After the first term of my senior year in college ended, I asked myself, "What is it that I want to do before I graduate?"
It was a bit of a rhetorical question for me, since I knew there was one thing I promised myself to do the year before: study abroad. I wanted to experience something new, something different that enclosed classrooms and powerpoint lectures could not offer. After doing some research on the study programs offered at my school, I was convinced to study abroad in Japan. I grew up reading and watching manga and anime and learning about about the culture in which these popular media came from would be a dream.
Growing up in the US, I never had the experience of traveling overseas. I would be the first to study abroad in my family, but I wasn't too concerned about that. What I was really worried about was the costs.
How was I going to finance my studies?
I remembered a conversation I had with my mother over the phone: "Mom, I'm planning to study abroad in Japan," I said.
My Mom paused for a few seconds, and then said, "Okay, but how do you plan to pay for the trip?"
"I don't know yet, but don't worry, Mom. I will find some way to pay for it. You won't have to take anything out of your pockets."
It was a promise. A BIG promise. Money had always been a problem for my family. After many years of working in the US, my parents still can't seem to pull away from external financial support. We lived quite frugally, and money always seemed to determine how we lived our lives.
I remembered my little brother wanting desperately to go abroad the year before but decided against it because he didn't want him and our family to carry the financial burden. I appreciate my brother for his selflessness.
However, I had spent most of my life letting money control my decisions too. Don't order expensive meals; don't buy new clothes; don't travel; find the cheapest apartment possible...
No. I refused to have money have a say in this. Money is not going to tell me what I can or cannot do. Not anymore.
I was working part-time already, but needed more money for my international studies. So I actively began researching scholarships online for the first time. There, I found two scholarships for which I qualified: the Summer Study Abroad Program Scholarship at my home college and the Gilman Scholarship Program. Both required that I write an essay explaining how my study abroad program would affect my "academic, professional, and personal goals" and another essay on how I plan to promote international education (and for the Gilman Scholarship, promote the Gilman Scholarship Program itself).
So in preparation for my scholarship applications, I raced around campus for weeks attending summer abroad program information sessions to learn more about the programs and instructors; a "How to write a scholarship essay" workshop to learn tips on how to write a winning essay; a Financial Aid workshop to find out how much grant would cover my costs; and a session with my counselor to make sure I would graduate on time if I studied abroad over the summer.
The Saturday before both scholarship applications were due (both were due the same day), I just remembered I had to submit a scan of my transcript for the Gilman Scholarship. I went online to find the quickest time for my physical transcript to be sent to me from my school. There were only two options: 1) 5-7 business days and 2) 2-3 business days with an extra $20 fee. Gulp. The application was due on Tuesday. And there was only 2 business days left. That was just cutting it close. TOO close.
Hoping and praying that the transcript would make it in time, I clicked the second option.
That Tuesday, my schedule was completely packed: go to class; leave half-way into my class; meet with a writing specialists at my school's Student Academic Success Center; have him look over my scholarship essays; go to the computer lab; edit my essays; turn in my Summer Study Abroad and Scholarship application at my college campus; and go home to turn in my Gilman Scholarship application online by 10pm. Right, IF I have my transcript to go with it.
I biked home around 5pm and stopped at my apartment's mailbox. "Please be in there," I said to myself as I fumbled with my keys to unlock my mailbox. I pulled out the stack of mail and immediately flipped through each envelope. No. No. No.
Then my heart leaped forward.
There, on the second to last envelope written in big, bold letters was the word: TRANSCRIPT.
YES! I could hardly believe it came! This was really going to happen. I was going to submit my application in time and have a chance at the Gilman Scholarship!
About a month later, I called my older sister to give me some advice on where and when to purchase flight tickets. Instead of talking about flights, she discussed about the cost of my summer abroad.
She asked me how much I saved up, if I could pay for the program if didn't win the scholarships, if I still have time to cancel my trip, etc. I knew what she was implying. Or rather, what I felt like she was implying. She thought I had made an extremely thoughtless, risky move. And for what? To take a vacation with a high possibility that all my hard-earned money would be used up and have nothing to support myself after college? What kind of logic was that?
I don't remember exactly what she said, but I do remember that my sister's words hit me hard. What hurt me the most was the feeling that she didn't believe in me, that I couldn't possibly win the scholarships. That I had no chance.
In tears, I told her, "I know what the risks are. I thought it over and over and over again, and I procrastinated for the longest time to apply, but something deep down inside of me kept telling me that had to go abroad. If I didn't want to do this, I wouldn't have risked it. You know that! But something in my heart keeps telling me, that this is what I want to do, this is what I want to do. So this is what I want to do."
