A college road trip doesn’t typically lead to a major scholarship, but the road traveled by Faith Zeonweh ’23 has hardly been typical. An immigrant from the Ivory Coast at the age of two, an unforgettable three weeks on the road over the summer of 2021 with a fellow Kohawk was the catalyst to pursue a Gilman Scholarship.
The highly competitive Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship is sponsored by the United States Department of State and enables students of limited financial means to study or intern abroad.
In December, Faith found out she earned a $5,000 Gilman Scholarship, which is the maximum amount, to travel to Japan this fall. Even though only about 25% of applicants earn a scholarship nationwide, Coe has more than a 70% success rate recently, with Faith being Coe’s fifth Gilman winner in the last five years.
However, Faith’s journey to the Gilman began further in the past than the trip she took across the South, into the Rockies and back across the plains this past summer.
Faith arrived in the United States with her mother and sister, fleeing civil war in her home country. The family initially settled in the Northeast, but then moved to Atlanta. Her interest in other cultures blossomed there, including an affinity for Japan as she even tried to teach herself Japanese.
“I was always having different experiences and meeting new people and immersing myself into different cultures. It was nice, actually, and it was always interesting,” Faith said. “I learned a lot about myself and other people.”
One more move — this time to Cedar Rapids — was in store. Faith’s family moved to be closer to her aunt, which is when she learned about Coe’s extensive off-campus study program. With 40% of Kohawks participating in Coe’s 40+ off-campus study programs, Faith knew she found a home at Coe.
“I took a look at Coe and specifically its study abroad and psychology programs. I really felt like the growth and development in one place would be best for me,” she said.
At Coe, Faith is an international studies and psychology major, and she is taking formal Japanese classes for the first time while being active in the orchestra and International Club. Chair for the Foreign Language Department and Director of Off-Campus Study John Chaimov introduced Faith to international studies and helped identify career prospects and study abroad opportunities.
“Faith is extremely funny, quick-witted and high-energy,” Chaimov said. “With feet in two cultures, Faith has developed high cultural curiosity.”
Returning to campus this fall after her road trip, Faith was reinvigorated by the prospects of traveling and began pursuing the Gilman scholarship, which requires a compelling statement of purpose and a proposal for a follow-up project. Chaimov and her advisor, Assistant Professor of Psychology Samantha Brown, offered guidance and encouragement. The Coe Writing Center provided valuable feedback on the required statement and essays. But there was still lingering uncertainty about her ability to travel abroad and Faith let the deadline pass.
That’s when good fortune and one quick text message had an enormous impact.
“John [Chaimov] texted me at work that the deadline was extended. I was greeting customers and I knew that was the sign I needed,” Faith said.
This time, Faith turned in the application. Weeks went by, and she had convinced herself she hadn’t received an award, until an email caught her eye while she was studying in the library.
“I was really nervous when I saw the big congratulations in the subject line — I was like ‘no way!’ I started telling everyone. I had to go back and look at the amount and I was shocked I got the max amount,” Faith said. “Everyone around me was wondering what just happened!”
Faith credits the multitude of experiences she’s had, which she relayed in her essays, for receiving the maximum amount.
“My identity as an American started by being sworn in as an immigrant and Black woman. All my experiences have formed me into a unique, prideful individual,” Faith explained.
She told the Gilman committee that she wanted to go to a place where there were not a lot of people like her and that she would lean on her characteristics and experiences to learn about other cultures through that lens.
Faith is set to depart for Japan this fall to study at a partner school in Nagoya. She will be documenting her experiences via TikTok.
“I’m super grateful. If I can do it, anyone else can do it, so just believe in yourself,” Faith says.