Michelle Barajas Perez had never even been to an airport, much less on an airplane before boarding a jet to Japan to spend fall 2019 in Nagoya as part of Stanislaus State’s study abroad program.
Perez, now a senior, switched her criminal justice major to Spanish with a dream of teaching the language to Central Intelligence Agency agents and will study abroad a second time this fall when she heads to Madrid, travel restrictions permitting.
This time, she’ll go as a recipient of a Gilman Scholarship, a federal award available to students who qualify for a Pell Grant. Perez is one of eight Stan State students to be offered the scholarship that ranges from $2,000 to $5,000.
It’s the first time every Stan State candidate earned one of the coveted scholarships.
Perez also joins the first group of students, 13 in all, to study abroad since spring 2020, when students were called home as the pandemic took over the world.
“We had 18 students who were impacted, but four had not left yet,” said Director of Study Abroad Brittany Fentress. “It probably started on a Monday and within three or four days they decided to get everyone home.”
At that time, guidance from the California State University (CSU) Office of the Chancellor determined all CSU students should return to their home campuses.
The scramble was on to get students out of countries before borders closed and U.S. airports stopped accepting international flights.
Then, Fentress worked to get four into Stan State courses that had already begun, while the others completed their programs online.
With study abroad on hold during the 2020-2021 academic year, Fentress and the rest of the Office of Extended and International Education worked on several study abroad initiatives.
Fentress created a faculty-led handbook as a guide for Stan State faculty to develop study abroad programs around their courses. It was important work for Fentress. As a student at Murray State University, a faculty-led trip to China inspired Fentress to study abroad twice more, once in Spain and once in China.
Now, Fentress is again arranging for Stan State students to study abroad.
“I’m pretty confident about sending them, because the students know what precautions to take to keep themselves safe,” Fentress said. “We’re dealing with it every day. Students know to take the same precautions abroad that they do here.”
COVID disrupted Perez’s plans to study abroad last spring, but the native of Los Banos anticipates being in Madrid in the fall, fulfilling a dream that began at Pacheco High School when a foreign exchange student showed Perez pictures of his hometown, Madrid.
She’ll enroll at Universidad Pontifica Comillas, which has an exchange program with Stan State, meaning Perez pays Stan State tuition and fees to attend. That university specializes in criminal justice, psychology and communications, three programs Perez is weaving into her field of study.
“The main thing I want to do is network, to see if I can teach in Spain or do some kind of work if I can’t get the job in the CIA I want,” Perez said. “I want to have options.”
The Gilman Scholarship is helping to make it possible.
“I think I would have struggled without the scholarship,” Perez said. “I would have had to take out a loan or two, but I think it would have been worth it.”
A self-described introvert, Perez learned about study abroad when a classmate in a communications class told her about the exchange program with Nagoya.
Not only is Nagoya University of Foreign Students an exchange partner with Stan State, but it also pays for student housing, making it more affordable than other programs.
“I never thought I was one to have an opportunity to travel,” said Perez, a first-generation student and daughter of a single mom. “I just wanted to try something new. I saw the opportunity in front of me and took it.”
The youngest of four daughters, she followed one of her sisters to Stan State. The farthest she’d ever traveled was a car trip to Phoenix. Now, she’s prepared for her second semester abroad.
“It really did change my perspective on life,” Perez said. “I’m much more grateful for the opportunity I have. Everything I’m able to do — I try to get the most out of it.”
As much as she loved her Japan experience, including spending New Year’s Eve in the Shibuya crosswalk, considered the busiest in the world, Perez has different expectations of Madrid.
“I feel like I took Japan as my test run,” Perez said. “I knew I wasn’t going to be able to live in Japan and settle into a life there. It was something I wanted to do, to try.
“In Spain, it’s something I want to see if I can make something happen there and stay there if possible. I’ll be a lot more focused.”