Gilman Scholarships Provide UVA Students Opportunities to Study Abroad

Sidewalks on next to the Rotunda lined with white columns

Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications

Six University of Virginia students received an option to study abroad, thanks to the U.S. Department of State.

Five students received Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarships to study abroad and a sixth was named a Gilman-McCain Scholar.

The Gilman Scholarship recipients are Kelena Lewis-Matthews of Brooklyn, New York; Gabriel Mallari of Virginia Beach; Min Woo “Denny” Jeong of Centreville; Rodrigo Giron of South Riding; and Rachel Jeffers of Midlothian. John MacLeod of Virginia Beach received the Gilman-McCain Scholarship.

Gilman Scholarships, available to students who receive Pell Grants, provide funding for overseas research, while the Gilman-McCain Scholarship is for students who are dependents of an active-duty member of the military. This year, the study-abroad opportunities were cancelled in the spring because of the COVID-19 virus. This year’s Gilman recipients, who were notified in late July, can delay their projects or seek out virtual alternatives.

Gilman Scholars worked with the International Studies Office in planning their research trips.

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“Even though the pandemic has put a halt to any study-abroad plans for the moment, I am thrilled to see so many students now applying for the Gilman and Gilman-McCain,” Andrus G. Ashoo, director of UVA’s Office of Citizen Scholar Development, said. “These students put in the hard work and are still working on alternative plans to take advantage of the award. Of course, we know more students are eligible to apply and the Gilman could be the difference that makes study abroad possible for many students. We are ready to support students with their materials and so are our wonderful colleagues in the International Studies Office, who are vital to helping students understand and simplify possibilities for study abroad.”

The Office of Citizen Scholar Development and the International Studies Office will host an online Gilman Scholarship information session on Wednesday at 4 p.m.

“I think a lot of students hear that it’s competitive and automatically rule themselves out, like, ‘I don’t have a super-high GPA’ or ‘I don’t have a leadership position in any CIOs,’” said Annia Dowell-Wiltshire, an education abroad adviser. “But the great thing about the Gilman is that they aren’t looking for the students with the highest GPAs or the ‘right’ résumé-boosting activities. Around 30% of the UVA students who have historically applied for the Gilman have received funding.”

Dowell-Wiltshire advises students to put together their best application, with the assistance of Office of Citizen Scholar Development and the International Studies Office.

“Numerically the odds are a lot better than I think most students believe that they are,” Dowell-Wiltshire said.

This year’s Gilman Scholarship recipients are:

• Min Woo “Denny” Jeong of Centreville, a fourth-year foreign affairs major with an East Asian studies minor, who wants to study Mandarin through virtual classes while remaining in Charlottesville. He hopes to know his options by early October.

“I felt strongly that studying abroad would further my language-learning goals,” Jeong said. “I am not entirely sure what a virtual internship might look like, but I will have a better understanding in the coming weeks.”

Jeong chose Mandarin because of its importance in East Asian politics.

“I already speak Korean, so it only made sense that I study Mandarin, considering China’s increasing influence in international politics,” he said. “I would like to pursue a greater knowledge on China’s foreign relations.”

Jeong had sought a residential program because he believes in the efficacy of immersion for learning language.

Min Woo “Denny” Jeong headshot

Min Woo “Denny” Jeong of Centreville is studying Mandarin because of its importance in East Asian politics. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“My family and I immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea,” he said. “We quickly adapted to life here. Although my young age allowed me to adapt and learn English more easily, my parents and my older sister have demonstrated to me that immersion is critical in language learning.

Jeong is a current member, former secretary and former president of the Virginia Glee Club, as well as a member of Alpha Phi Omega, a gender-inclusive service fraternity.

• Rodrigo Giron of South Riding, a fourth-year politics and foreign affairs major, who wants to study politics in Valencia, Spain, in the spring semester.

“Spain, or Europe in general, has one of the most unique and intricate styles of government and politics on the planet,” Giron said. “I plan to study and research heavily on how political life operates there; taking a foreign policy perspective will allow me to grow in my field. Seeing how Spain interacts with not only the world, but its neighbors and fellow European Union members, in a diplomatic way, firsthand, will be extremely interesting.” 

Noting that the COVID-19 virus has forced the scholars to be flexible, Giron said while he can use the scholarship funds for a virtual program, he would still like to go to Spain, maybe in early 2021.

