Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
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Unexpected gift

Surprise Gilman scholarship helps Wheaton junior extend Oxford experience

For Sarah Estrela ’15, the Gilman scholarship arrived just in time.

Estrela had begun a yearlong study abroad program at the University of Oxford’s Lady Margaret Hall in October, but when she approached the spring term with limited funds and a spot on the Gilman scholarship waitlist, Estrela returned from Oxford early and began making plans to start her spring term at Wheaton.

With classes set to begin January 22, Estrela received a last-minute email on January 16 saying she had been taken off the waitlist and would be receiving a Gilman scholarship for the spring term.

Now, with the aid of that award, Estrela has returned to Oxford for a second and third term—referred to at Oxford as a “Trinity term”—and will conclude her study abroad experience in late June.

“The Gilman is the reason I have been able to continue pursuing this lifelong dream, and without it I would have had to end a unique and enriching chapter of my life in the most abrupt, heartbreaking way,” Estrela said.

The English and art history major from Pawtucket learned of the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship program over the summer, when her roommate, Atiya McGhee ’14, received the award. Established by the International Academic Opportunity Act of 2000, the scholarship helps fund study and work abroad opportunities for undergraduate students receiving Federal Pell grants.

“When I read the eligibility requirements and realized that I qualified, I knew it wouldn’t hurt to apply,” Estrela said. “I felt that the values perpetuated and encouraged by the Gilman—a strong commitment to service, a love of learning, a taste for exploration and giving underrepresented students a fighting chance at seeing the world—were all values and ideals I easily aligned with.”

Having never left the United States, Estrela chose to study at Oxford because of its reputation for academic rigor and its cultural resources that appealed to her as an art student and avid reader.

“As the child of a Portuguese/Cape Verdean immigrant, I knew I wanted to explore the world beyond America's borders. Any place would be new to me, so I was open to every option,” she said. “When I was accepted to study at Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford, I knew I was in for quite a year. The accessibility of several world-class museums would help sustain my love for art and culture, while the oldest library in the English-speaking world (The Bodleian) would ensure I'd never be in want of a good book.”

Her experience thus far has not disappointed.

“My time at Oxford has been extremely humbling. I'm not only surrounded by some of the most intelligent, groundbreaking scholars in the world, but also the most welcoming and genuine souls that I've ever had the pleasure to meet. I instantly felt welcomed into the community and have been really exploring my own personal interests while aligning them with my academic work,” she said.

While at Wheaton, Estrela has been an active presence on campus, serving as vice president of the college’s chapter of The Roosevelt Institute last year and helping to organize the spring 2013 WheaTalks. She is also involved with ARTHive and iSpeak.

She has kept up that level of activity at Oxford, volunteering at area museums such as the Pitt Rivers, Ashmolean and Oxford’s Museum of Natural History, and at Arts at the Old Fire Station, a nonprofit in central Oxford that promotes public art and provides learning opportunities for homeless individuals. Estrela has also pursued her poetry interests by joining the Oxford Poetry Society and the Hammer and Tongue slam series—all while maintaining an interesting and challenging class load.

When she returns to Wheaton for her senior year, Estrela hopes to share her experience with Wheaton students by leading an iSpeak workshop and to organize a poetry workshop for elementary and middle school students at Providence’s AS220, where she benefitted as a child from free workshops, classes and after-school programs.

“I want to not only share my experiences at Oxford with these children but also spark their imaginations in regards to where they could possibly travel when they get older,” Estrela said in her Gilman project proposal. “If this workshop has the resonance I hope for, this could encourage some of these children to attend college and potentially become future Gilman scholars.”

Looking ahead, Estrela said she hopes to study art history in graduate school, with a goal of becoming a curator.

“I'd like to help contribute to the way museums shape public knowledge, and I'd especially love to curate exhibitions with works of art from groups and cultures that haven't typically been represented fairly,” she said. “Most of my passions are fundamentally based upon affording typically marginalized and voiceless people an opportunity to be heard.”

Estrela is Wheaton College’s fifth recipient of the Gilman scholarship in the past 18 months. Gilman awards are offered each year for spring and fall study abroad programs.

Photo by Imogen Lester