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Worth the Journey: A Gilman Scholar’s Experiences in Prague

Hannah Koutishian at the St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague

The competitive national Gilman Scholarship Program gives high-achieving college students of limited financial means the opportunity to study abroad. Receiving a Gilman grant was only one challenge Hannah Koutishian ’22, a nursing major, would meet to fulfill her international study goals—but she persevered.

Hannah, the fourth of five children, is putting herself through college, partly through financial aid, including the federal Pell Grant, and by working as a patient care technician at Ocean Medical Center. “I didn’t want to burden my parents,” she explains. Still, studying abroad has been a long-held dream for Hannah, who until recently had never traveled outside the United States. “The nursing program is very structured, and everything else about my education has been planned for me. It was nice to choose something for myself.”

Hannah Koutishian at the St. Vitus Cathedral in the Czech Republic
A new perspective: Hannah spent nearly three weeks studying in and exploring the Czech Republic, including the St. Vitus Cathedral, the largest and most important church in the country and an example of Gothic architecture.

Last year, as a junior, she worked closely with Laura Grodewald, director of global education programs, to find a study abroad program she could afford. “It all came down to the Gilman Scholarship,” she said. “I put all my eggs in one basket. If I didn’t receive the scholarship, I wouldn’t be able to study abroad. Laura was very helpful and with me every step of the way.”

How difficult is it to receive a Gilman award? The application itself is rigorous, requiring three essays: a personal statement, an explanation of country choice, and a service project proposal. Many students apply. Since 2001, when the program named after the late U.S. Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman began, about 125,000 applications have been submitted, and 33,000 awards have been granted. Georgian Court has had a few Gilman scholars in past years; Hannah, with her March 2021 award, is the most recent.

Travel During a Pandemic and the Power of Pups

Not surprisingly, studying abroad during a pandemic has its challenges. Hannah’s first-choice country, Italy, was on a COVID-restricted travel list, sending her back to researching programs and countries against an ever-changing pandemic scenario (such as the Omicron variant) as well as the calendar. Hannah needed to complete nursing classes in the Fall 2021 semester to graduate on time, leaving January winter term as her only option. Her award could not be extended past the undergraduate level.

Library at the Strahov Monastery
Hannah’s favorite place in Prague was the Strahov monastery and its library, the latter of which was completed in 1679.

“We found a program in Prague, Czech Republic, which I was very excited about, but again, the shifting COVID travel restrictions were a factor,” she said. With a go/no-go decision to make and a nonrefundable airplane ticket in hand, Hannah boarded the plane for the Czech Republic in late December.

The nearly three weeks Hannah spent in Prague were a combination of study and cultural experiences, and through them, she became a student of the Czech people. “I took a social psychology class, which, with psychology being one of my nursing field interests, was perfect for me,” said Hannah. The group project was to explore differences and similarities between the Czech culture and others. For this research, they involved man’s best friend. “Everyone in Prague seems to have a dog, and dogs go absolutely everywhere with their owners. We decided to approach dog owners and ask them about their dog or if we could pet it.” While most Americans wouldn’t hesitate to chat about their pets, the group observed that Czechs generally are very reserved in public and hypothesized that they would not be open to such small talk with strangers.

“Much to our surprise, we were proven entirely wrong,” said Hannah. “We found Czech dog owners to be very warm and eager to talk about their dogs. While at first they might appear to be standoffish, that’s not the case—the people we met were very welcoming.”

On the cultural side, Hannah lived in an apartment with other students and took several trips, including a somber tour of the Terezin concentration camp, where more than 150,000 Jews were held while awaiting transport to Nazi extermination camps. In Pilsen, they visited a brewery and tasted the famed Pilsner Urquell beer. Hannah’s favorite stop: the 12th-century Strahov Monastery and its library.

“I love books, so to step inside rooms with floor-to-gloriously-painted-ceiling stacks of historical volumes was amazing. I felt like Belle (from Beauty and the Beast) the first time she saw the Beast’s library,” she said. One of the program’s faculty was also a library tour guide, so the students were able to see areas not typically open to the public.

“My study abroad trip to Prague was everything I dreamed of—and much more,” said Hannah.

Read more about Hannah’s experiences in the Czech Republic in her blog and other Global Education student blogs by clicking here. Learn more about volunteer and study abroad opportunities by contacting GCU’s Office of Global Education Programs.

Story contributed by freelance writer Sheila Noonan. 

Aerial view of GCU.

About Georgian Court University

Georgian Court University is a leading regional university that provides a transformative education, preparing students for ethical leadership and service in the Catholic Mercy tradition. Founded in 1908 and sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy, Georgian Court University is Central and South Jersey’s only Catholic university. The university has a strong liberal arts core and a historic special concern for women.

As a forward-thinking university that supports diversity and academic excellence, GCU is known for expanding possibility for more than 1,900 students of all faiths and backgrounds in 35+ undergraduate majors and 10+ graduate programs. The GCU Lions compete in 16 NCAA Division II sports in the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference (CACC). In 2020, GCU was named a Best Value College by and a Best Bang for the Buck (Northeast) by Washington Monthly. High student retention and graduation rates make GCU a Top Performer on Social Mobility on U.S. News & World Reports rankings, and in 2024, GCU was named one of the best Online Master’s Colleges in New Jersey.

The main campus is in Lakewood, New Jersey, on the picturesque former George Jay Gould estate, a National Historic Landmark. Georgian Court, which is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, also serves students through its Center for Professional Studies, and at other locations, including GCU at Brookdale, and through multiple online degree and certificate programs.