“Valencia caught my eyes, not only because it looks like a beautiful city, but also because I hope to become fluent in Spanish during my study abroad,” Giron said. “I am sure we will have to follow rigorous protocols and guidelines throughout our entire experience, but it will be worth it when it comes to an opportunity like this.

Rodrigo Giron  headshot

Rodrigo Giron plans to study politics in Valencia, Spain, in the spring semester. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“This award doesn’t only advance my personal goals, but it will also have a massive impact on my career,” he added. “It is awarded by the State Department, where my dream career could be. The experiences I will be able to live, paired with the education I have received at UVA, will, without a doubt, shape me into the person needed to be successful in my career and life.”

Giron has been heavily involved with Volunteers with International Students, Staff, and Scholars program, which works with international residents in the Charlottesville community.

He is also active in the International Relations Organization, a student-run nonprofit designed to spread awareness on international issues, as well as the Autism Allies and the University Democrats.

• Rachel Jeffers of Midlothian, a fourth-year foreign affairs major, who sought to work with a non-governmental aid agency in Prague. She has deferred her study abroad until 2021 because of COVID-19.

“I planned to spend the summer working for an NGO called People in Need,” she said. “This Prague-based organization focused on delivering humanitarian relief and developmental assistance in more than 20 countries as well as supporting democratization and human rights protection in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Egypt, Libya and Vietnam.”

Jeffers said that as a foreign affairs major, she is interested in international human rights and social justice, as well as the political economy of developing areas.

“Working for People in Need was truly a great opportunity to combine those interests as well as gaining cross-cultural awareness and real-world experience with international development relations,” she said.

Cross-cultural awareness is important to Jeffers.

“As a Black, first-generation college student, I felt it was important for me to take advantage of the many study-abroad opportunities that are offered while in school,” Jeffers said. “The Gilman program has had such a monumental impact on the lives of so many students of color because this program makes study-abroad opportunities financially accessible and allows us to have the same life-changing experiences as students of higher socioeconomic backgrounds.”

Rachel Jeffers headshot

Rachel Jeffers of Midlothian has deferred her work with a non-governmental organization until 2021. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Jeffers plans to pursue a graduate program in international relations, but not immediately.

“I plan to take a gap year to figure out my plans for the future and to get involved in organizations/projects that primarily focus on systematic racial inequality and the economic opportunity gap for African Americans,” Jeffers said.

Jeffers had a fellowship with the Virginia Student Power Network, that leads voter registration efforts on Grounds. She has been the chief financial officer of the Black Student Alliance and a volunteer at the Haven Homeless Shelter in Charlottesville.

• Kelena Lewis-Matthews of Brooklyn, New York, a second-year nursing and African American and African studies major, who wants to study at the University of Ghana in Accra, Ghana, for the summer session.

“As a transfer, non-traditional student, I did not think that studying abroad would be possible for me during my matriculation,” she said. “Once I realized that I get to determine what my undergraduate experience is going to be, I did research into where I wanted to go. I was disheartened to learn that as a nursing major, there are currently no opportunities to study abroad in West Africa. I decided to forge my own way and apply to an outside study-abroad program.”

Kelena Lewis headshot

Kelena Lewis hopes to study at the University of Ghana in Accra, Ghana, for the summer session. (Contributed photo)

She worked with the International Studies Office in crafting her study program and applied for the Gilman Scholarship.

“Receiving this award will allow me to fulfill my dream of traveling to Ghana while pursuing my educational aspirations,” she said. “I want to experience Ghana beyond the tourism aspects. Studying abroad for the summer semester, and taking classes at the University of Ghana, will allow me to spend more time learning Ghanaian culture and customs.”

A transfer student from South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, South Carolina, Lewis-Matthews served as a practical nursing specialist in the U.S. Army, as well as a behavioral health assistant at the Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York, and as a biomedical technician at the Kings College Hospital in London.

The recipient of a Posse Veteran Scholarship and a Theresa A. Thomas Nursing Scholarship, Lewis-Matthews is a member of the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority. She plans to pursue a master’s degree in public health and aspires to ultimately become a women’s health nurse practitioner and  certified nurse midwife.

• Gabriel Mallari of Virginia Beach, a third-year computer engineering major who wants to gain technical experience, said the Gilman offered him an opportunity to explore his research interests in South Korea.

