Gilman Scholarship paves way for Blugold to study in South Africa

| Madigan Knuth

Ryan Swenson, a biology and pre-professional health sciences major from Jim Falls, is fulfilling his goal this semester by studying abroad in Stellenbosch, South Africa. However, his plan didn't come together exactly the way he expected it to.

In high school, Ryan dreamed of attending the University of Minnesota, where he hoped to play hockey for the Gophers. Unfortunately, after suffering a devastating injury, hockey was no longer in the cards for Ryan. However, that didn’t deter him from pursing a college education. Ryan enrolled at Chippewa Valley Technical College with plans to transfer to UW-Eau Claire to complete a four-year degree.

“I liked how [UWEC] was close to my parents’ home and that the credits transferred so easily between the two schools,” Ryan said.

During his transition period over the summer, Ryan had the opportunity to do research with UW-Eau Claire's Dr. Thao Yang, professor of chemistry. Ryan said Dr. Yang who was “very supportive and helpful throughout that time.”

After becoming a Blugold, Ryan decided to explore his interest in studying abroad by

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Ryan Swenson

participating in a medical mission trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua. The life-changing experience made Ryan ask himself, “If I learned so much in two weeks, what will happen in six months?”

Ryan's new goal was to use study abroad to better his interpersonal skills and meet people from all over the world. His next task was figuring out where he wanted to go.

“My criteria was far away from home, not Europe, something pretty different from home, and it couldn't be a place any of my friends have gone. South Africa was the perfect fit; I love it here!”

In the beginning, Ryan was concerned about graduating on time, but UW-Eau Claire study abroad advisor Courtney Brost came to the rescue.

“I showed him how to find biology classes on Stellenbosch University’s website and worked with him to see what UWEC credits he could get while abroad," Brost, the South Africa program advisor, said. "The academic planning is an important step in going abroad because advance planning allows students to find the best time to study abroad and realize they can still graduate on time.”

Of all the myriad study abroad programs offered through the Center for International Education, South Africa is one of the "nontraditional" programs. The "traditional" study abroad programs take students to countries in Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand. The South Africa program is based in Stellenbosch, not far from the capital of Cape Town. This unique program offers students the opportunity to learn about and immerse themselves in a culture quite different from their own.

To help pay for his study abroad experience, Ryan attended a financial aid meeting through the study abroad office, which is where he first learned of the Benjamin Gilman Award.

“I knew it was competitive and would probably be a stretch to get, but I’m so thankful I did," Ryan said. "It has made this experience so much more enjoyable and less stressful.”

The Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship is a nationwide scholarship program that awards more than 2,900 scholarships to students planning to study abroad. While amounts vary, students can be awarded up to $5,000. Since its inception in 2001, the Gilman Scholarship aims to support undergraduate students who might not study abroad due to financial constraints.

The Gilman Scholarship is intended for students from a variety of backgrounds and identities to apply, including but not limited to: first-generation college students, students of color, students with disabilities, veteran students, nontraditional students, and students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Approximately 60 Blugolds have been awarded the Gilman International Scholarship since 2004, Brost said.

Ryan has had an amazing experience during his time in South Africa. Not only has he had the opportunity to participate in unique activities such as going on a safari, shark diving and petting a cheetah, he also has learned a lot about the history and people of South Africa. He currently is on a monthlong road trip with nine classmates traveling through Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. 

“This is a unique country," Ryan said. "Since apartheid ended 23 years ago, they are still working on overcoming the consequences of that. They are battling drastic inequality and the crime and poverty that goes along with that, racial tensions and a severe drought.

"I’ve also realized how fortunate I am for everything in my life. There are so many people in worse positions than me.”

Ryan also has learned a lesson that many students discover during their time abroad.

“I’ve learned to slow down a bit, just enjoy life and the people around me instead of constantly worrying about getting things done, working and the go-go-go attitude we have at home sometimes.”