My sister backed off after that, but I won't forget that moment. I had never felt so low but, at the same time, so full of strength. I was pushed down by another person, telling me that this could be the biggest mistake of my life. But then, there was a voice within me saying, you want to do this, and there's a chance this will be one of the greatest decisions in your life. I had to push back up and stand up for myself...against my own blood. I had to believe in myself when she didn't believe in me.
May came along. The month of the scholarship announcements. I was both eager and anxious to learn of the results.
The email for my college's Summer Study Abroad Program Scholarship came out first. With much anticipation, I opened the email.
I didn't win. Not a single penny.
The feeling of failure started to sink in. Maybe my sister was right. Maybe I won't win any of the scholarships, and I will have to take out all of my own money to pay for the trip. I couldn't cancel on the trip now. I invested too much time, energy, and money for the deposit and housing for the trip already.
No, I wasn't going to give up. If I didn't win this one, there might still be other scholarships I can apply for. So I continued my search for more scholarships.
The next few days, I woke up early to write an essay for a monthly scholarship when I received an email from the Gilman Scholarship Program.
My heart pounded hard against my chest, my mind racing. This is it. Will I get this one?
I clicked on the email.
I reread the email multiple times, making sure I'd read it correctly. I couldn't believe it. I just couldn't believe it. I was shaking all over, misty-eyed.
I actually won the Gilman Scholarship.
Needless to say, I had the greatest time of my life in Japan. I learned more about the Japanese culture, how to be observant, and to consider other cultures around the world. I also made new friends and experiences that I will cherish for a lifetime.
That voice inside me was right--studying abroad in Japan was one of the greatest decisions in my life.
Before I leave, there are a couple of things I learned from this experience that I hope all of you will take with you.
1) That thing within me that kept telling me that I wanted to go despite all the logical things my sister was telling me...that was my intuition. I heard it calling, listened quietly, and trusted it enough to follow it.
We all have this intuition. Take the time to listen to it and build enough confidence in yourself to follow it. It's usually right.
2) A main reason why I wanted to study abroad despite all the signs pointing towards it being "impossible" was because I wanted to break free from the control that money had over my life. I knew I wanted to study abroad, but I wanted even more to prove to the people around me, especially my family members, that money does not have to affect the choices you make. It shouldn't. Do what you love. Do what you're passionate about. Once you start to do so, share your passions with others. People will come to know and respect you for who you are, and eventually, just as it did for me, the money will follow.
So, in short: Do what you love and share it with others to the best of your abilities. The money will surely follow.
This is what I truly believe.
And I'm proud to say I have a story to prove it.
3) It's okay to take risks. In fact, we all should take risks if we hope to continue to grow and learn more about ourselves and others. Just make sure you take healthy risks, which are risks that will not harm you or anyone else in the process. Sometimes, you're paralyzed with fear because you think you're not ready or you don't have the means to take the next step.
Well, we are almost never 100% ready to take the next step. So what do you do? You do it anyways. Because you won't know if that risk was worth taking unless you take it. What's the worst that can happen? You learn more about yourself and grow.
I share my stories in hopes of inspiring others to listen to their hearts, have enough courage to follow their intuition, and take healthy risks.
The year after my study abroad trip, my brother finally gained enough courage to do the same. I'd like to think I had something to do with that.
Your stories and experiences are valuable and there are people out there that would love to hear them. Don't be afraid of what other people may think. Share them. You never know. You may just change somebody's life for the better.
I can't thank the Gilman Scholarship Program enough for all it's done for me. I am truly grateful.
For those of you who are undergraduate students in the US considering studying abroad, make sure to check out the Gilman Scholarship Program.
What is the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program?
According to the site:
"The Gilman Scholarship Program offers awards for undergraduate study abroad and was established by the International Academic Opportunity Act of 2000. This scholarship provides awards for U.S. undergraduate students who are receiving Federal Pell Grant funding at a two-year or four-year college or university to participate in study and intern abroad programs worldwide."
If you're in college (in the US), remember that there are many scholarships out there that can make education more affordable. It just takes a little searching and fulfilling some requirements, but they can make the difference.
If you would like tips on study abroad and scholarships, feel free to message me. I'll do my best to answer your questions.
Please share this with your friends and loved ones if they need a little encouragement to follow their heart and intuition. They are not too far away from fulfilling their dreams.
All my love,