UConn Scholars Earn Gilman and CLS Scholarships

The scholarships demonstrate the inclusive opportunities available for every UConn student to develop intercultural competencies

headshots of nine people

CLS Scholars (Top L-R): Shankara Narayanan, Elisa Shaholli, Megan Streit, Colman Tokar. Gilman Scholars (Bottom L-R): Sabrina Alcin, Jerome Jacobs, Justin Rodriguez, Rupa Sharmin and Megan Staudt.

Navigating the challenges of the pandemic over the last academic year did not discourage University of Connecticut students from imagining international study possibilities. Despite border closings and travel restrictions, students sought opportunities to engage with the world by applying for the Gilman and Critical Language Scholarships (CLS). A record number of UConn students were selected this spring as recipients for both scholarships.

“We had a total of fourteen applicants for the 2021 Critical Language Scholarship and four were selected as recipients,” says LuAnn Saunders-Kanabay, Assistant Director in the Office of National Scholarships and CLS Program Advisor.

They will participate in intensive language study in a virtual format this summer, but it has not dampened their enthusiasm for developing proficiency in their chosen languages.

“With interests in international affairs and public policy, they are preparing themselves with language proficiencies for future careers in government and non-governmental organizations,” says Saunders-Kanabay.

The Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program is an intensive overseas language and cultural immersion program for American students at colleges and universities in the US. Students spend eight to ten weeks abroad studying one of 15 critical languages. The program includes intensive language instruction and structured cultural enrichment experiences designed to promote rapid language gains.

CLS, a program of the State Department, is part of a wider government initiative to expand the number of Americans studying and mastering foreign languages that are critical to national security and economic prosperity. CLS plays an important role in preparing students for the 21st century’s globalized workforce and increasing national competitiveness.

With an acceptance rate of less than 10%, the Critical Language Scholarship is one of the most competitive scholarships in the U.S. and the most prestigious language program for U.S. citizens.

The following UConn students were selected as CLS scholars:

Shankara Narayanan ’21 (CLAS): A native of Farmington, Narayanan is a political science and history major in the Honors Program, who has studied diplomatic history and international relations since his freshman year. He is a scholar of international security, with his chief interest in studying accelerating security competition between the US and China. A 2021 Fulbright semifinalist for a grant to Taiwan, his continuing study of Mandarin will prepare him for law school or doctoral study, continuing his work while pursuing a career in the departments of State or Defense to influence international security policy.

Elisa Shaholli ’23 (CLAS): Shaholli is a Stamps Scholar majoring in English and pursuing an individualized major that combines her interests in public health, worldwide disability policies, and global studies. She serves on the Executive Board of Huskies for Refugees and UConn’s Act in Miracles, an organization aiming to aid nonprofits in Turkey. A native of Wolcott, Shaholli hopes to combine her developing proficiency in the Turkish language with her interest in advocacy, outreach, and cultural competency for a future career in global health and disability.

Megan Streit: Streit is a doctoral student in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and is a former Boren Scholar. She is a current recipient of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) Samuel Flagg Bemis Dissertation Research Grant. A native of Ames, Iowa, Streit was chosen to participate in CLS’s Azerbaijani program. Having studied Russian intensively in Russia and Ukraine, she is eager to expand her linguistic repertoire by learning Azerbaijani, a language critical to the Caucuses as well as Turkey and Iran. This will position her as a region specialist and advance her aspirations to work in national security.

Colman Tokar ’24 (CLAS): Tokar is a Chinese and economics double major in the honors program from Newtown. He has studied the Chinese language since the sixth grade, and in high school he participated in the NSLI-Y program in Suzhou, China, living with a host family and intensively studying Mandarin. He looks forward to continuing Mandarin language study and more study abroad opportunities while at UConn. Tokar’s future plans include pursuing a graduate degree in international economics or political economy, in preparation for a career working in international affairs with a focus on East Asia and Greater China.

The Gilman Scholarship is congressionally funded through the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs at the State Department. The funding supports broadening the student population who participates in study abroad, encourages travel to diverse locations around the globe, intensive language study and internship experiences.

“We had a total of six applicants from UConn this spring, and five students were awarded funding to study abroad during the spring 2022 semester,” says Valerie Jenkelunas, Experiential Global Learning (EGL) Coordinator and Gilman certifying student advisor. “The high percentage of recipients within this group, as well as the substantial amount of their awards, speaks to the quality of the applications from UConn.”

With more than 13,000 applicants from over 450 colleges each year, the Gilman Scholarship program is a national, highly competitive scholarship. Approximately one in four applicants are selected to receive the scholarship.

