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Untraditional students of the world

UC Berkeley, with 20 Gilman Scholars, is one of the nation's top recipients of study-abroad award for the cash-strapped and underrepresented

| 03 December 2009

Natalie Nguyen, left, and a friend at Ephesus, an ancient Greek site in Anatolia.Natalie Nguyen, left, and a friend visit Ephesus, an ancient Greek site in Anatolia.

Having fallen in love with anthropology and archaeology as a community-college student, Natalie Nguyen took her first Berkeley anthro course — on the cultures of the Middle East — soon after arriving on campus as a junior transfer. That class "opened my eyes to diverse, culturally rich countries filled with political turmoil …" she says. "I knew that if I ever had the opportunity to travel through the Middle East, I would immediately take it."

But that "if ever" seemed remote to Nguyen, who is paying her way through college via a combination of loans, grants, scholarships, and a student job in the anthropology department for up to 20 hours a week. To study Middle Eastern archaeology in the Middle East, she thought, would only sink her deeper into debt.

That was before Nguyen heard about the Gilman International Scholarship, a federally-funded program supporting students who have been traditionally underrepresented in study abroad, or who choose non-traditional study-abroad destinations. Nguyen, who qualified on both counts, decided to throw her hat in the ring, along with college students from around the country. It took her less than a day, she says, to assemble and submit the first part of the application, proposing where she wanted to study abroad, and why.

A few months later, while on an archaeological dig in Honduras, Nguyen learned that she had been granted a Gilman Scholarship, making it possible to take courses at a Turkish university "without my having to take on a second job or pull out more student loans to pay off tuition." The 22-year-old Orange County native is at Bilkent University in Ankara this semester, soaking up the fascinating prehistory of Anatolia, from the Paleolithic to the Iron Age, while living with other international students in a center-city flat.

One in three applicants accepted

Nguyen is one of 20 UC Berkeley students granted Gilman Scholarships for the 2009-10 academic year — making Berkeley the second-leading recipient of Gilman awards in the country, and the top recipient in the University of California system.

Brochures on some of the UC Education Abroad destinations covered by the Gilman Scholarship.Brochures on some of the UC Education Abroad destinations covered by the Gilman Scholarship.

"Many students assume that studying abroad has got to be super expensive," says Andrea Brown, a student-affairs adviser in the Berkeley Programs for Study Abroad office. But in many cases, she notes, the sticker price is comparable to a semester at Berkeley — and in the developing world, some programs are actually cheaper than a semester at home.

Roughly one in three applicants are successful, receiving Gilman Scholarships averaging about $4,000, says Brown. Launched in 2001 and sponsored by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, the Gilman program defines "under-represented" broadly, to include students of diverse ethnic backgrounds, those with disabilities, and those with majors (such as science and engineering) traditionally less common in international study programs. Applicants must be U.S. citizens and Pell Grant recipients.

On their return to the United States, Gilman Scholars are required to do a service project of their choice — to help convey what it's like to study in a foreign country, and to spread the word that financial assistance is available. Nguyen, a member of a student anthropology club at Berkeley, plans to make a presentation there, during spring semester, to describe her experiences in Turkey and encourage fellow anthropology majors to consider taking their studies international.

Democratic, secular, predominantly Muslim, and rich with history and ancient ruins, "Turkey itself is an amazing country," she says. "Locals are incredibly kind and always willing to help, even with the language barrier. I would recommend anyone to study here."