May 13, 2014

Jessica Pope
Communications and Media Relations Coordinator

Three VSU Students Awarded Gilman Study Abroad Scholarships

Pictured, from left to right, are Blanca A. "Suzi" Hernandez, Ja'Marrius T. "Jay" Thomas, and Gabrielle M. Rodriguez.

VALDOSTA — The Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program awarded more than 1,100 undergraduate students from 358 United States-based colleges and universities funds to spend the upcoming summer studying abroad.

Approximately 6 percent of the recipients are studying at one of Georgia’s public or private institutions of higher education, and of those, three are students at Valdosta State University.  


Suzi Hernandez, 22, of Moultrie, will spend 34 days, from June 24 to July 27, in Cádiz, Spain, where she will conduct research in health care measures to reduce the risk of obstructive sleep apnea, as well as volunteer with the Spanish Red Cross and a local hospital.

“I have always wanted to go to Spain, and I have always wanted to study abroad, but I never thought it would be possible because I just simply don’t have the funds to do something like that on a whim,” said the 2010 Colquitt County High School graduate and daughter of Dana Olvera and Robert Hernandez. “I cannot believe that it is going to happen; I am going to spend the summer studying in Spain.”

A fifth-year senior and nursing major at VSU, Hernandez discovered the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program shortly after one of the worst days of her life. She wrecked her car while traveling to Nashville for her first clinical experience; her only means of transportation, which she had recently paid in full, was deemed a total loss. She feared that she would not have the funds to pay for the study abroad trip to Spain because the money she earned at her job at TJ Maxx would now have to go towards buying another car. With tears in her eyes, she discussed her personal situation with Dr. Victoria A. Russell and Dr. Adolfo C. Cabello, assistant professors of Spanish in the university’s Department of Modern and Classical Languages. They encouraged her to apply for the scholarship.

Hernandez received word in late April that she had been awarded $3,500.

“The first thing I did when I found out that I had won was go visit Dr. Russell and Dr. Cabello and tell them in person and thank them,” she shared. “They edited all of my papers, told me specific things I should include, helped me with the whole, lengthy process. Since it was a national scholarship, I was not really expecting to win, but I was hopeful.”

Hernandez expects to graduate from VSU in May 2015 with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, a minor in Spanish, and a Spanish for Professionals certificate. She dreams of working in the critical care unit of a regional hospital and eventually pursuing an advanced degree as a nurse practitioner or certified registered nurse anesthetist. 

“I have always wanted to do two things — help people and incorporate the Spanish language into my personal and professional life because it is my heritage,” she said. “My dad came to the United States from Guatemala knowing no English; I’ve known other people like that. The language barrier can be very difficult to overcome, and I want to be able to help those people in a health care environment.” 


Jay Thomas, 20, of Augusta, will celebrate his 21st birthday on July 13 in Cádiz, Spain, where he will spend 34 days studying the Spanish language, researching the general practices in the prevention and treatment of skin infections, and interning with the Spanish Red Cross and a local hospital.

“I have never been to Spain before,” said the 2011 graduate of Westside High School and son of Toniqua Shaw of Atlanta and Marlin Thomas of Picayune, Miss. “In fact, I have never had the opportunity to travel overseas. This is beyond anything I could have ever imagined, definitely more than I expected. I am so excited.”

“When I get on that plane, I am just going to smile the whole way there,” he added.

A junior nursing major at Valdosta State University, Thomas was awarded $3,500 by the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program to spend the summer in Spain from June 24 to July 27. He credited both Dr. Victoria A. Russell and Dr. Adolfo C. Cabello, assistant professors of Spanish in the university’s Department of Modern and Classical Languages, with going above and beyond to help him secure the funds to finish paying for the academic and cultural opportunity of a lifetime.

“I remember going to the library, opening my email, and seeing ‘congratulations’ on the left-hand side of the screen,” he said. “I looked again. I thought it was too early to be getting an announcement about the scholarship. I opened the email and stared at it. The first thing I thought was, ‘Thank God.’ Without the scholarship, I didn’t think I was going to be able to do a study abroad right now. I didn’t think I was going to be able to afford the trip. I had been so nervous and was panicking, working as much as possible at Convergys to make payments on the trip, but I did not know how I was going to be able to make the last payment. I was doing it all on my own. When I read that email, I breathed a sigh of relief and thought, ‘This is for real. I am going. There is no turning back.’”

Thomas anticipates graduating from VSU in May 2016 with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, a Spanish for Professionals certificate, and a minor in music; he played the cello in high school and also enjoys singing. His ultimate goal is to eventually attend medical school and pursue a career as a cardiothoracic surgeon.

“That has always been my dream,” he said. “Growing up, I never really thought about doing anything else. I am confident this study abroad experience will help me get to where I want to be.”


Gabrielle Rodriguez, 20, embarked on her first overseas adventure on May 13. She will spend four weeks in the Czech Republic, where she will study child psychology, abnormal psychology, and the country’s unique history and culture. She will return to the United States on June 9.

“I’m kind of nervous, but I’m also excited,” said the 2011 graduate of Lakeside High School in DeKalb County. “I have only been on a plane twice and never over water. I am really excited to travel and experience new cultures. This should be fun.”  

A junior criminal justice major at Valdosta State University, Rodriguez learned about the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program when she met with Irina McClellan, who both oversees the university’s study abroad programs and serves as assistant director of its Center for International grams.

“She gave me all of these forms, including one about scholarships,” Rodriguez noted. “I saw something about the Gilman and looked it up. It was so much work to apply. I had to write two essays, one talking about my life and why I felt that I deserved the scholarship, another about how I would go about educating others about the Gilman program.”

Rodriguez explained that she never would have made it through the process without the help of her mother, Rose Gaines, and her writing coach. She learned in late April that she had been awarded $2,500.

“I was already at the point of being out of money,” she said, “and I had already taken out a loan. Finding out that I had received the scholarship allowed me to breathe for a minute, to relax and accept that I was going to be able to go on this trip and spend my summer learning and having fun in the Czech Republic. It was amazing.”   

Rodriguez anticipates graduating from VSU in May 2015 with a Bachelor of Arts in criminal justice and a minor in psychology. Her goal is to work with troubled youth and possibly further her education. She was born in Austin, Texas, but she considers Loganville to be her home.  


The Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program offers grants to United States citizens of limited financial means interested in pursuing academic studies or credit-bearing, career-oriented internships abroad at the undergraduate level. The program is funded through the International Academic Opportunity Act of 2000 and sponsored by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. It is named in honor of retired U.S. Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman of New York, who served in the House of Representatives for 30 years and as chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee.

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