Going global: Gilman Scholars share their study abroad experiences

Posted on April 22, 2022

That Htoo in Belgium
That Hoo ’21 in Belgium

For some students, the dream to study abroad has been years in the making. For others, studying abroad seems to be off the table for a number of reasons, from finances to academics. 

But UNC Greensboro believes every Spartan should have access to this transformative experience, and so whether you have a collection of stamps on your passport, or it’s your first time on an airplane, UNCG turns a dream of studying abroad into a reality.

From short-term or long-term programs, research internships to service learning opportunities, UNCG has a long history of sending students abroad, supported by a variety of initiatives through the International Program Center (IPC).

In fact, UNCG is No. 1 in the state and No. 16 in the nation for the number of students receiving scholarships from the Gilman Program, which funds credit-bearing study abroad and global internship programs for Pell Grant-eligible undergraduate students.

For these students, studying abroad is an invaluable experience, even when confronting barriers created by the COVID-19 pandemic, like cancellations, shifting travel requirements, and mandatory quarantine periods.

Three Gilman Scholars share their experience studying abroad in a changed world:

That Htoo ‘21, Belgium, Spring 2020

The idea of studying abroad alway piqued Htoo’s interest as an undergraduate economics major, but he never thought it could be an option for him.

“It was an idea that I always shut out from my mind, because to me, I always thought I couldn’t afford it.”

But coming to UNCG changed that, as he was introduced to the resources, scholarships, and financial aid available for students wishing to study abroad.

“The IPC does a great job of stressing to students that if you can go to UNCG, you can study abroad. They expose you to so many resources and programs that provide aid to make it accessible for everyone. They made me feel as though finances were never an issue, and that gave me a sense of relief.”

And IPC doesn’t just introduce you to those programs, Htoo says. They help you through the application process. 

“The Gilman scholarship program application was really extensive, but IPC held workshops and one-on-one meetings to help make our applications the best they could be. I went abroad because of UNCG, and it was made possible because of UNCG.”

Htoo chose Belgium because he always wanted to visit Europe, and this would give him the opportunity to live in a country where they spoke a different language. This was a culture shock when he first arrived in January of 2020, but he says the challenge made the experience that much more invaluable. He enjoyed six-to-seven weeks of classes and traveling to other European countries before having to go back home and take the rest of his classes online because of the pandemic – all with a six hour time difference. 

But to Htoo, it was still an experience of a lifetime, especially now that through the program, he can take part in workshops, seminars, and networking opportunities as a program alumnus.

“I believe that everyone should expand their educational and cultural experience, and I think when you study abroad, you’re either going to appreciate the things you learn while abroad, or you’re going to appreciate what you have back home, or both. You learn new things, you come to appreciate different cultures and perspectives, and you come out of it as a more informed, diverse person. I learned to adapt to a new culture, learn a new language, and also learn in a different way.” 

His advice to Spartans wanting to study abroad?

“It’s always possible. There are resources at UNCG to help get you there, no matter what.”

Olivia Ellis ‘21, Vietnam (virtual), Spring 2021

Olivia Ellis ‘21 became interested in studying abroad after learning about the Gilman scholarship program through an IPC workshop where she got to hear the experiences of Gilman program alumni.

But when the pandemic upended the international global studies major’s plans to study abroad in South Korea, she instead took part in IPC’s global remote internship program in the Spring of 2021, teaching ESL virtually to a classroom based in Vietnam. 

Although the pandemic disrupted her travel plans, the experience was still worthwhile. Since graduating in 2021, Ellis has received her TEFL license and used her Gilman connection to secure a conversational teaching position with a Vietnamese library, where she is currently a private preschool teacher. Ellis is also now a Gilman alumni ambassador, which has allowed her to gain leadership experience and skills, as well as push her own boundaries to open new opportunities. 

“The Gilman scholarship program has made me grow in so many ways. I definitely feel like my leadership skills have grown, I’ve learned so much about other cultures, and it’s opened up a lot of doors for me and my career. I hope that now as a Gilman alumni ambassador, I am inspiring other people to venture out in the world, have life-changing experiences, and get out of their comfort zone.”

Sha’re Elliott, South Korea, Spring 2021

Inspired by east asian fashion, the soon-to-be Consumer, Apparel, and Retail Studies graduate always knew she wanted to study abroad in South Korea. In fact, she chose UNCG specifically for its reputation of sending students abroad, its financial aid opportunities for students with a desire to study abroad, and for resources like IPC and the Lloyd International Honors College

Elliott credits UNCG for helping her connect the dots and help her fulfill her dream. Her Honors College professor encouraged her to apply to the Gilman program, and IPC supported her throughout the application process through workshops, one-on-one meetings, and by providing letters of recommendation.

“UNCG is unique to other universities by how they put the utmost effort to try and get students abroad and in scholarship programs to study abroad, and not only that, but they help you along the way from the moment you start your application to the moment you return from your time abroad.”

Elliott’s goal was to be the first CARS major to study abroad for an entire year. She was heartbroken when her initial trip to South Korea was postponed because of the pandemic, but took the opportunity to study for one semester in the Spring of 2021. 

But that didn’t come without its challenges. Between mandatory quarantine requirements and all online classes, one might think her global experience was stifled. But for Elliott, her semester abroad had a major impact on her career trajectory.

A class project from her time abroad inspired her clothing design brand name, MoDu, which translates to “everything” in Korean, and now she is graduating in May, positioned as an emerging designer with clients from New York Fashion Week. See the designs from her final project abroad come to life:

“My time in Korea really helped me solidify what I wanted to do for my career and for my brand. It inspired me to create a brand that fuses American and Asian aesthetics and trends, so that my brand can act as a bridge between American and Asia. As a mixed person myself, it feels like I’m putting my own personality into my brand – that perfect balance between Black culture and Asian culture, and showing people that you don’t have to stick to one side or the other of your identity. I want my brand to be that space for people who are mixed like me.”

Her advice for Spartans wanting to study abroad?

“Don’t let self-doubt keep you from trying – whether that’s finances, or you feel like you won’t get accepted into the program, or that you feel like you don’t have a strong enough reason to go. Any reason to study abroad is valid, and it’s important to find the right people who will help you share that desire, and IPC does a great job of that with their entire library of resources. People at UNCG want to see you succeed. I feel like everyone should study abroad at least once, and with all the resources UNCG provides, there’s not a reason not to.”

Story by Alexandra McQueen, University Communications


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