From a beginner’s interest in K-pop, a high school teacher showing her hangul (the Korean alphabet), and the Gilman scholars program—each step led her to an unforgettable year in Korea at Seoul National University (SNU). As a Government and Politics major with a concentration in International Relations, her experience in Korea was essential to exploring international diplomacy. Now, as a Global Learning Ambassador with the Education Abroad (EA) office, she’s connecting students to their own pathways towards international education, and challenging the assumption that studying abroad is only for students of means.
“In sophomore year, even freshman year, I was like, ‘Oh, it’d be really cool, but I can’t afford [study abroad] and I don’t want to burden my parents. So I put it on the back burner, and then I started learning about different opportunities—but there’s still another kind of imposter syndrome with that. A national scholarship? I’m just Alyssa from Frederick!” said Taylor.
At Maryland, studying abroad is more accessible than you might think. EA offers many programs that cost the same or less than a semester in College Park. And further, Taylor wasn’t alone in finding the resources to help her get there—EA staff even met with Alyssa’s parents to reassure them that it wasn’t outrageous for their daughter to spend a year on the other side of the world.
“When I told my parents I was going to study abroad in Korea for a year, they said heck no…I felt that having someone of authority sit with them, they felt more at ease for me to go abroad.”
Once her parents were on board, the National Scholarship Office on campus connected her to The Gilman International Scholarship Program, a big name in the world of international scholarships. Nearly 3,000 students are awarded up to $8,000 annually towards the study abroad program of their choice. One of the bigger requirements, a personal essay, triggered that imposter syndrome for Taylor. However, now one year out, she advises students not to let those feelings get in the way of their application. One in four Maryland student applicants are selected to receive a Gilman award, and in 2021, the University of Maryland was recognized as a top 20 producer of Gilman scholars with 323 UMD students having received the award since the scholarship program’s inception in 2001.
“Start early, don’t take yourself out, and know that you have a story to tell,” said Taylor.
Beyond the thrill of living abroad, Taylor’s time in Korea was essential to her long-term goals of making a place for herself in the international relations world and forming connections with American diplomats in Seoul, fostering both friendships and professional relationships.
“My mentor introduced me to a Foreign Service officer that was working in the U.S. Embassy in Seoul at the time, and he took me under his wing…he introduced me to an opportunity where I participated in a roundtable discussion with other American and Korean students, talking about different areas we bonded over, like finding jobs after college,” said Taylor.
Notably, Alyssa also served as an English teacher for a North Korean defector (refugee).
“She really humanized North Korean people for me, just having someone sit in front of you and talking to them, hearing about their life story and their dreams for the future—it made me, now that I’m back at UMD, want to be more of an advocate for North Korean people,” said Taylor.
Universally, students return stronger and sharper from their time abroad, the eye-opening experiences and the challenges they encounter. The same was true for Taylor, who after losing the housing lottery at SNU had to find her own accommodations. Additionally, she did not get into the classes she had painstakingly selected, forcing her to start from scratch and abandon her best laid plans.
“Looking back on my experience, I really did have a lot of things thrown at me, having to figure out where I was going to live and the language barrier…and then traveling around, especially as a Black woman. I’ve definitely had a, ‘Oh, you really haven’t seen people like me before’, and navigating that,” and continues, “But now that I’ve done it, I’m surprised by how much I was able to do, and the courage that got me out of [the challenges she faced] it,” said Taylor.
Upon her return to Maryland, she made a home in the Korean cluster of the Language House, and continues to enjoy the foods she had in Korea (tteokbokki and kimbap) as she looks to her final semester at Maryland. Taylor aims to return to Korea someday to continue her interests in social justice, explore research related to feminism and gender issues in Korea, and pursue her career aspirations of becoming a public diplomacy foreign service officer. For now, she’s sharing her story with other Maryland students, encouraging them all to see what’s out there.
“There’s just something about being abroad and meeting people from different cultures, even just being in a different setting is really impactful, just to learn that the world’s way different from wherever they come from,” said Taylor.
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