Stevens Institute of Technology junior Mike Salas had dreamed of studying abroad as part of his undergraduate experience. Now, thanks to a Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship award, the Newark, New Jersey native who is majoring in biomedical engineering and minoring in visual arts and technology is realizing that dream this summer in Chengdu, China.
Salas is one of approximately 1,200 American undergraduate students nationwide to receive the prestigious $5,000 scholarship. With such fierce competition, he says winning the scholarship came down to a compelling personal story that stood out from the crowd.
“The Gilman Scholarship Program wants to give students of limited financial means the opportunity to study abroad. The fact that I’m the first in my family to go to college, and that my parents who immigrated to the U.S. from Ecuador and my younger sister (a Rutgers University student) have never studied abroad all worked in my favor. But I had to articulate that as a story, rather than listing that out as a checklist.”
It also helped that he was guided throughout the application process by Susan Rachouh, director of the Office of International Programs at Stevens. It was Rachouh who brought up the idea of applying for the scholarship to Salas.
“For every student I talk to about study abroad, we review their ‘study abroad budget’ by looking at their Stevens scholarships, billing and financial aid. I look specifically for Pell Grant recipients so that I can tell these students about the Gilman Scholarship,” explained Rachouh. “I make it a point to emphasize the need to personalize their essays in the application, so that the committee can really ‘hear their voices.’ Mike listened intently and wrote an amazing essay. I had the opportunity to meet Congressman Benjamin Gilman years ago and I’m so grateful for these scholarships for our Pell Grant recipient students.”
During the 10-week study abroad program, Salas will be busy interning and attending two classes – an elementary course in Mandarin Chinese and another related to his internship at Lansen Rehabilitation, a rehab center in Sichuan Province that provides adult orthopedic rehabilitation and services related to infant development.
“The program operates Monday to Friday. I’ll be attending class during the day and working at the rehab center in the evening.”
In his free time, Salas plans to maximize his time there to explore the city of Chengdu, capital of China’s Sichuan province, and beyond.
“I want to go to Beijing and visit the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. But more importantly, I just want an authentic experience of living and working in China. I’m traveling on an F visa because I’m interning there. So that provides a different experience than what I would get going there on a tourist visa. I want to pack in as much as I can from this unique opportunity.”
China became Salas’ destination of choice when he befriended Stevens students from China in his Introduction to Entrepreneurial Thinking class during his freshman year.
“Throughout that course I got to know them, hang out with them, and learn more about where they came from and what their culture is like. Now I’m taking it to the next level by getting to experience their country firsthand."
As a Gilman Scholar, Salas is required to complete a follow-on service project within six months of his return to the U.S.
“You have to find a way to give back what they have given you in terms of aid by inspiring young people to think about studying abroad. So I plan to share my international experience with students who share my background and heritage and are thinking of going to college.”
Now that he is about to enter his senior year, Salas says Stevens pushed him to succeed from the very beginning. He participated in the Summer Bridge Program run by the Stevens Technical Enrichment Program (STEP) for incoming freshmen from underrepresented and other diverse backgrounds. Looking back, Salas describes the intense six-week residential program as an invaluable introduction to the curriculum and academic demands of Stevens.
“Many people may not appreciate it in the moment, but when you’re at the point of almost graduating like I am you have an appreciation for that program.”
He says the staff at STEP – Deborah Berkley, dean of student development and enrichment programs; Vanessa Falco, technical assistant; and Carlos Pereira, assistant director/counselor – offer tremendous guidance and support to their students, rooting hard for their success.
“Dean Berkley was excited for me and proud. She’s very familiar with the scholarship program and understands how competitive it is because she used to review Gilman Scholarship applications.”
Salas has traveled outside the U.S. to visit relatives in Ecuador. But his trip to China marks his first solo overseas experience. While in Chengdu, Salas plans on communicating with his family through WeChat, one of China’s largest social media platforms. But he admits that his parents, particularly his mother, needed time to get used to the idea of her son traveling alone.
“I told my parents early on in the process so as to prepare them. They understand that I really want to do this and that they can trust me not to do anything crazy.”
He expects that he will return home changed in some ways as a result of his study abroad experience, and is open to how it may influence his career goals.
“Whatever I do I want to help people in the healthcare field. I volunteer at the hospital here in Hoboken, but as far as post-graduation plans, I want to see what happens with this internship I have in China.”
Salas adds that his undergraduate experience at Stevens has been far richer and broader than he could have imagined and is thankful for all the opportunities that have come his way.
“It’s amazing how much I can do at Stevens with the four or five years I have here, whether it’s studying abroad, minoring in the visual arts or earning a master’s degree, there are so many experiences and opportunities that are open to students.”