Nationally competitive scholarships open doors of opportunity

Four UNG students will travel to Thailand, Kyrgyz Republic, Indonesia, and Russia to spend 10 months as English Teaching Assistants. Six will head to Spain, Taiwan, Japan, and Jordan this summer to participate in credit-bearing study abroad programs. Four will trek to China and Japan, respectively, for a cultural immersion program. And two more will study a critical language for up to a year in Oman and Kazakhstan in exchange for working with the U.S. government for a year upon their return.

They are UNG’s Fulbright finalists, Early Summer Gilman scholarship recipients, Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) finalists, and Boren award winners. These are just a handful of highly competitive scholarships UNG students have won in spring 2019. In fact, UNG collected two new awards this year: John Blessing was the school’s first Truman Scholar while Brendyn Melugin became UNG’s first American Council on Education (ACE) Student of the Year.

Each student plans to use their overseas experience and scholarship to help further their future professions in education, languages, law, and military and government service.

For example, Petrus Schoeman plans to use his time in Russia as a way to achieve his dream.

“My ultimate goal is to make language learning apps,” the 2018 UNG graduate said.

So far, he is fluent in Chinese thanks to a yearlong study abroad in the Asian country. Now, the 27-year-old, who was born in South Africa and lives in Dahlonega, Georgia, wants to be fluent in Russian.

Schoeman will have that chance as one of four UNG finalists selected for the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. He will spend the 2019-20 academic year teaching English to Russian students.

The other UNG finalists selected for the prestigious award are:

  • Marcel Cantu who will teach in Thailand. The Newnan, Georgia, native graduated in May 2019 with a degree in English education.
  • Melissa Silva who will teach in Kyrgyz Republic. The Gainesville, Georgia, native will graduate in August 2019 with a degree in Spanish.
  • Caitlyn Webb who will teach in Indonesia. The Suwanee, Georgia, native graduated in May 2019 with a degree in history education with a minor in Spanish.

Two UNG students were named alternates. If a finalist withdraws, the alternate may become a finalist. The two are:

  • Jenna Labbie who hopes to teach in Taiwan. The Locust Grove, Georgia, native graduated in May 2019 with a degree in history and secondary education.
  • Emily Symmes who hopes to teach in Republic of Kazakhstan. The Cumming, Georgia, native graduated in May 2019 with a degree in Russian.


Fulbright finalists spend 10 months in their respective countries as English Teaching Assistants. Schoeman, who earned a degree in computer science, said the constant interaction with Russian students will help him two-fold.

“I can get teaching experience, which is important to make language learning apps,” he said. “And I want to find out from Russian students the kind of software and apps they want to use to learn another language. For me to have this opportunity of language education is huge.”

The Fulbright program is a highly competitive fellowship that enables graduates to pursue academic endeavors overseas. It is designed to increase mutual understanding between U.S. citizens and residents of more than 160 foreign countries.

“UNG’s mission is focused on developing globally prepared leaders,” UNG President Bonita Jacobs said. “Our faculty and staff have done an amazing job of mentoring our talented students to compete successfully for some of the nation’s most prestigious scholarships and help them fulfill their potential.”

UNG’s odds of securing finalists have increased in recent years as more students apply.

“As UNG increasingly focuses on global engagement, we are also seeing an increase in the number of students interested in the Fulbright,” said Dr. Anastasia Lin, assistant vice president of research and engagement. “For all of these scholarships, the first few wins really set the stage for more involvement, more applications and potentially more scholarships.”

This year, 20 students applied for the Fulbright; 13 were named semifinalists, which marked a new record for UNG.

Becoming a semifinalist is no easy task. The process is filled with workshops to choose a location, develop essays and identify goals; campus interviews and meetings with faculty mentors to fine-tune proposals; and one-on-one attention on essays from Lin and Dr. Victoria Hightower, assistant director of the Nationally Competitive Scholarship (NCS) Office at UNG.

However, the first step is the same. It begins with a student.

Marcel Cantu
Fulbright Finalist
Petrus Schoeman
Fulbright Finalist


Melissa Silva
Fulbright Finalist


Caitlyn Webb
Fulbright Finalist


Jenna Labbie
Fulbright Alternate


Emily Symmes
Fulbright Alternate
For Cantu, her inspiration to teach abroad began with a mission trip to Kenya before high school. In the east African country, she taught children the colors, shapes and basic English words.