Eligibility for the Gilman Scholarship requires undergraduate students to be Pell Grant-eligible, United States citizens who plan to study abroad for academic credit, through a program approved by their home institution. The majority of this spring’s students worked with EGL advisors to plan for a spring 2022 program, with the hopes of more international mobility from the United States at that time. Supporting students with high financial need provides access to students who are historically under-represented in study abroad, including first-generation college students, STEM majors, ethnic minority students, students with disabilities, LGBTQ+ students and others who experience barriers to participation.

The following UConn students were selected as Gilman scholars:

Sabrina Alcin ’23 (SFA): Alcin is the recipient of the Gilman scholarship as well as the program’s highly competitive Critical Need Language Award, which provides a supplemental award to a limited number of Gilman scholars studying a critical need language. Students must demonstrate a commitment to improving language proficiency, and define how the language study will benefit their personal and career goals. Alcin began her college career at UConn Stamford, and is a digital media and design major studying the Japanese language. A native of Stamford, she plans for a career in film animation, and will apply for the Waseda University exchange program for the spring 2022 semester.

Jerome Jacobs ’23 (ACES): A native of Vernon, Jacobs is a Rowe Scholar in the Honors program, who was studying biomedical engineering until his most recent pivot to ACES as he explores the opportunities in allied health sciences and psychology, to address the mental health of Asian Americans through public health and other care initiatives. The pandemic highlighted the need for dedicated intervention to support the unique needs of Asian American citizens, and Jacobs will explore intervention strategies. Applying to the National University of Singapore exchange program for the spring 2022 semester, will allow him to immerse in continued study of Korean language while connecting with students through academically-oriented extracurricular activities.

Justin Rodriguez ’22 (CLAS): Rodriguez is a political science major preparing for a career as a foreign service officer who began his college career  at UConn Stamford before coming to Storrs. From Washington Heights, N.Y., he is a native Spanish speaker with intermediate skills in French and is currently studying Portuguese, with aspirations to take on German in the future. Jerome will apply to the API French Language & Liberal Arts Institut Catholique de Paris program for the spring 2022 semester. He is committed to acting as a citizen diplomat to connect with locals, immerse himself in the culture, and represent the diversity of the United States while demonstrating the culture sensitivity necessary for today’s global citizens. During the program, he will produce a vlog in Spanish, rather than English, as part of Gilman’s requirements for a follow-on project where he will demonstrate how to navigate culture shock to viewers, adding a layer of inclusivity to the Hispanic community.

Rupa Sharmin ’23 (CLAS): Sharmin is an SSS student who began studies at UConn Stamford and is a human development and family sciences major. With family from Bangladesh and a native of Stamford, she is an aspiring international pilot, seeking cross-cultural competency through the exchange opportunity. Sharmin is embarking on a career field in which fewer than 10 percent are women, and plans to use this position to explore the many cultures of the world, with attention to language study and cross cultural communication through immersion. Sharmin will apply to Yonsei University in South Korea for the spring 2022 semester and, upon her return, will reach out to SSS students to promote the Gilman scholarship and EGL program opportunities.

Megan Staudt ’23 (CLAS): A native of Fairfield, Staudt is a biological sciences major planning for a career as a physician who values intercultural competency as a skill that will support optimal patient care. This first generation college student will apply to the AIFS Budapest program for the spring 2022 semester that includes a volunteer program leading a conversation course for children and new mothers from the Roma community. In addition to selecting electives that will reflect regional themes from the host country, she is committed to learning about the social responsibilities in Hungary through her volunteer work with locals. Staudt will work with first-generation students on campus upon her return to create awareness for the scholarship opportunities available to participate in Experiential Global Learning programs.

As Gilman and CLS program advisors, both Jenkelunas and Saunders-Kanabay take note of how these opportunities for international engagement align with the vision of UConn’s Life Transformative Education (LTE) Task Force in providing life-transformative educational experiences for all students. The scholarships demonstrate the inclusivity possible for every UConn student to develop intercultural competencies through foreign language study, cultural immersion, the development of relationships within communities around the world, and highlights the diverse learning opportunities outside the classroom walls, even virtually.

“In our role as advisors, we promote diversity and equity in accessing experiential learning opportunities and building competencies in students’ chosen areas of study,” says Jenkelunas.

For more information about the Gilman, CLS and other funding opportunities for international educational experiences, contact Experiential Global Learning and the Office of National Scholarships and Fellowships. Visit these home pages for upcoming information sessions, workshops and events.