CAPA student Sarah Pressler, a recipient of the Gilman Scholarship, gives advice on obtaining financial aid for study abroad.

Source: The Gilman Scholarship: How to Look for Other Ways to Fund Study Abroad

AUG 7, 2017 8:30:00 AM / BY JULIE RITZ

A CAPA Student Interview: Sarah Pressler

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Photo: Me & Mauro. Meeting up with an old Twitter friend before the program started. I never thought we’d ever meet in real life, but here we are enjoying Italy! What a treat.

Meet Sara Pressler, a Public Administration major and Honors Studies minor from Texas State University who is studying abroad in Florence this semester, summer 2017. Below, she talks about being a recipient of the Gilman Scholarship, why she chose to study abroad, and ways you can look for more scholarship opportunities.

CAPA WORLD: Tell us a bit about yourself.
SARAH PRESSLER: My study abroad program has brought me from Texas State University in San Marcos, TX, to Florence, Italy. I’m finishing up my bachelor’s degree in Public Administration and my minor in Honors Studies. In the fall I’ll begin working on my Masters in Legal Studies with ABA Paralegal Certification. Texas State University is currently the only college in the state of Texas to offer a combination degree program where you earn your Masters AND certification as a Paralegal through an ABA (American Bar Association) program. It’s an amazing opportunity for those of us who want to work in the legal field but do not want to, or cannot, attend law school. I’m looking forward to diving into the program! Other than academics, at the moment, my hobbies and interests are focused on my four children ages 20, 17, 15, and 13. Between home life and academic life, the only other interest I have is napping!

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Photo: A street vendor setting up for his days work in front of the famous Duomo. I loved getting out early in the Florentine mornings, on my walk to CAPA, to get snapshots of life before the tourists swarmed the streets.

CW: Talk about why you decided to study abroad and why specifically your chosen location. What are your expectations? What are your biggest worries? What excites you?
SP: At this point in my undergrad career, I’ve completed all the requirements of my major; however, I still need 6 hours of honors courses AND a study abroad component. As a busy mother of teens I had no idea how I’d knock out these requirements. When I found out that Dr. Jackson was offering two honors courses in correlation with her “Texas State in Florence & the Amalfi Coast” program, I didn’t think twice about it! I signed up and immediately started preparing the family for my time abroad. I wasn’t quite sure how we would pay for all of it, but I felt like a door had opened and if I would just step through it, things would fall in place. I was just excited to find a solution to fulfilling the last requirements of my minor, thus insuring that I would have my undergrad wrapped up before grad school started!

I really had no expectations or worries regarding the program, the curriculum, or the experience of being abroad. I’m a seasoned traveler and the challenge of adding academics into a foreign country seemed like an exciting adventure to me!

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Photo: the beautiful Arno river on a perfectly Italian day.

CW: Describe your background for us. Had you traveled before? What made you want to study abroad? What was the reaction from your friends and family when you decided to study abroad?
SP: For the past four years, I’ve worked specifically within the WordPress ecosystem in which I have, for different companies, held positions in project management, client support, social media/email marketing, and general team leadership. Between 2013 and 2016, this work took me all over the United States attending, volunteering, and speaking at WordCamps – which are community based conferences for anyone using WordPress. Since returning to academics, I haven’t traveled much at all, but I believe the time spent flying around America helped prepare myself, and my children, for this present study abroad trip. I think my kids are used to me just springing travel plans on them so they were just like, “Oh, OK mom! Have fun! But…if you’re going to be gone for four weeks….who will buy the groceries?!” A legitimate question when you’re a teenager!

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Photo: hanging out with my roommate, playing with a fisheye lens, on the Ponte Vecchio!

CW: We know that you’re a recipient of the Benjamin A. Gilman scholarship- congratulations! For those who don’t know, can you explain what this scholarship is?
SP: The Gilman Scholarship provides up to $5,000 to apply toward a study abroad or internship program. Students receiving a Federal Pell Grant from two- and four-year institutions are eligible to apply and the Gilman is a definite resume boost. U.S. Rep. Gilman, who retired in 2002 after serving in the House of Representatives for 30 years and chairing the House Foreign Relations Committee, established the scholarship fund to help students expand their horizons. The scholarship is competitive; this year only about 350 summer students were awarded the scholarship out of several thousand applicants. However, the scholarship can be applied towards ANY study abroad session: spring, summer, or fall.

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Photo: almost our entire group from Texas State visiting Pitti Palace – it was such an amazing place!

CW: How did you find out about the scholarship, and what was the application process like?
SP: The Texas State Study Abroad office does a great job keeping their website up to date with great scholarship options for students considering going abroad. I discovered the link to the Gilman Foundation there. The application process is a little more involved than most other scholarships I’ve applied for. It includes sending in transcripts, letters of reference, getting your school to validate your study abroad program participation, and writing a few essays. However, you don’t have to complete it all in one setting. I took two weeks to get everything loaded into my application portal before I submitted it all to the Gilman Foundation. I’d just encourage students to approach it as an academic project with a $5000 prize!

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Photo: the chalk artists in Florence are amazing. Everyday, by lunch time, this artist had a new work of art almost complete; I wish I was so talented!

