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Gilman Scholar sails to the south of France

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Daniella Sanchez-Juarez

By Chaz Lilly

Parlez-vous français?

Daniella Sanchez-Juarez, a senior entrepreneurship and finance major, wanted to learn French. The best way, she decided, was immersion. She needed to go to France. 

“I always wanted to study abroad, but I had no idea where to start or how I would pay for it,” she said. “I doubted it was even possible.”

Her first step was to speak with Robbie Van Pelt, study abroad adviser and global programs coordinator in Western Carolina University’s Office of Global Engagement. He showed her how to apply for certain scholarships and programs to fund her travel.

“Our office helps break barriers of access for students,” Van Pelt said. “We encourage all students to consider one of our many programs and to expand their experience. As Daniella’s adviser, she was very motivated. I gave her guidance, but she had the drive to independently work for what she wanted.”

Van Pelt suggested she apply for the U.S. Department of State’s Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship. The program is designed to help undergraduates study in foreign countries so they become better global citizens.  

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Daniella Sanchez-Juarez, WCU Gilman Scholar.

The Gilman application required that Sanchez-Juarez choose a foreign university and specify what she would study. And she had to be accepted to that university. 

She applied to Skema Business School in Sophia Antipolis, near Nice, in the French Riviera. The choice was not random. The year prior, she had made friends with a French student from Skema who attended WCU and came to North Carolina as part of her own study abroad.

“When my friend Angelique left WCU, she invited me to visit France. It sounded like a dream. Like something I’d do one day when I was retired and had the money,” Sanchez-Juarez said.

But, opportunity came early. She was awarded the Gilman scholarship and all the resources to realize the dream. Soon, she was bound for the south of France.

“I couldn’t believe it. I submitted my application on the very last day because I thought there was no chance I’d get it,” Sanchez-Juarez said. “I was nervous. I was definitely going outside of my comfort zone.”

Her transition into French living was made easier as Skema is an English-speaking university and she had a plan to get plugged in.  

To build community and continue to develop her interests and passions, Sanchez-Juarez found a dual language church and listened to sermons in both English and French, which helped build her vocabulary.  She also joined the nearby CrossFit gym, where the universal language of weightlifting was understood.

“Faith and fitness are two very important aspects of my life and I believe that they are things that can be a part of your life no matter where you go,” Sanchez-Juarez said. “It was such an amazing growth opportunity to engage in worship and exercise in a cross-cultural environment, appreciating both the differences and similarities to my experiences in the States. I had to overcome the fear of being disliked and really put myself out there but both communities were extremely welcoming.”

Apart from taking four classes at Skema like international business and finance, and two online courses at WCU, she spent time at the beach and trying new foods.

“I loved the pizza. It was amazing. Everything was fresh. I also loved eating at the small bakeries and seaside restaurants,” she said.

It wasn’t all sunny beaches and delicious eats, however. The challenges came. Navigating public transportation in a new place was its own adventure.

“I didn’t have a car, obviously. In America, I am self-reliant and can travel when I want. In France, I had to plan my trips around train and bus schedules. I missed the bus a few times because I forgot which side of the road I needed to be on,” she said.

Despite the occasional difficulties, Sanchez-Juarez said taking the risk to go abroad was well worth it.

“The world is beautiful to go and see. It’s exciting to visit new places, to immerse yourself in new cultures and environments. And, learning to be okay with being uncomfortable helps you grow as a person,” she said.

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Daniella Sanchez-Juarez visit Rome while studying abroad.

Sanchez-Juarez took advantage of her time in Europe by visiting as many countries and landmark destinations as possible. She went to other cities in France, including Paris and Lyon. She also visited other countries like Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and Spain.

“I loved Barcelona, Spain. It was beautiful: the colors, the culture, the architecture. And, since I already spoke Spanish, it was a little easier to order lunch,” she said.

During her excursions, she visited other international students who had previously studied at WCU as exchange students. 

“It was just a fun experience to see other people from home living abroad. I met new people and expanded my network. I have no doubt the connections I made will lead to opportunities in the future,” she added.

Once back home, Gilman Scholars are asked to share their study abroad experience with their campus community. Sanchez-Juarez gave a presentation and Q&A about her semester to a roomful of friends, faculty, staff and other students eager to take their own trips.

“I was so happy to hear Daniella share her experiences studying and living abroad,” said David Smith, who teaches finance at WCU. “I wasn’t surprised to hear that she enjoyed the classes in France, as she was a great student in both of mine.”

At the end of the presentation, Sanchez-Juarez joked about her newfound language skills. 

“Now, I can say that I speak two and a half languages. English, Spanish and je parle un peu de français. A little French,” she said.

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