I’m Robert Lares and I’m a Gilman Alumni Ambassador. I studied abroad in the United Kingdom in 2018 with the support of the Gilman Scholarship.
I returned to school in 2014 at the age of 41 to finish what I had started in the 1990s. I had a bad living situation and had to move out of Los Angeles. The reality I faced when I arrived in Mississippi was that I was never going to achieve anything, and that life had passed me by. But in this country, you’re never finished while you’re still alive. A year later I was back in college to get a degree in History. The subject of studying abroad came up in a class I had with my favorite professor, Dr. Andrew Wiest. Because of my disability and low-income, I qualified for Pell Grants, but when I inquired to Jessica Bunales at the office of Study Abroad, I first heard of the Gilman Scholarship. I applied to the British Studies program with Dr. Wiest in 2018 and wrote my essays. I was thrilled when I was selected. The Benjamin Gilman International Scholarship would make possible my getting the credits that would count towards graduation. But not credits from a stuffy room in the university. These classes would be on the world stage.
To be in a country whose younger buildings are older than our entire country was quite an experience. I saw everything from the H.M.S. Victory to the Tower of London to a Lego model of Big Ben! But among the best things I took away from British Studies were three very good friends. We called ourselves the Fearless Four and started to hang out together for the first few days and turned into a unit that went everywhere together. We toured Admiral Nelson’s Victory together, saw the field where William the Conqueror defeated Harold to become king, and the Imperial War Museum. We also saw the Rosetta Stone, which allowed modern scholars to decipher the written language of the ancient Egyptians. For me, a man who was told that his disability would bar him from such experiences, this was a life-changing moment, and I owe it all to the Gilman Scholarship.
When I returned to the U.S. I needed only one credit to graduate. I fulfilled my obligations for my Major, History. I got A’s on both sections and these grades were instrumental in my graduating with honors on December 7, 2018.
Instrumental in my getting the scholarship were five women, including my mother, Dr. Jameela Lares, who is on the faculty here at the University of Southern Mississippi, and who first suggested my going back to school. The others were Robyn Curtis of the Honors College, who coordinated and helped me along the way, and informed me that our university had been awarded the most Gilman Scholarships that year in our history, seven. I was also helped by Celine Ingram and Jessica Bunales of the center for international education, who suggested Gilman to me. But the biggest help to me was my fellow student Ariel Elliot, who received the scholarship in the semester before I did. I was invited to her follow-on presentation and she let me have copies of her essays and documentation so I could see what was required. I couldn’t have asked for a better guide. I spoke with her several times as she guided me through the process. I was announced at a reception for scholarship students and she was there, celebrating my achievement, even taking a picture of me with my certificate. I couldn’t have done it without her.
After I returned, I heard about another student named A. J. Blaylock, who was also hoping to go abroad and was inquiring about the Gilman Scholarship. As Ariel had done for me, so I did for him. I gave him copies of my documentation so he could see what was required of a Gilman Scholar. He was very grateful when he was selected as well, and agreed to keep the chain going.
Possibly the most rewarding facet of my being awarded the scholarship was my follow-on project. For credit, I had taught a film studies class at the Forrest County Juvenile Detention Center, and I knew about the hopelessness those kids were facing, as the director told me that once these kids get in the system, they’re practically guaranteed to wind up in real prison when it looks like it’s too late to make real changes in their lives. For the follow-on, I did two presentations, one a simple lecture, and the other was a slideshow showing them the countries they could visit if they get their lives on the right track and went to college. I told them about Pell and Gilman and two of the kids responded positively. In their circles, they had never even heard of the opportunities that exist outside of that narrow window onto life. Two of the kids responded, and though I can’t divulge their real names, they felt hopeful that they would finish High School, in the system if need be, and see about going to college. I recommended the University of Southern Mississippi.