Opening global doors

Scholarships provide access to international education

by Nate Hoekstra and Michele Coffill

Like many students, Holly Miller gained a sense of independence following her study abroad program at East China Normal University in Shanghai.

This was especially important for Miller, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of 4. When she attended East Kentwood High School, Miller began immersing herself in Chinese culture and language after her family hosted an exchange student. Traveling to China had been a lifetime goal.

She earned a Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship that helped fund her faculty-led trip in 2016. While there, Miller completed a thesis that focused on how China diagnoses autism and its education policies. Miller graduated in April with a bachelor’s degree in Chinese studies.

“As an individual with autism, it is harder for me to communicate my wants and needs with others, as my social skills are lacking,” Miller said. “After that trip, I became more aware of how people treat me, how others view me and how the world sees me.”

woman in courtyard

Amber Sackett

Gilman Impacts

The Gilman program is one example of providing access to international education to students who might not be able to afford to study abroad. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, scholarships are awarded to eligible students who are receiving federal Pell Grants.

Elizabeth Lambert, director of the Office of Fellowships, said the highly competitive program helps diversify the students who study and serve internships abroad, while working to expand the regions where they work and study. Gilman Scholars receive up to $5,000 to apply toward their study abroad or internship program costs.

woman standing in China skyscape

Holly Miller

Administered by the Institute of International Education, the program provides recipients with opportunities to gain a better understanding of other cultures, countries, languages and economies, making them better prepared to assume leadership roles within government and the private sector.

Being a Gilman Scholar doesn’t end at the completion of the study abroad program, as recipients are required to give presentations after their experiences. Lambert said several Grand Valley students are making an impact in West Michigan through their presentations related to refugee resettlement and English language instruction.

Amber Sackett, who is majoring in French with minors in Arabic and Middle East Studies, focused her project on discussing access to higher education with students at the West Michigan Refugee Education and Cultural Center in Kentwood.

Her presentation on studying abroad and higher education was so well-received, leaders at the center asked her to come back monthly to give it to other students. “I am thrilled to do this as a follow-up project because I think it really helps demystify college and make the prospect of going to a college or university much more approachable,” Sackett said. “I was able to make this wonderful connection with the refugee center in large part because of my experience through the Gilman program.

“After that trip, I became more aware of how people treat me, how others view me and how the world sees me.” — Holly Miller

Miller’s Gilman project was a campus presentation centered on increasing the numbers of students with autism who participate in study abroad programs. Miller had been a frequent presenter on autism and autism advocacy and called “Conquering China: Autism Style” one of her favorites.

“I was really happy I could talk about my study abroad trip as an autistic individual,” she said.

Current scholar

One Gilman scholarship recipient is making Grand Valley history as the first student to study abroad in the central Asian nation of Tajikistan.

Cameron Saghaeipour, who is a political science major from West Bloomfield, studied Farsi in the American Councils Program in Dushanbe.

Saghaeipour received a Gilman scholarship to help fund his study abroad program, and also received a Critical Need Language Award. In another first, he is the first Grand Valley student to receive a Fulbright-Hays Group Project Abroad Grant, which is intended to also further his study of Farsi.

The American Councils Program is specifically designed to offer U.S. students the opportunity to study Persian in an immersion environment. Students experience intensive classroom instruction while living with Tajik families and engaging in a wide range of carefully structured programs designed to maximize their exposure to the host country culture and language.

The program is based at the American Councils Language Center in downtown Dushanbe, where participants have the opportunity to study with faculty members from Iran, Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

headshot: Cameron Saghaeipour

Cameron Saghaeipour

After Gilman

Miller has returned to China and is a graduate student at East China Normal, majoring in political theory with a focus on educational policy.

Miller said she’s learned a lot about China and its people, and also more about herself.

“Before coming to China, I was more shy and not as confident in a lot of things such as academics, establishing relationships with new friends, and gaining more independence through my own travels,” she said. “I’m a lot more confident in different areas of my life.”


Providing access to international education

The following scholarships are examples of funding available to first-generation or underrepresented students who want to study abroad.

Mark and Elizabeth Murray Scholarship: Established by former President Mark Murray and his wife, Elizabeth, the scholarship provides funding for an eight-week program to students who otherwise might not be able to afford to participate in international education.

Global Programs Fund: A new fund that is similar to the Murray scholarship but for students who want to study abroad for less than eight weeks. Alissa Lane, outreach coordinator for PIC, said some students find it’s too difficult to leave a job for an extended trip.

Passport Scholarship: For the past two years, a collaborative effort among campus departments has given qualified students a first step to studying abroad: a scholarship to pay for a passport. The passport program is sponsored by the Padnos International Center, TRIO Student Support Services and the Oliver Wilson Freshman Academy.

Kambriana Gates (pictured) traveled to South Africa with the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program. Gates is a nursing major who has a minor in African/African American studies.

Learn more about funding opportunities here.

woman holding passport



Page last modified November 16, 2017