Southwestern junior and Army veteran Chris Vela ’26 has earned the prestigious Gilman International Scholarship, paving the way for his study abroad experience in Dunedin, New Zealand, during the spring 2024 semester. This competitive scholarship is designed to support U.S. undergraduate students with financial need in pursuing academic studies or internships abroad. The program has recognized outstanding students since 2001. The program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and administered by the Institute of International Education. The scholarship aims to empower students to take on significant roles in an increasingly global and interconnected world.

Vela’s academic journey is driven by a passion for astronomy, leading him to pursue a physics major with an environmental studies minor. Set to embark on a unique educational adventure, he will attend the University of Otago to study and explore the southern hemisphere’s celestial wonders and diverse ecosystems. Vela is intrigued by New Zealand’s commitment to preserving its night skies, and the Dunedin Astronomical Society’s efforts to combat light pollution caught his attention. He wants to learn about their conservation policies firsthand. Vela envisions implementing similar measures to protect Texas’ night skies and educate the public. “I would like to learn some of the policies and bring them back here,” Vela said. “I would like to use the Texas Master Naturalist program as a conduit for passing on that knowledge, which I pitched to Gilman as my research project.”

While studying abroad, Vela will take cellular and molecular biology, environmental physics, environment and society, and a Spanish course. He recognizes the historical connections between Spain and the Pacific as an opportunity to explore the linguistic and cultural intersections in a new context. He believes these classes will add to his personal growth and contribute to his broader understanding of environmental issues in the region.

Studying abroad enhances the college experience, offering cultural insights and fostering adaptability. It exposes students to diverse perspectives and promotes open-mindedness in today’s interconnected world. Academically, the experience provides unique opportunities, specialized resources, and exposure to alternative teaching methods, which broadens horizons and deepens understanding. The Director of Study Abroad and International Student Services Monya Lemery expressed her joy in working with Vela. “It has been a delight working with Chris to plan and apply for his study abroad program in New Zealand, as well as assisting him to apply for the Gilman Scholarship. He is a proactive student who is willing to put in the work to turn his goals and dreams into reality,” Lemery said. “Chris was willing to spend time learning about the scholarship, writing the essays, and seeking out assistance from the Debby Ellis Writing Center, which increased his chances of receiving an award.”

As Vela prepares for his adventure, he encourages his peers: “Don’t be hesitant to study abroad. Southwestern is more than willing to help financially, and numerous programs exist. If my ‘old self’ in my 40s can do it, there’s no reason you, young and spry, can’t embark on your own adventure.” His upcoming semester in New Zealand promises academic enrichment and a cultural and environmental exploration that will shape his perspective on physics, astronomy, and conservation. His journey serves as an inspiration for students to embrace study abroad opportunities and make the most of diverse learning environments.