CSUN student wins prestigious Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship

Kathleen Tuntisukharom, 22, points to Seoul, South Korea on the map in the International and Exchange Student Center on campus. This is where she will study abroad starting Fall 2015. Photo credit: Alyson Burton

Kathleen Tuntisukharom, political science major, is one of four CSUN students to be awarded the prestigious Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship for the 2015-2016 school year.

The competitive scholarship is awarded to students that are recipients of Pell Grants and are often underrepresented in study abroad, such as minorities.

According to the International Institute of Education’s 2014 Open Door Report, only 1.5 percent of U.S. students study abroad and 23.7 percent of them are minorities.

The 22-year-old will study in Seoul, South Korea at Yonsei University, the oldest university in Korea, through the CSU International Program. When deciding where to study abroad, Tuntisukharom had considered one other place besides South Korea.

“The only other place I seriously considered was Thailand since that’s where my parents are from,” Tuntisukharom said.

However, the choice to study in South Korea came from childhood influences. As a first generation Thai American, much of her decision to study in South Korea was because of being raised in Koreatown and the influence of Korean culture that she experienced.

“Living in Los Angeles, there’s a large Korean culture,” Tuntisukharom said. “I grew up in Koreatown, so I’ve been exposed to a lot of Korean culture in general when I walked around my neighborhood or went shopping. There are Korean markets that I go to and a lot of my friends are Korean.”

The path to studying abroad hasn’t been completely pain free for Tuntisukharom.

After being rejected from the CSU International Program’s competitive South Korean program and not receiving the Benjamin A. Gilman international scholarship for the 2014-2015 school year, she decided to apply again the following year.

Tuntisukharom’s desire to study abroad began in her freshman year of college.

Juliet Aylmer, coordinator for the CSU International Program on campus, recalls the first time she met Tuntisukharom.

“I give a lot of Freshman Seminar class presentations and that’s where I first met Kathleen. She came into the [International and Exchange] Office and said how interested she was in study abroad and asked if she could volunteer in the office,” Aylmer said. “That’s how keen she was to learn about the programs.”

One of the biggest concerns for Tuntisukharom’s parents was her ability to be financially stable while abroad. Having already experienced sending her older brother abroad, they wanted to make sure that she wasn’t financially strained.

Winning the Gilman scholarship has helped her quell those fears.

“Now that I’ve got the Gilman, I feel much better,” Tuntisukharom said. “It’s a lot of money. I’m really grateful for that.”

A participant of the Model United Nations, her desire to work in international relations also influenced her decision to study in South Korea. She hopes that studying abroad will help her with her future education and career goals.

“I hope it’s a solid foundation for when I go into my master’s in international relations,” Tuntisukharom said. “I can hone in on the area that I want to be specific about, which is East Asia.”

Political science professor Keiko Hirata said that Yonsei University is a prestigious school.

“Yonsei has a very big presence, not just in South Korea, but East Asia,” Hirata said. “It’s more like an Ivy League school, but the Korean version.”

One of the qualifications for winning the Gilman Scholarship is a follow-up project that students have to complete upon returning from studying abroad. For Tuntisukharom’s project, she will be assisting with information sessions in the International and Exchange Student Center on campus.

In addition to helping with sessions, she wants to personally be able to give a first-hand account of what studying abroad is like for a CSUN student.

Tuntisukharom said the overall experience of studying abroad is about self-discovery and creating opportunities for herself.

“I don’t think studying abroad is as common as we think it is, especially with the demographic that does study abroad,” Tuntisukharom said. “If you are an ethnic minority, it’s not as common. Usually the face of an American abroad is not like me. It’s not Asian or Latino. The more that student’s from a lower bracket can be exposed to study abroad, [the more] it can open up doors.”