When tragedy changed Esosa Aideyan’s life during her senior year in high school, the idea of traveling abroad to study suddenly seemed an impossibility.
But this semester, the sophomore psychology major is in Costa Rica, studying Spanish at la Universidad Veritas in San Jose on a prestigious national Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship.
The congressionally funded Gilman Scholarship program, geared toward students who might not be able to study abroad because of financial constraints, will cover many of Aideyan’s expenses, making this potentially transformational experience possible.
Growing up in a middle class family in Brooklyn, N.Y., Aideyan never expected to experience economic hardship. She attended the highly respected Benjamin Banneker Academy for Community Development, a small, predominately African-American institution listed as one of New York’s top public high schools by U.S. News and World Report.
“My mother was a registered nurse and my father worked for New York City,” Aideyan said. “Then my father retired and my mother stopped working, and we were living off my father’s pension.
“Then a couple months after that my parents took a trip to Nigeria and my mother died soon afterwards, in December 2012. My father buried her there and he stayed there. Now it’s just me and my siblings.”
Aideyan shares the family home with two adult sisters, both college graduates, and a brother who is still in college. From afar their father helps pay their living costs.
“But all my expenses I pretty much have to handle myself,” Aideyan said. “It’s not all bad because mentally I’m a stronger person. I’ve grown to be really independent and self-sufficient.
“I really needed the help to pay for this study abroad thing, I needed the support of the Gilman scholarship,” she said. “The school gave me $500 but if I only got that I wouldn’t have been able to study abroad.”
Aideyan is only the second SUNY Cortland student to earn this award, which covers up to $5,000 in international studies expenses and is named after the former, 30-year congressman from Greenville, N.Y., who chaired the House International Relations Committee. She is one of 800 students nationwide selected to study or intern abroad during the spring 2015 academic term by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The Institute of International Education administers the program.
“The College is fortunate to have Esosa serve as a Gilman scholar ambassador to our partners at Universidad Veritas in Costa Rica,” said Mary Schlarb, who directs SUNY Cortland’s International Programs. “We expect her success will encourage other students to apply in the future.”
The Gilman program aims to diversify the students who study and intern abroad and the countries and regions where they go. Scholarship recipients have the opportunity to gain a better understanding of other cultures, countries, languages and economies — making them better prepared to assume leadership roles within government and the private sector.
“I’ve always been interested in Spanish since high school and I figured it would fulfill me to learn the language and also make me more competitive in the job market,” Aideyan said during an early December interview.
“My father was from Nigeria but he never taught us the language because my mother was not Nigerian, she was American,” Aideyan said. “So I always wanted to learn another language.
“I didn’t grow up around people who spoke Spanish,” she explained. “It might sound weird but it’s just the feel of the language. I just liked the sound of it.
“I originally wanted to go to Spain but then I realized I was more interested in the Latin American version of Spanish than Castilian,” she said. “That’s why I chose Costa Rica. I’ll be living with a host family and they can’t speak English so my Spanish is going to improve very, very much.”
La Universidad Veritas is a popular student choice offered through SUNY Cortland’s International Programs. Staff there encouraged her to apply for the Gilman Scholarship and also awarded her a $500 Uschald Study Abroad Scholarship, named for its creator, Willi A. Uschald, professor emeritus of foreign languages and director emeritus of international programs at SUNY Cortland.
When not in class, Aideyan can experience the cosmopolitan city’s many museums and theaters.
“The National Museum and National Theater of Costa Rica, for example, both showcase Spain’s conquest and Costa Rica’s history,” she said. “Attending these places is a fascinating way to explore Costa Rican history and culture while also developing a sense of its lifestyle and values.”
La Universidad Veritas was the perfect fit for Aideyan because she can complete 13 credits worth of her SUNY Cortland language and academic major requirements there.
She hasn’t yet decided yet whether to focus on becoming a counselor or a psychiatric nurse.
“Anything having to do with psychology makes me happy,” she said. “I can see myself as being the aide in the situations where someone doesn’t speak English.”
As a Gilman scholar, upon her return Aideyan has committed to complete a service project. She chose a project that involves informational outreach to underprivileged secondary school students.
“I am sure that I am not the only student who dreams of traveling the world, but lacks the finances to do so on their own,” she said. “I can be the reason that someone takes the initiative to fulfill their dreams, even when all odds are against them.
“Studying abroad is not only an academic goal, but a life goal,” she noted. “I can hear my mother now, telling me to go for it.”