Melanie Espinal, 2014 Wandering Scholar

melanieMelanie is currently a senior at Southern Connecticut State University where she is preparing for a career in the field of journalism/communications/public relations. According to Melanie, “I knew that if I didn’t study abroad before my graduation next May I would feel like my degree was incomplete,” so she decided to spend her Spring semester of junior year at John Moores University in Liverpool, England. When she wasn’t taking classes with students from the US, England, and places as diverse as Italy and Saudi Arabia, Melanie also found time to visit 11 other European countries (some of which she tackled on her own).

We asked Melanie how her experience as a Wandering Scholar prepared her for this experience, and she had this to say: “Being a Wandering Scholar prepared me in ways that I can only understand now as an adult…I think plainly being a Wandering Scholar gave me the confidence to travel, allowing me to immerse myself in this new place without a constant fear of what I might seem like to people. Anywhere I go now I walk like a local, even if I can’t read the signs and don’t know which street to turn on to.”

As for whether she had any advice to her fellow wanderers, Melanie offered this bit of wisdom: “Don’t go into a new country thinking you know what you’re gonna get. It’s more fun if you don’t and a lot more genuine. And travel light always. I brought a carry-on for 17 days abroad in Europe, but a whole suitcase and carry-on to Guatemala for two weeks. Trust me, you don’t need it all. The golden rule is definitely quality trumps quantity. And most importantly keep a journal and take photos. It’s great to look back at what you were processing when you were there.”

Interview with Vy Nguyen, 2011 Wandering Scholar and Budding Social Entrepreneur

Vy Nguyen, a 2011 Wandering Scholar who traveled to Senegal with our partners at Walking Tree Travel, spent 6 weeks this past summer in Gurgaon, India, while participating in a  homestay and language program. We caught up with Vy to learn more about how she applied the skills and confidence she developed through our fellowship to secure full funding for her current program and to start a social venture. Imagine EduAfrica raises funds for library books for her previous host community in Senegal by selling a traditional Senegalese “mancatcher” necklace in exchange for donations to support the cause.

How did you find out about the India program? How did you fund the trip?
The program is called the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y). It is funded by the department of state under AFS (American Field Service), an organization that specializes in traveling abroad. The program provides a full scholarship given by the Department of State, and their goal is to increase cultural awareness for American youth by teaching them languages not typically taught in school.

Do you have any advice for future Wandering Scholars on how they can do something similar?
For Wandering Scholars, I advise you to be on the lookout for as many travel opportunities as you can. The moment I came back from my trip to Senegal, I thought about the places I would love to travel to – India was my first choice. As a result, I went on Google, and I found NSLI-Y. The application process took about a month, and it started in October – however it was totally worth it. Keep your eyes open, apply for more than one program and many options for traveling will be presented to you. In addition, do not let money stand in your way. Living in the US – there are so many scholarships out there to travel abroad.

How did being a Wandering Scholar prepare you for this journey?
By being a Wandering Scholar I had full awareness about the [experience of] differences in culture, people, and lifestyle I was about to go through in India. In addition, I knew that I am a global citizen and representing the US in the best possible way I can. Especially through my trip to Senegal last year by being Wandering Scholar, I was familiar with both the feeling of culture shock and being homesick and the feeling of being absolutely blessed and grateful for what I have at home when I come to terms with the lifestyles of people in India and Senegal.

Tell us more about Imagine EducAfrica, the organization you have started. What are the next steps for you in terms of getting it off the ground?
Imagine EducAfrica is a organization that I started with 3 of my friends at school with the help of Ashoka’s Youth Ventures who provided us financial and business support. After coming back to the US, I realized how many opportunities I have to give back to people less fortunate than me. Especially to the village of Dindefelo in Senegal where I lived with a host family for 2 weeks and helped build a library. I realized that if they needed volunteers to help build the library, how can they provide books for it? Then I came up with an idea to help meet this goal of providing books and school supplies to the village by making mancatchers. (Mancatchers is a term for a traditional Senegalese beaded jewelry worn by women on their waist.) By making and selling those mancatchers, we hope to spread out our organization and about Dindefelo, and the culture of Senegal a bit with the history of mancatchers. we hope to give out the mancatchers and in return have a small donation from people who would like to have one. With those donations, we wanted to send it to Hassan (a community leader in Dindefelo, Senegal) so he would be able to buy books and school supplies for the village.

What are your plans for after graduation? Are you applying to college? Considering a gap year?
My plans after graduation is to apply for college, I hope to have admission in Santa Clara or Northwestern University. I do not have a major I am positive I would like to study in, but I’m leaning towards travel journalist or travel photography and a minor in the French Language. But I do know that I would like to major in foreign relations and have the options to travel more in college. I am considering joining Peace Corps after receiving my degree.

Is there anything else you’d like for us to know?
As students in America, I encourage everyone to take the initiative to travel, even if traveling isn’t your thing. Just taking a two week program to a different country is a life changing experience. You will learn so much in just two weeks, and realize how different everyone’s lifestyle are. In addition, we’re so lucky to have so many travel programs that offer full ride scholarships, so please take this opportunity while you can. Because after living in Senegal and India for a while, I spoke to many students like myself who would love to have programs like this available in their country. Seize the opportunities that are available in America while you can, I cannot stress this enough.

We are so proud of Vy and all that she has accomplished. She is the true embodiment of a Wandering Scholar. To learn more about Vy’s organization, Imagine EduAfrica, watch the short video below: