Lorraine Sturdevant always wanted to explore other countries, but finances were always an obstacle.
But winning a Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship allowed her to take her first journey outside North America. She spent the summer studying in Thailand, an adventure that wouldn’t have been possible without the scholarship.
She is one of several UC Merced students who received Gilman awards for the summer. This national, need-based scholarship program provides grants to worthy undergraduates who want to pursue academic studies or internships in foreign countries. Students receiving a federal Pell Grant from are eligible to apply.
Gilman Scholars receive up to $5,000 to apply toward study abroad program costs. Sturdevant’s $4,000 award is one of the larger amounts provided for summer study, said Jennifer Heinrich, UC Merced’s study abroad advisor.
Heinrich said students benefit in many ways from experiencing life in other countries.
“Studying abroad is a great opportunity for personal growth,” she said. “Not only will students be exposed to the different people and cultures of the world, but they will also learn a lot about themselves and what they can overcome.”
Sturdevant, who is majoring in sociology and minoring in writing, loved the idea of traveling to other countries. But before last summer, Mexico was the only other country the Los Angeles resident had visited.
Looking for a way to make her dream a reality, Sturdevant applied for the Gilman scholarship and was ecstatic when she was selected.
The program lasted about six weeks. She chose Thailand because she wanted to feel like a fish-out-of-water.
“I thought it was the most different thing,” Sturdevant said. “I wanted to be a little bit scared.”
She only knew the basics about Thailand before her visit. Once there, home base was Thammasat University in Bangkok — where she and other students lived and learned about the country’s cultural, religious and societal beliefs.
Trips to other towns, cities and areas gave Sturdevant the chance to see new places, meet people, learn to cook a few Thai dishes and even ride an elephant. “That was very bumpy,” she said.
Her favorite part of the summer was getting to know the Thai people. She talked about how a local rescued her one day when she was lost.
The woman didn’t speak any English but was determined to deliver Sturdevant to her destination. With the help of her cell phone — and bus fare — the woman put Sturdevant on the right path.
After completing the program, Sturdevant said she feels more confident and ready to handle new challenges.
“It made me want to take on more than I always thought I could,” she said.
The trip also helped solidify her plans to join the Peace Corps after she graduates this year from UC Merced.
“I realized I really want to be directly involved with people and to be integrated into society,” she said. After the Peace Corps, Sturdevant likely will attend graduate school, and she wants to work with a nonprofit or community organization in Los Angeles.
She said she chose to attend UC Merced partly because it was far enough from home to offer independence, and also because it was new and full of promise.
“I realize I have more opportunities, especially at UC Merced,” Sturdevant said. “I can do more.”