Empowering dreams in the spirit of Gilman

Written by Kristina Kaizer, USAC Nagasaki ’22

As many people embark on the journey of studying abroad, they find themselves immersed in a tapestry of experiences that not only enrich their lives but shape their perspectives. Inspired and empowered by the Gilman Scholarship, I want to promote the transformative power of education, cultural immersion, and giving back to communities through volunteering while studying abroad.

For me, a person who lived in small towns most of her life, the world seems like a limitless place. For as long as I can remember, I would always say that I was going to study abroad. However, in each passing year, this dream seemed to become more and more unachievable, especially with worries about finances. How can an immigrant who is already struggling financially be able to afford study abroad?

Fortunately for me, scholarships served as the catalyst for opening a myriad of doors to educational opportunities that had become completely unattainable to finance in my eyes. Receiving the Gilman Scholarship was more than just a financial aid. This unforgettable scholarship encouraged me to break down barriers and explore academic frontiers beyond my comfort zones, such as participating in academic discussions with students from diverse cultural backgrounds while navigating cultural sensitivity. I got to study the environment in a language other than what I am used to, which was an incredibly challenging barrier.

Now, after finishing my University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC) program, I reflect fondly on other alumni stories of academic triumphs, challenges faced, and personal growth and hope that I, too, can inspire others to pursue their educational aspirations fearlessly.

Although I have gone through the struggle of adapting to a different country’s academic system before, I believe these are feats are not an easy endeavor. Experiencing things such as cultural shock, language barriers, and adjusting to societal norms demands a great deal of resilience, it also fosters personal growth and relationships with people of diverse backgrounds. You walk away creating an international network.

Studying in Japan was extremely challenging and thus, rewarding. Taking classes with Japanese students was like a leap into the unknown. By embracing diverse perspectives in the classroom and utilizing the full support systems — financial and informational — from the Gilman Scholarship, I was able to embrace the situation and immerse into my study abroad experience. And, as a result, I developed a heightened globally conscious perspective.

As I embraced the rewards of a new country, it has fueled my passion for pursuit of my own academic aspirations. My goal was to learn the Japanese language, absorb the culture, and experience daily life in a foreign country. With that, the lessons that I have learned went beyond textbooks and classrooms. Moments like figuring out kanji on the bus to learning how to form deep connections with locals shaped my perspective and fueled my commitment to the ideals of global education. 

As Japan is so culturally different from the U.S., it became a real test of how quickly I can adapt to an unfamiliar environment. I remember my friend and I would count how many mistakes we made during the day. It was a lot in the beginning. I mispronounced many words that people and couldn’t understand me. I made wrong orders at the restaurant, got on the wrong bus, pressed the wrong buttons on the toilet, and so many other things. Although I would get disappointed in myself and sad about my situation, in the end, these misadventures turned into life lessons. Many of those moments turned into profound and meaningful for me that defined my time abroad.

All in all, though I have accrued many benefits from my time in Japan, the most profound moments that amplified the impact of my study abroad experience happened through volunteering. It not only allowed me to witness the impact of other volunteers’ and my actions, but also take theoretical concepts learned in the classroom into the real-world situations.

I believe that giving back to the community is an integral part of a well-rounded international experience. During my studies, I actively sought out projects ranging from working with kindergarteners to senior citizens. My most treasured memory was picking up oranges with Japanese seniors who wanted to practice their English skills. I remember the kind, yet amused, twinkle in the eyes of some of the older Japanese women watching me put so many oranges into my backpack.

Those glances found a home in my memories for weeks. This experience lives freely in my mind because the orange garden looked like it was taken straight from my all-time favorite Ghibli movie, with the rustic Japanese ryokan houses, lush green rice fields, and quiet narrow streets. It is a picture of the beauty and uniqueness of Japan that I will never forget. It motivates me to encourage others to experience such a unique country.

As a culmination of my education, cultural immersion, and volunteering while studying abroad, I uncovered a new community in my life. The Gilman Scholarship was like a guiding force that helped me realize my potential to cross both academic and cultural borders. Therefore, I hope that as alumni before me who passed forward the torch of global education, I can do the same. I wish to see more Gilman Scholarship recipients persevere and become storytellers of their own unique academic and personal growth.

I believe that together with the global mission of the Gilman Scholarship to promote diversity and inclusion in international education, it is completely possible and well worth it to contribute to a more interconnected world.