The whole world comes to FIU, where students represent 140 countries and every state in the union. And increasingly, many Panthers see FIU as a launching pad for their adventures abroad – and the university is helping them get there.
An unprecedented number of students and new alumni have worked in recent years with the Office of Prestigious Scholar Development to secure scholarships for travel and study to enhance their knowledge, broaden their perspectives and get a leg up on careers.
This past year, that assistance translated into more than $100,000 in funding from the U.S. State Department alone, confirms Ashley Kuntz, a clinical assistant professor of higher education who also directs the office. She sent students on their way with government-funded Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarships, Fulbright awards and Critical Language Scholarships. “I could not be prouder of them,” she says.
Gilman International Scholarships
Mariah Rodriguez is a double major in biology and natural and applied sciences and currently studies in South Korea with support from Gilman. She fell in love with Asian culture at an early age, gravitating to Japanese anime and K-pop. Years later, she learned that FIU runs a study abroad program in South Korea and knew she had to go. But covering costs would be an issue.
“I got a job to pay for it,” she explains of the first step to meeting her financial need. Then she heard about the Gilman and applied. “I had been praying about it, hoping I would get the scholarship,” she recalls. “I found out I got it while I was driving home from work one day. I called my mom. I was crying. I’m really grateful.”
To encourage other FIU students to pursue their study abroad goals, Rodriguez is creating social media content about her trip and building awareness of the scholarship, which is awarded to some 1,500 U.S. students annually.
Sofia Flores is a psychology and behavioral neuroscience major with a passion for service. The Gilman supported her travel to and living in Southwest India to participate in community health projects. There she joined fellow Panthers at a public research institute to conduct a study around the status of victims of sexual assault.
Flores toured existing health centers in the region and, with knowledge gleaned from those visits, assisted in setting up a new one devoted to caring for patients with cervical cancer. In addition to contributing to something with lasting value for others, she says the experience helped prepare her for graduate school and, she believes, will make her a well-rounded professional down the road.
“I think it will help me have more openness to different types of cultures and people,” says Flores, an Honors College student who has interned and worked as a research assistant on campus. “I think it will help me in the future with patients and clients,” she adds of her plans to work with children as a clinical psychologist.
FIU students are increasingly landing Fulbright scholarship, considered one of the most prestigious international educational exchange programs in the United States. The grants cover up to 11 months of expenses abroad so that university students and recent graduates – professors and other professionals have similar opportunities through another branch of the program – can engage in research, teaching and related activities that deepen individuals’ skills and strengthen ties with people in other countries.
“It is indeed an honor for me to represent not just the United States but FIU,” says graduate student Susana Fuertes, who in a few weeks will be the first Panther to go on a Fulbright to the Middle East. In Bahrain, she will study that country’s small-medium enterprise (SME) model, a program for helping would-be entrepreneurs get up and running and one that has been adopted by more than 40 other countries seeking to strengthen startups and boost local economies. She will conduct interviews and observe a process that includes training, coaching, incubation and financing so that she might bring back valuable information.
A small business owner herself, Fuertes runs an online floral boutique and has a special interest in helping women grow independent enterprises, which will be the focus on her work. As part of her Fulbright obligations, she will prepare two reports, one mid-year and one at the conclusion of her project, that should make their way as far as the U.S. Department of Commerce, she says.
Upon her return, she will share what she has learned with the South Florida community through organizations such as The Entrepreneur Center at the Urban League of Broward County and the Florida Women's Business Center. And she has plans to serve as a pro bono consultant to refugee women in South Florida with an interest in starting their own companies.
Dylan Brown ’21 will head to Senec, a small town in southwestern Slovakia, a country with which she fell in love while studying there as high schooler on a youth exchange program. She will serve with a minority-rights organization that assists the Roma population.
Brown is a certified teacher of English as a foreign language and has spent the past nine months as an instructor both online and in person in India. Now, she says, the financial support of the Fulbright award will make it possible to fully immerse herself in work that dovetails with her interest in humanitarian issues. “It’s exhilarating,” she says of the freedom afforded by the scholarship. “I'm not really going to have to worry about much except for the impact that I can bring.”
Brown adds the time in Slovakia will set her up for what she hopes will be a rewarding position upon returning home. One of the benefits of a Fulbright award, she explains, is first access to select job postings within the U.S. government, and she looks forward to finding employment that pairs with her specific skills and experience. Ultimately, she would like to work one day with some of the expected 1.2 billion people predicted to be displaced by 2050 due to climate change and natural disasters.
Critical Language Scholarship
Two FIU students are currently studying abroad on the Critical Language Scholarship, awarded to only 10% of applicants. The goal: increase proficiency in select foreign languages (among them Persian, Russian, Swahili and Urdu) and the cultural competency of Americans who can go on to contribute to U.S. economic competitiveness and national security.
Senior international relations major Joahquín Menéndez hopes to work in the Foreign Service or some other government position after graduation. He is spending two months in Indonesia, where he takes two courses at the State University of Malang with other American scholarship recipients and has access to the campus library and badminton courts and well as invitations to concerts and other cultural activities, courtesy of the State Department.
He lives in the home of local people and has fully embraced the intensive immersion. “Every day we go to class, we eat traditional foods with the host family, talk to them, learn daily life here and build connections,” he explains.
“I would highly recommend it,” he says of the experience, “but at the same time it does take a certain type of person. We are not in five-star hotels. You’re not going to have a hot water shower, and it’s not going to be a normal toilet. It’s a whole different world from the West in general.”
And late sleepers need not apply.
“Every day at five in the morning, there's the Muslim call to prayer,” Menéndez explains. “My host family is Muslim, so they do get up. They're not going to force you to get up, but you will hear [the public call] all across the city, five times a day.”
Despite living in conditions that many South Floridians would consider near-impossible, Menéndez wouldn’t trade a moment of it, he says. “It’s really a way to learn culture far from a book.”
Kuntz, as director of the Office of Prestigious Scholar Development, encourages students of all major and backgrounds to consider applying for an overseas opportunity. She and her team will help with the process as needed and can be reached via email at email@example.com.
Applications for the Fulbright U.S. Student Scholarships are currently open with an FIU deadline of September 1. Applications will open in mid-August for the Gilman Scholarship with a deadline of October 5. Check the website for additional international scholarship information.