage that has grown since the inception of the program.
“The Gilman program goes beyond ethnic diversity,” Carson said. “The program is actually diverse in multiple ways.”
“Gilman scholars pursue different academic interests, travel to different destinations around the world, come from different cities and states and very different communities in those cities and states, and represent every different type of academic institutions,” Carson said. “All of these things represent the broad and important diversity of the United States.”
Indeed, among the alumni from the program, it was easy to find Gilman scholars whose backgrounds and areas of study served as prime examples of the ways in which the interests of American college students continue to change.
Consider the story of Violeta Rosales, 23.
A Latin American studies major who attended DePaul University, Rosales decided to focus on Arabic language and culture and used her Gilman scholarship to study at American University in Cairo.
“People ask me, why am I studying Arabic,” said Rosales, who is of Guatemalan descent and was born and raised in Texas. “I just think that it’s an important language for me because I grew up around friends who were speaking the language. It became a personal interest of mine to learn about the cultural similarities between the Arabic-speaking world and my own culture.”
Rosales – who first visited Cairo as a Gilman scholar during her junior year in 2009 – got a chance to connect with the Arabic-speaking world in a dramatic and intimate way when she returned to Egypt, this time as a Fulbright Scholar, and found herself in Tahrir Square in Cairo – the focal point of the Egyptian revolution in January 2011.
Due to her skin tone and looks, Rosales was able to blend into Egyptian society in ways that White Americans could not, she contended.
“I was able to converse with mothers, in half English and half Arabic,” Rosales recalled. “My American friends weren’t able to do that. There was a lot of xenophobia. (Egyptians) would think Israelis were coming in and causing turmoil. It was a very delicate situation.”
Rosales now works as an intern content writer with HablaGuate, a website that focuses on Guatemalan issues.
The Gilman International Scholarship program is funded by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. State Department and administered by the Institute of International Education. The congressionally funded program is the brainchild of former U.S. Representative Benjamin Gilman, R-N.Y. It provides scholarships of up to $5,000 for students to study abroad.
Allan E. Goodman, president and CEO of the Institute of International Education, said the program enhances the educational experience of American students, opens up the world to those who might not be able to travel, and gives people in other countries the opportunity to interact with Americans from diverse backgrounds.
It also helps students who go on to work at firms that require world travel and engagement of people from other countries.
“At our institute, we think that international experiences should be part of everyone’s education,” Goodman said. “And I think everybody should have that dream, no matter who their parents are, where they’ve lived, how much money they have or don’t have. If they make it to college, we have an obligation to make sure you have an experience that gets you a passport and lets you go someplace different from where you’re from.”