An Indiana University East student who missed opportunities to study abroad in 2020-2021 because of COVID-19 hopes to make up for what he missed when he travels to Costa Rica in July as the first IU East recipient of the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, a program of the United States Department of State.
Alex Hakes of Yorktown, Indiana, said the year of the pandemic brought changes to his career plans, which now involve preparing to go into foreign diplomacy. With original plans to consider serving in the Peace Corps and briefly thinking about military service, Hakes said the upheaval of a pandemic year upset his anticipated study trips to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and England.
“The pandemic shot an arrow through my plans and said ‘you are going to do this instead,’” Hakes said.
The new “this” is to graduate from IU East in 2022 as a double-major with degrees in Political Science and Spanish. He plans to then immediately start preparing for the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT), and begin the steps to serve the U.S. in other countries. He will also seek a Ph.D. in International Security with an emphasis on Middle East studies. He said all the disruption of his 2020 plans by the pandemic played a role in giving him time to reevaluate and clarify what he wants to do in the future.
His ultimate goal is to serve in some way in an embassy or even as an ambassador.
“I’ve always had a dream to travel and see the world. It wasn’t until college when I got that click in my head – I can still travel and see the world and help people in that process,” Hakes said.
He is currently researching democratic peace theory in the Middle East, where current events have impressed him of the importance of improved relationships. “I am feeling more and more compelled to go into research and peacekeeping,” he said.
Hakes noted the FSOT will be challenging and lengthy. “It’s about a year-long process. You have to take a written test, a verbal test, one of them with the Department of State. Each step of the process gets more difficult. But it does not scare me. Being in college during a pandemic, not knowing what I’m going to do, has really helped me to go with the flow and not worry about the ‘ifs’ and the ‘nos’. I actually feel that I was blessed to be in college during a pandemic.”
He heard about the Gilman Scholarship through a friend. With much help from Julien J. Simon, Ph.D., associate professor of Spanish and director of Study Abroad at IU East, Hakes submitted the application materials in January. This May he just learned he was a recipient.
“I had to submit a resume, letters of recommendation, advisor recommendations as well as transcripts,” Hakes said. He also had to share a plan on how he would share with others the importance of diplomatic relations with other countries and the benefits of studying abroad. He will travel to regional schools after his trip and share about the experience he has in Costa Rica and the benefits of foreign study programs.
Hakes hopes to make a connection with the U.S. Embassy before he arrives so he can spend some of his free time establishing relationships and connections with staff there. He will stay with a host family, take classes, and visit attractions of the country.
“This is a fully immersive experience. I hope I have the chance to dive deep into their culture and experience a life completely different from my own,” Hakes said.
He said his roommates and closest friends at IU East all are from other Hispanic countries, including Venezuela and Mexico. The Costa Rica program, however, will be his first experience outside the United States after the others he had planned fell victim to lockdowns and restrictions from COVID-19.
Simon said students in any study area can apply for the Gilman Scholarship, which requires the student be a Pell Grant recipient. The scholarship provides awards up to $5,000 for foreign study. The next deadline is in October. Students have other scholarship opportunities through the Study Abroad office at IU East as well.
Hakes, who will also gain more service-oriented experience as president of the Student Government Association during his senior year, said he is honored to be a recipient. The opportunity will build on the rich academic and extracurricular experiences Hakes has already had as a student at IU East.
In fall 2020, he completed an internship with the Indiana Senate, serving with the Commerce and Technology Committee and the Public Policy Committee. He simultaneously participated in Harvard University’s Policython, a policy writing marathon complete with workshops, mentors, and a final judging process that will distribute awards.
As a third-generation student, his family is part of the IU East Alumni Legacy Circle, which recognizes families for making an Indiana University education part of their family tradition.
“The Gilman Scholarship is a very prestigious award, and I will get many benefits from it,” Hakes said.
He cited the importance of such experiences for college students.
“I think that every opportunity students have to expand their mind and sense of culture, they should take them. Do studies abroad, apply for scholarships, use the Study Abroad office at IU East,” Hakes said.