Spotlight Series: Gabriella Valdez
May 23, 2019
Born and raised on the South Side of San Antonio, Gabriella Valdez had a unique career goal of becoming a Science Technology and Weaponry Analyst for the federal government. After graduating from McCollum High School, she decided to study applied mathematics and biology at Palo Alto College to begin her journey to her dream job. What may seem a far-off goal to many, Valdez is making a reality by combining her academic interests with her love of languages and curiosity about different cultures.
This spring, Valdez was awarded the 2019 David L. Boren Scholarship, a fully-paid, year-long experience awarded to undergraduate students looking to invest in language skills and cultural knowledge of countries underrepresented in traditional study-abroad programs, specifically those relevant to national security. Among 851 applicants, Valdez was one of only 244 recipients.
"I put a lot of effort into this. I researched a lot, so it feels pretty honorable. It's an opportunity for me to expand my career and my personal growth," said Valdez. "I knew they were looking for a student who is dedicated and open, who did the research, who wants to make an effort and help national security. I'm excited to finally establish my career path."
As she prepares for the next stage in her journey, Valdez is honored by being one of only a few community college students – and the first student from Palo Alto College – to be selected as a Boren Scholarship recipient.
"This program is extremely competitive and is typically geared toward students from the four-year sector... This kind of study-abroad program will forever change her view on the world, how she views herself, and how she views her nation. It will broaden her lens in a way that only travelling abroad can and will make her future opportunities exponentially increase," said Katherine Doss, interim vice president of college services. "This award is yet another testament to how tremendous and accomplished our students are, and how Palo Alto College supports our students in dreaming big and achieving even bigger together."
Valdez was awarded the African Flagship Languages Initiative scholarship, through which recipients get the opportunity to learn French, Portuguese, Swahili, Akan, or Wolof in Western or Southern Africa. Valdez is going to Senegal, where she will learn the Wolof language and interact directly with the people and culture.
"I chose to study Wolof and travel to Senegal because it's one of the languages that not a lot of people choose, and I kind of like that," said Valdez. "Experiencing their culture is going to broaden how I view culture and religion. It's also a developing country, so it'll change my view on life as well. It'll make me value and appreciate what I have here [in the United States]."
Valdez will first travel to the University of Florida, where she will begin an intensive program to learn Wolof before her transition to Senegal. After spending the summer in Florida, she will spend nine months in Senegal immersing herself in the country.
Following their international experiences, Boren recipients must commit to an internationally focused internship with the federal government. Valdez will be putting her new language and experience to the test as she interns in Senegal immediately following the learning program.
"I'm getting an internship after completing this program, so it's really setting me up," said Valdez. "Even without the internship, I'll always have this experience under me, plus [learning] a whole new language. I'm just excited to be in Senegal."
"The value of one of our students taking advantage of this opportunity is priceless. This type of awards program represents an enormous opportunity for students," said Vangie Velez-Cobb, assistant professor of Spanish, who sponsored Valdez's application and helped her through the process. "Careers in these government agencies may seem a far reach for our students at Palo Alto College, but when I present the [Boren Scholarship] program to students, I let them know that anyone can apply and [be selected] if desire, effort, and perseverance is applied."
This experience will not only influence Valdez, but it will also allow her to share her experiences and knowledge with her friends, family, and peers. She is excited to promote cultural diversity and inspire bold moves toward personal growth in others.
"Coming back, talking about [my experience] openly with other people, and telling people to go expand themselves and be more diverse is important to me. Yes, we can get diversity from another university; but to go to another country, become a part of their culture, and integrate yourself with those people is a lot different," said Valdez. "A lot of people [don't] travel too much, and I really want our generation and future generations to continue talking to others. When you talk to people, you learn and grow as a person."