By Gisela Valencia
Study abroad is one of the most sought-after college experiences – and thanks to a prestigious U.S. Department of State program, top-achieving FIU students are expanding their horizons.
Four students this year were awarded Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarships. The Panthers are Andres Davila, Maria Teresa “Maite” Reynel, Jeriel Ramirez and Rhobie Toussaint. Gilman Scholars receive up to $5,000, or up to $8,000 if also a recipient of the Gilman Critical Need Language Award, to apply toward their study abroad or internship program costs.
“I know these students — and so many others at FIU — have been anxiously waiting for education abroad to resume at full capacity,” says Ashley Floyd Kuntz, director of Prestigious Scholar Development. “Now is the time, and I am thrilled for them! I was especially impressed that all students received the maximum scholarship amount or very near to it. They obviously represented FIU very well in this prestigious national competition!”
Meet two of this year’s Gilman scholars.
An economics major with a passion for photography, Andres Davila, 19, is currently in Spain taking several courses at the IE University Madrid alongside a number of international students.
“I always wanted to go to Europe and understand the culture of Spain,” he says. “But I needed some sort of financial support. I was wondering, ‘Do I have to take out some loans or work extra hard to afford this?’”
The Office of Study Abroad told him about the Gilman Scholarship, and he decided to apply. When he got the scholarship, he says, he and his parents — who were eager to support him, but cautious about the economic implications of study abroad — were relieved.
“I’m able to use the scholarship to cover my rent and any personal expenses,” he says. “Or maybe even to go on some trips around Europe.”
So far, he’s loving the experience. Just a few days after landing, he’d already found his way to the Museo Nacional del Prado, which houses what is often considered the single best collection of Spanish art and one of the finest collections of European art; the Plaza Mayor, the major town square in the heart of the city; and Parque de El Retiro, which is one of the largest parks in Madrid and a combined UNESCO World Heritage Site with Paseo del Prado. He also stumbled upon another gem while taking a walk — a library and historic museum centered on the culture of Catalonia.
“Madrid is completely different from Miami,” he says. “I feel comfortable because I’m Hispanic, and I’m able to guide my way through the city [thanks to the language], but still, it’s a completely different culture. And even Madrid is completely different from other [Spanish] cities like Barcelona.”
Davila is putting together a street photography project portraying his study abroad experience as captured by his camera. His goal is to share the project with the Gilman Scholarship folks and with Panthers at FIU through the Office of Study Abroad and Prestigious Scholar Development. He also hopes to organize a panel discussion at FIU once he’s back in Miami to discuss his experience as a Gilman Scholar and share information about the opportunity with students.
As for the rest of his time in Spain? He’s planning to keep learning and exploring and tour some universities to see if a graduate program in Europe might be a good fit once he graduates from FIU.
The study abroad experience is one of Davila’s many projects and activities. He is a member of the university’s chapter of Epsilon Pi Epsilon, a tech academic fraternity, the Undergraduate Research Society and the FIU Honors’ photography club. He has worked as a contributing writer at PantherNOW, the student-run newspaper on campus, and plans to continue writing after he returns to Miami.
Additionally, Davila recently completed an internship at the Miami-based Amerant Bank, where he analyzed data to help the organization find ways to deepen its sustainability efforts. His goal is to one day launch a career in data analysis, and he says his time in Madrid will help prepare him.
“We live in a world where there is a lot of immigration and globalization,” he says. “Madrid is very diverse. In my career, if I want to work internationally, I’m going to come across different cultures and need to be respectful and mindful. It means a lot to represent FIU for a scholarship and to have the opportunity to study abroad.”
With the heart of an artist, Maria Teresa “Maite” Reynel, 41, has one goal: to become an art educator.
Reynel is a single mom working full-time who decided to go back to school and earn her degree. She is currently part of the accelerated master’s in art education program, working toward her bachelor’s and master’s in the field.
When she heard about Frost Professor of Art and Graduate Director David Chang’s summer study abroad trip to Italy and France, she knew it would be an amazing opportunity for her to deepen her knowledge about art. But money was tight. Chang suggested she apply for the Gilman Scholarship.
Before she knew it, she’d been accepted and received $4,000 to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime, three-week art program abroad.
“For me, it was a dream come true,” Reynel says. “We went through different places in Italy and Paris, studying mostly the Renaissance, which is one of my favorite art periods. We saw paintings by masters like Michelangelo and da Vinci. I was so used to seeing these images just in pictures. Seeing them in front of me, I got emotional a couple of times.”
She says a highlight was visiting the Vatican and seeing up close and personal paintings by Raphael as well as visiting Milan and seeing paintings like Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper.
“We did some sketches. We learned about the culture and the country and some words in Italian. And we also saw the Roman empire’s ruins, the Colosseum. We went to Pompeii…it was amazing.”
In Paris, she enjoyed studying the work of Impressionists and analyzing the colors and brushstrokes they used in their paintings. As a bonus, she bought some top-notch art materials — brushes and paper.
“Applying for the Gilman Scholarship and taking this trip was a really good step for me,” she says. “It was worth it. I’m very thankful for the opportunity.”
When she came back to Miami, she took a landscape art course with Chang and used her photos from her trip as the model for all the paintings she created — various scenes from Claude Monet’s house and the Eiffel Tower. Her Eiffel Tower painting is currently on display in an exhibition at the MMC’s Graham Center art gallery.
Reynel is also applying all that she learned on the trip to teach her own students. Reynel volunteers at the Key Biscayne Community Center and works with an art teacher in two classes, one with elementary students and another with 12-year-olds.
Reynel’s love for art started years ago. As a teenager, she took courses at the Escuela Nacional Superior Autónoma de Bellas Artes del Perú, the school of fine arts in her home country. But, later on, things changed. She immigrated to the United States in search of a better life. She learned English, worked retail and had her first child (a son whom Reynel is proud to say is now studying illustration at a college in Michigan). Reynel also has a six-year-old daughter (who currently wants to be a ballerina, but will do anything her mom does).
When the pandemic hit, Reynel decided she wanted a career that would give her more time with her daughter. She learned about art education at Miami Dade College, earned her associate’s and then transferred to FIU.
“My daughter wants to go to college now because she wants to be like me,” she says. “It’s a good thing that I went back to school. If I want my kids to do something, I have to do it, too.”
She says this is her opportunity to finish what she started in Peru.
“This might be the only chance I have at an education,” she says. “If I can do this, at my age, if I can learn and get a scholarship, you can too. You just have to do it.”
Desde un Puente en Paris, 2022. Maria Teresa “Maite” Reynel’s oil on canvas painting of the Effiel Tower. Courtesy of the artist. The painting is currently on display at the MMC Graham Center gallery in the piano lounge.
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