“I was hoping to intern at Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology as a research assistant in its Robotics Department,” he said. “I am interested in medical devices [and] embedded computing, and pursued the opportunity. I was also interested in living in South Korea and experiencing the culture. After talking to a previous participant in the research-abroad program and researching the university, I felt it was a perfect fit for my schedule during the summer.”

Gabriel Mallari headshot

Gabriel Mallari worked as a software developer at the National Security Innovation Network last summer instead of researching abroad. (Contributed photo)

Mallari planned to immerse himself in South Korean culture, in which he could explore the city of Daegu and travel, but his research trip to South Korea was canceled by the U.S. travel advisory before he knew he had received a Gilman Scholarship. Mallari did work as a software developer at the National Security Innovation Network last summer instead of researching abroad, but he still hopes to travel to Daegu.

“Because of the uncertainty of my situation, I am also exploring virtual, credit-bearing study-abroad opportunities and possibly studying abroad next spring or during my fourth year,” Mallari said, “While I would like to say that I got something beyond the recognition of being a recipient, all of my study-abroad plans are put on an indefinite hold until things calm down. If given the opportunity to safely study abroad in Korea, I will definitely pursue it.”

He is currently the treasurer of the Taekwondo Club at UVA and was undergraduate research assistant in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and at the Link Lab. The recipient of a STEM Bridge Scholarship, an International Studies Office Scholarship and a Donald and Jean Heim Scholarship, Mallari wants to gain technical experience as a software engineer before deciding his career path.

“I do have an interest in web development, data science, product management and technical consulting,” Mallari said. “Despite this opportunity being canceled by COVID, I was nevertheless happy that my effort to display my interest in robotics research and Korean culture was received well. I will consider other, possibly virtual, opportunities to help further my own career.”

This year’s Gilman-McCain Scholarship recipient is:

• John MacLeod of Virginia Beach, a third-year urban and environmental planning major, with a minor in historical preservation, in the School of Architecture, who plans to study affordable housing and sustainability.

“Given that our circumstances can change so quickly, it’s hard to imagine what kind of opportunities will be available in the coming months.” he said. “Right now, however, I hope to do some form of a three-week program or internship over the summer relating to the fields of sustainability, urban planning, and/or public policy. Many firms abroad offered virtual opportunities this past summer, so I’m hoping that they’ll do the same this year should COVID-19 still remain an eminent problem.”

John MacLeo headshot

John MacLeod of Virginia Beach plans to study affordable housing and sustainability. (Contributed photo)

MacLeod’s first choice is to study in Morocco.

“Ideally, I’d like to intern with an organization or do research that focuses on issues akin to those I would have studied this past summer, such as affordable housing and its connection with sustainability,” MacLeod said.  “Morocco is my top choice and I’d love to work with the Urban and Environmental Planning Department to make that happen.

“Other potential places include the Netherlands, Denmark and Bangladesh, which are all encountering similar problems, but with the added impact of subsidence and sea-level rise.”

MacLeod said that in Morocco he can study forms of urbanism and sustainability that are relatively unknown in the United States.

“My aim is to understand the relationships between the natural and the built environments in a context different from what we have here at home,” MacLeod said. “My urban planning education is inherently about surroundings and the process of place-making. This means that a lot of the time, I only get to interact with more familiar, immediate landscapes like Charlottesville or other domestic metropolises like New York City.

“Although it never came to fruition, my plan to study abroad on Morocco this past summer meant a lot to me, and I had the opportunity to challenge the fundamental assumptions that my classroom experience at UVA rests upon.” he said. “The ultimate hope was to leave with a broader, more nuanced understanding of how to help create equitable cities.”

MacLeod plans to pursue a masters’ degree in urban and environmental planning.

“My current interests revolve around addressing urban inequities across racial and class lines, with a keen focus on concepts like historic preservation, climate change, food justice, land use and education,” he said. “I truly have no clue where I see myself after receiving a masters’ degree. I’m trying to take things day by day for now, but I hope to help build community and foster inclusion wherever I go.”

MacLeod is a member of the University Guide Service and was an orientation leader for Orientation and New Student Programs in 2019. He is a member of the men’s club volleyball team, Phi Delta Theta fraternity and the Virginia No-Tones. He also works part-time at a local architecture firm and for a small farm in Scottsville.

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

Office of University Communications