CW: How meaningful is it to you to receive a scholarship like this? What advice can you give to other students who are looking t o apply for this opportunity?
SP: Being awarded a scholarship like this has made the difference between being able to truly afford this trip. In that I mean, there are funds to pay for extra excursions, day trips, and eat a decent meal while out and about. While I’m not dining on steak every night, it is such a relief to know that I have enough cash to grab the quick sandwich and water in between activities and once in a while sit down for a proper meal. A huge chunk of my scholarship went to cover my airfare to and from Italy. That’s often the biggest out of pocket expense for student and it was a definite stress relief for me!

For other students looking to apply for the Gilman Scholarship, my advice is to just go for it!

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Photo: morning light waking up the city. Every chance I got, I would go stand at Piazza Michaelangelo and try to take in the whole view. It’s worth getting up early for, and worth staying up late, to catch the sunrise and sunset views.

CW: Are you studying in a host city where the native language is not English? What language are you learning? Had you studied this language before you arrived? What challenges or barrier has it presented? Have you been able to overcome them? Give your tips to other students on learning a new language.
SP: The native language in Florence is Italian, but I am not learning the language. As Italy is one of the most popular vacation destinations for Americans, it isn’t difficult to communicate with most Florentines. Up until now I haven’t experienced much of a language barrier. I’ve learned a few key phrases like Good Morning, Good Evening, Hello, Goodbye, and other than that I’ve really not had any problem getting by! In fact, I must be starting to fit into the scenery because I’m now experiencing Italians asking ME for help at the bus stops! I think they’re saying, “Is this the bus stop or bus # ___?” And in all but a few cases, I’ve been able to help them get going in the right direction!

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Photo: weird bucket list item! Galileo is my favorite person in all of history and I cannot believe I actually stood in front of his final resting place (Santa Croce Church). Santa Croce is the final resting place for many important Florentines, but Galileo has my heart.

CW: Share your best tips for living on a student budget in your host city – where to shop, where to eat, where to go for coffee, what you can experience for free, etc.
SP: First, find the closest Conad grocery store and figure out how to shop. A lot of people like the grocery store, but it’s like Texas’ Central Market which I just don’t ever shop at. Conad is like a basic grocery store and has all the staples. Now, I can only speak for Florence and it’s surroundings – but the staples here are very affordable! And then plan to eat at your apartment or dorm as much as possible. Bread, eggs, milk, cheese, and lunch meat can be picked up for just a few bucks and last quite a while. Since I’m actually not a big “foodie” person, I don’t care if my meal is from a four star Michelin restaurant or McDonald’s. I just want to eat something when I’m hungry and move on with my day. (Confession: I’ve eaten at McDonald’s and Burger King a few times and I recently found a Subway…totally going to check that out soon!)

Also, in Florence, there are actually 99 cent stores that carry basic groceries, snack food, and sodas. There aren’t very many options for soda in Florence: Coke, Fanta Orange, and sometimes Sprite. At a restaurant a 16oz can of Coke will cost you about $6. Don’t pay for it! Stop by the 99 cent store and stock up there – they carry the same sodas and drinks for … you guessed it… 99 cents!

You can stop at any Patisserie and grab a coffee! It’s so nice to be able to pop into a shop and order “Un Espresso Macchiato” and know that you’re not going to spend more than 1.50 euro. Also, the patisseries often offer sandwiches, small pizzas, and other quick food items, at very reasonable prices. The main thing is to keep trying all the different patisseries until you find the one you love. AND – don’t be afraid to walk out of a food place after you realize it’s outside of your budget.

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Photo: making it up the steps at San Miniato to hear the monks sing their daily prayers (Gregorian Chants.) What a climb! It reminded a lot of us of the trek from Texas State’s Honors building to the science labs! (So. Many. Stairs!)

CW: What does the term “global city” mean to you? How has your definition changed since you’ve been living abroad? What has living in a global city taught you? What have you observed? What do you like and dislike about living in a global city?
SP: Having experienced San Antonio, Austin, San Francisco, Seattle, San Diego, Portland, Miami, and other large metropolitan areas in America, my comfort level with “global cities” is quite established. To me, the term refers to large cities where ones nationality does not define his or her success in that city. Successful business and community members are not limited to just Americans or just Italians. That’s what I’ve experienced in America as well as Italy. I love living in a global city. I love the melting pot that is observable at every bus stop. I love the sense of community that actually comes with a more pluralistic society. A global city requires it’s community members to keep open minds about one another and I find it refreshing.

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Photo: catching a Tuscan sunset from Galluzo, a small town right outside of Florence. The views here are simply picturesque!

CW: How do you think this experience will shape you? In what ways are you hoping to achieve personal or professional goals you can use when you get back home?
SP: Already, I can tell, I am more assertive and determined in what I will accomplish each day. Every day I wake up in Italy I have goals I want to accomplish. “Today I will find my way to the Piazzale Michaelangelo” and so on. I think it’s helping me come out of my shell a bit. I’m a natural introvert and happy to spend all day, alone with my thoughts, at home. And living in a house with four other women has been interesting! At home, I’m the queen of the house. But here I’m having to take a step back and let the other roommates make decisions for  the group. It’s been really nice, actually, to not have to be in charge of everyone! It’s helping me “go with the flow” a lot better than before, that’s for sure! Learning to meet daily goals, and learning to let other lead, helps build strong leadership qualities, and I know those are skills that are helpful in many different areas of life.

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Photo: the Ponte Vecchio and Arno River at night. Getting out and enjoying the Florentine evening night life is a lot of fun and the city is as beautiful at night as it is during the day! 

Thanks, Sarah!

Learn More about the CAPA Florence Program