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Hunter Students Win Gilman International Scholarships for Summer Study Abroad

Dania Darwish and David Kattan see the entire world as their classroom. Both are psychology majors with a deep interest in diverse cultures and a strong resolve to interact with and learn from people in foreign lands.

This summer, as winners of the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, Dania and David are using the grants to further their global education. Dania will study creative writing in London, while David will study Spanish in Guayaquil, Ecuador.  

Sponsored by the Bureau of Educational Cultural of Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, the Gilman Scholarship for study abroad is awarded competitively to undergraduates of limited financial means. The program's stated goal is to better prepare American students "to assume significant roles in an increasingly global and interdependent world."

Travel in Pursuit of Learning

"There is no better teacher than the world," said Dania, who began her travels when her parents fled Syria and emigrated halfway around the globe. The family settled in New York in 1993.

"They didn't have any means, only a dream," she said. "The dream was for my siblings and me to one day go to college and study whatever we wanted."

Today Dania is thriving at Hunter and planning to add creative writing as a second major this fall. Her long-term goals are to earn a PhD in psychology, become a professor and clinician, and provide treatment to troubled youth, the homeless, and victims of domestic violence. She also hopes to write fiction that addresses the war in Syria - the catastrophic continuation of the uprising she witnessed firsthand during a visit in 2011.

"I saw the bloody price paid for freedom, and I would like to write about that," she said.

A member of Hunter's Muslim Student Association, Dania is also very involved in the wider New York community.  She interned in the office of U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and has worked for such civic organizations as the Council on American Islamic Relations, the Interfaith Center of New York, the Muslim American Society, the New York Muslim Voting and Information Club, and AHRC, which serves individuals who are intellectually and developmentally disabled.

The dreams of Dania's mother and father are being fully realized by her academic achievements, and her parents were especially proud of her recent invitation to the White House's annual Ramadan iftar, a fast-breaking dinner.

"I had the pleasure of sitting next to President Obama during dessert," Dania said, "and we had a lovely chat about the unique college education experience in America."

The seminar she is attending this summer is sponsored by CUNY and titled "London Calling," because students use the city's landscape, history and culture as inspiration for the writing they do there. "Shakespeare, George Orwell, Virginia Wolf, the Beatles, Dracula, James Bond!" Dania said excitedly before the seminar began. "I'm eager to explore some of the world's greatest works and the city that nurtured the production of these works."

Taking full advantage of this travel opportunity, she is also including Italy, France, Spain, Switzerland, Scotland, Wales and Ireland in her summer itinerary.

An Aspiring Neuroscientist Learns a New Language

When David graduates at the end of the summer, he will embark on doctoral studies in integrative neuroscience at Stony Brook University. Behavioral neuroscience has been his area of concentration at Hunter, and he sees his summer course in Spanish as part of his ongoing exploration of personality, the brain and human nature.

In David's view, learning a new language develops the skills of interacting with new people and a new culture, and of finding ways to communicate differently. For his Spanish studies under the Gilman Scholarship Program, he chose a CUNY-sponsored program in Ecuador because it offered the experience of living with a host family in a culture very different from his own.

David was born in the United States and grew up in Israel. He left there in 2007, when he traveled to Australia and lived and worked with local families.

"Travel is one of the most important experiences we can have," he said.

When he learned about the Gilman Scholarship, he saw it as another wonderful opportunity. "I'm very interested in the cross-cultural component of this trip," he said, "of being with people who do the same thing you do but go about it differently. It makes you think about why you do things a certain way."

This analytic approach to human thought and behavior has led him to the new field of positive neuroscience, which examines aspects of wellbeing such as happiness, resilience and optimism and looks for their physiological mechanisms and biological foundations. His goal is to be a researcher and teacher in the budding discipline, and to contribute to a body of knowledge that is now in its beginning stages.

 Meanwhile, David wonders about the effects his trip to Ecuador will have on his own grey matter.

"I'm sure traveling has an effect on neural circuits in the brain," he said.

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