“I feel in love with teaching and traveling,” the 20-year-old from Newnan, Georgia, said. “The Fulbright is the natural fit for that.”

Silva decided to apply for the Fulbright after Dr. Alexander Wisnoski, assistant professor of history, encouraging her and others to conduct undergraduate research or study abroad.

“He said we need to do something that makes us standout from the rest,” the 21-year-old from Gainesville, Georgia, said. “It hit me that I needed to try.”

During her application process for the Fulbright, Lin suggested she apply for the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship. The Gilman is awarded to U.S. citizen undergraduate students who receive Federal Pell Grant funding at two-year or four-year colleges or universities to participate in study and intern abroad programs. It is geared toward supporting students who are underrepresented in study abroad programs.

As a first-generation student with parents from Mexico, Silva fits the bill. She said she applied to study in Spain for the summer “to find links to my Mexican culture since Spain colonized Mexico.” She will have that chance as one of six students awarded a 2019 Early Summer Gilman.

With one scholarship in her belt, Silva felt confident about her Fulbright application. Turns out she was right.

“I feel like I am about to live a lavish lifestyle,” Silva said. “I am so excited to see the world. And I look forward to getting to my own classroom to teach students and learn Russian from my students.”

Silva is one of six students who earned Early Summer Gilman Scholarships. The other five are:

Gabriella “Gabi” Fleck, majoring in Spanish, will study in Spain.

Elias Keif, majoring in strategic and security studies with a concentration in cybersecurity and East Asian studies with a concentration in Chinese and in the ROTC Chinese Flagship, will study in Taiwan.

Alexa Hernandez-Lopez, majoring in visual arts, will study in Japan.

Gabe Holder, majoring in Spanish and minoring in Arabic, will study in Jordan.

Naomy Huaman, majoring in international affairs, will study in Japan.

The four Critical Language Scholars finalists are:

Daniel Shearer, who is pursuing a degree in East Asian studies with a concentration in Japanese studies and a minor in leadership, will be in Japan.
Josh Shepherd, who is pursuing a degree in Chinese and a minor in Spanish, will be in China.

Donnie “Jamar” Shumaker, who is pursuing a degree in East Asian studies with a concentration in Chinese and a minor in Chinese language and culture, will be in China.

Rachel Wilson, who is pursuing a degree in finance and a minor in Chinese, will be in China.

The CLS program is a fully-funded overseas language and cultural immersion program for American undergraduate and graduate students. Its goal is to broaden the base of Americans studying and mastering critical languages and building relationships between the people of the United States and other countries.

It is highly competitive, with acceptance rates of 10%, Hightower said. This makes UNG’s accomplishment of four finalists significant.

“UNG’s four finalists and four alternates reflect our commitment to cultivating academically talented global leaders,” Lin said. “This also indicates UNG’s prowess in teaching critical languages.”

UNG’s two David L. Boren Scholarships winners are:

Laine Hunt, who is pursuing a degree in international affairs with a Middle East track, will study Arabic in Oman. Her goal is to work in the intelligence community.

Cadet Alexander Ross, who is pursuing a degree in Russian and a member of the Corps of Cadets and in the Georgia National Guard, will study Russian in Kazakhstan. His goal is to become a linguist with the National Security Agency. Ross is UNG’s second Boren to Oman and first to Kazakhstan.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Defense’s National Security Education Program, Boren Scholarships are worth up to $20,000 for a recipient to spend up to a full academic year studying abroad. They receive the scholarship in exchange for their commitment to seek work in the federal government for at least one year after graduation.

Two new firsts for UNG were the ACE Student of the Year and the Truman Scholar.

Brendyn Melugin was named the national ACE Student of the Year, which is presented annually to an adult learner who has benefited from the use of ACE credit recommendations to earn a college degree or advance a career.

John Blessing was selected as a Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation recipient, a nationally competitive award that provides up to $30,000 for undergraduate students to attend graduate school in preparation for careers in government or public service.

Dr. Anastasia Lin, left, and Dr. Victoria Hightower help guide students through the application process for nationally competitive scholarships.