By Ed Brennen
After seeing the same family members at home every day for almost a year during the COVID-19 pandemic, chemistry
major Trang Vy Bui was elated to receive an $8,000 scholarship to study abroad in South Korea this spring.
“It’s definitely been nice to travel again and experience the Korean culture,” Bui said during a late-night Zoom interview from her dorm room at Korea University in Seoul, where she was studying for her upcoming final exams.
Bui, a rising junior from Lowell, was one of the first UML students to resume studying abroad this year after receiving the prestigious Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the scholarship supports federal Pell Grant recipients who want to study or intern abroad.
“Students with financial need often feel that a study abroad experience is unattainable. Awards such as the Gilman help make it possible,” says Fern MacKinnon
, director of the Office of Study Abroad and International Experiences
While the pandemic slammed the brakes on study abroad programs nationwide last year, MacKinnon says UML is “dipping its toe back into the international waters” as travel restrictions continue to lift.
This summer, three groups of Honors College
students are traveling to San Sebastian, Spain
, while senior political science major (and Gilman recipient) Maxwell Aaronson
is heading to South Korea — a country that never closed its borders during the pandemic — for a six-week program through UML’s partnership with International Study Abroad, a third-party provider.
“There really is a surge of interest right now,” says MacKinnon, whose office is advising students and faculty to plan for study abroad experiences in 2022 out of an abundance of caution. She says more than 150 students who were planning to go on partner-led programs that were canceled in 2020 are already lined up to travel next year.
Also expected to travel in the coming year is UML’s most recent group of Gilman recipients: Isabella De Souza (nursing), Karedis Robles-Mercado (business), Max Charles (exercise science) and Monineth Hang (computer science).
“We’re thrilled to have four more Gilman recipients, which is our largest number for one term,” MacKinnon says. She attributes the success to the work of UML’s Office of National Scholarships
, where Honors Visiting Prof. Rae Mansfield
walks students through the application process.
“Winning a Gilman scholarship makes you much more competitive for graduate programs and other nationally competitive scholarships. It’s a real gateway program,” says Mansfield, who leads a course on applying for scholarships during the winter and summer terms.
“Dr. Mansfield was huge. I don’t think I could have done this without her,” says Aaronson, who originally planned to use a $1,500 Gilman scholarship to study in South Korea last summer, only to see all travel under the program suspended. Next, he got permission to use it to study French at the Sorbonne in Paris over the winter intersession, but that program was canceled the day after he applied. Now, he’s back to his original plan, a year later.
This spring, Aaronson learned that his Gilman scholarship had been increased to $2,500, thanks to emergency supplemental funding. Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Julie Nash
then matched that amount, while Assoc. Prof. Jenifer Whitten-Woodring
, interim dean of the Honors College, and the Political Science Department
each kicked in an additional $500, giving Aaronson a total of $6,000 for his six-week program in South Korea.
“This was my absolute last chance to get over there with Gilman, so I’m glad I can use it,” says Aaronson, a native of Barnstable, Massachusetts, who is completing his bachelor’s degree in August.
When Aaronson arrives in Seoul, he’ll be required to quarantine for two weeks in a government-monitored hotel. Meals will be delivered three times a day, and he’ll be able to start his Korean language class and a course on relations between North and South Korea online.
“Spending two weeks in a hotel room isn’t the worst thing that could happen. I’ll probably binge a few shows on Netflix or Disney+ and map out what I want to do in my free time,” he says.
Aaronson was inspired to study political science after a two-week trip to South Korea in 2017 while a student at Ohio Wesleyan University.
“Visiting the joint security area at the DMZ (demilitarized zone) was an eye-opening experience,” he says. “I remember being so close to the border that you could hear the propaganda music being played over loudspeakers by the North Korean government. It was surreal.”
One place Aaronson hopes to visit during this trip is Jeju Island, which is known for its beach resorts and volcanic craters.
He just might see Bui there. She was joined in the study abroad program at Korea University this spring by biology major — and best friend — Michelle Ing. The two Lowell natives are renting an Airbnb together and vacationing in South Korea until August.
“It’s really fun here, and it will be nice to travel without having to do schoolwork for a while,” says Bui, who had already booked her $40 roundtrip plane ticket to Jeju Island.
Bui is no stranger to international travel; she’s visited family in Vietnam and took a high school trip to Japan. She says she’s long dreamed of studying abroad.
“I always thought Korean culture — the food, the music — was interesting,” she says.
She’s been struck by the ease and affordability of the public transportation system, and by the fact that she can have food delivered at 4 a.m.
“Fried chicken is really popular here, and Korean pizza is really interesting. They put a lot of sweet stuff like corn and sweet potato on pizza,” she says.
When she’s not taking courses in genetics, immunology, metabolomics and polymer chemistry — which are all taught in English — Bui is doing as much sightseeing as possible with Ing. On a visit to the 14th century Gyeongbokgung Palace, they rented traditional Korean clothing called “hanbok,” which granted them free admission to the former royal palace.
Bui also stayed up late one night to talk via Zoom about her experience abroad with accepted UML students on Welcome Day.
“I feel like a lot of STEM students think they can’t study abroad, that it’s only for liberal arts majors,” she says. “But I did it, and they can do it, too.”