Emily Lai is a recent graduate of Fordham University Lincoln Center. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science with a minor in Mandarin Chinese. Emily plans to pursue a career in real estate law. She enjoys playing table tennis and golf, playing video games, and baking! 

I was excited to talk with Emily about her decision to study abroad, her expectations, and her advice to other students applying to the Gilman Scholarship:

Emily, why did you choose to study abroad? Have you done something similar to this in the past? Have you ever traveled outside the U.S. before? 

I’ve never done anything remotely close to studying abroad–the only time I had really been away from my family and fully independent was when I spent the summer of 2022 in Washington D.C. as a legislative intern for Senator Schumer. Before studying abroad, the last time I traveled outside of the U.S. was when I went to Taipei, Taiwan, for a summer after my sophomore year in high school. Between my first year of college being online due to COVID and only having three years of university left, I chose to study abroad because I wanted my last semester to be memorable. 

Was it hard to decide to study abroad? Did you have any hesitation about it? What helped you decide to go for it? 

Studying abroad wasn’t a hard decision since I always wanted to do it. I had the mindset that if I wanted to do something as big as study abroad, I would eventually figure out all the logistics to make it a reality for myself. But I definitely had some hesitations when I saw the cost associated with it. I come from a low-income family and I didn’t want my experience to burden my parents. I saved enough through various side opportunities, and when I was sure that I could cover the cost, my hesitation went away. Encouragement from friends, family, and professors also definitely helped me decide to go for it. I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, and I wouldn’t let that chance pass.

That is truly inspiring, Emily. What was your host country? Why did you choose this country? Have you been there before? 

I went to London, England, for my spring 2023 semester. A couple factors influenced my decision to go there. I had never been to the United Kingdom, let alone Europe, before studying abroad so I was excited to go somewhere I had never been before. Moreover, Fordham has a direct campus in London, so I felt more comfortable going to a country where there wouldn’t be any credit transfer or financial aid barriers. I also knew I’d have friends from my own school back at home, so that was an added bonus. I also chose London because I have an online friend who attends university there! They told me so many things about the UK and the culture, so I was really excited. Going to London was my chance to meet them in-person for the first time–they actually picked me up from the airport and took me on an 8-mile tour around London the first day I arrived!

That is so fascinating! What is your connection between your host country and your chosen career path or studies? 

As a political science major, I thought studying abroad was crucial for understanding how different political contexts enable individuals in other countries to engage with politics and perceive their role as citizens. During my time in London, I wanted to learn about the country’s history and culture not just from lectures and books, but by actually going there and seeing where these historical events happened and how they affected the country and its people. London is also a major player in the global economy and because of its importance as an economic and cultural hub, it’s a fantastic place to build a professional network.

Lastly, as a person who has stayed in New York City for almost their entire life, I wanted to show I could adjust to unfamiliar environments and confidently make cross-cultural connections. I felt like I was able to learn more about what I wanted in my career and future as a potential lawyer from the people I met and adapting to another country’s way of life.

What do you hope to gain academically, professionally, and personally from this experience? How will you share your experience in your host country with your community in the U.S.?

I am a first generation Chinese-Taiwanese American from Brooklyn, New York. My identity as an Asian-American made my experience in Europe quite unique. During my time abroad, I traveled quite a bit to different countries and I saw how my appearance and heritage impacted how other people saw me. I had many conversations with people from my host country about what it means to be an American, which is very different as an Asian-American New Yorker than your average American. Since returning to the States, I’ve had many conversations with family and friends about my experience in London. By sharing my experiences with others, I hope to foster a shared appreciation for the UK, and their community and history. 

What challenges did you anticipate? How did you overcome and learn from them? 

While I was abroad, I felt homesick and lonely. I faced my fair share of mental health challenges, and I didn’t have the usual support systems I had back in New York. Because of the friends I made, I had a support system throughout the semester and I’m so appreciative and thankful they stuck with me when I needed them. I learned not to be scared to seek help when I needed it. Taking the first steps towards that is difficult, but I learned to put myself first and that people care more about you than you think. Above all, I learned I have the grit to do anything if I put my mind to it. I grew tremendously as a person as a result of my study abroad experience. I returned to New York with a newly built confidence, independence, and perspective.

That is truly inspiring. How do you plan to share your study abroad experience when you get back? 

A part of the Gilman Scholarship is having a service project to promote the Gilman. My service project involves outreach to juniors and seniors in high school and freshmen in college. From my junior year in high school to my freshman year in college, I was part of an after school program called Learn and Earn (L&E). The Chinese-American Planning Council (CPC) runs this college and career readiness program in the Lower East Side of Manhattan to serve low-income students, many of whom were Asian-American like myself. 

To give back to this community, I plan on creating a workshop to present the benefits of studying abroad and the Gilman Program as one way to financially support such a journey to various cohorts of L&E youth in-person. As a low-income student in high school, I thought studying abroad was impossible due to the high cost. But that isn’t true! I hope to help students understand that studying abroad should not be thought of as a want but really a need, and that most importantly, it’s possible! 

What advice would you give other Fordham students applying to the Gilman or other scholarships?

Start your application early! I’m guilty of this, but I actually applied for Gilman at the last minute. By starting early, you have plenty of time to perfect your essays. Also, consider why you want to pursue that opportunity and what makes you unique. What makes you, you? Lastly, think about the target audience. What are you applying for, and who’s reading your essays?

What have you gained from the application process that you hope other applicants will gain too?

Don’t lose hope! I was originally named an alternate for the scholarship and I thought at that point I was never going to get the award. The first day I landed in London was when I got an email saying I was named a Gilman Scholar, and I was ecstatic!

“Photo of me during a short weekend trip I took to Vienna with some friends I made at the beginning of Study Abroad. It was my first trip on continental Europe so I was really excited.”