When Cedar Park resident Chareena Barrows decided to go to college to get her degree in education, she never imagined the opportunities it would open up for her.
The 36-year-old mother of three enrolled in college at Southwestern University in Georgetown in 2011. She has done very well in school and is the incoming president for the Chi Omega honor society.
Since she began school, one dream she always had was to study abroad, but she thought it was impossible.
“I had been wanting to study abroad for a very long time, since I started school in 2011,” Barrows said. “I just thought, ‘Oh that could never happen, because I didn’t have the money.’”
Through school she learned of a scholarship opportunity called the Benjamin Gilman International Scholarship, a highly-competitive scholarship that is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. It is designed to help U.S. undergraduate students pursue academic studies abroad, particularly in areas outside of Western Europe and Australia.
Barrows said, “They told me I could apply for this scholarship. They wanted people who felt like they couldn’t go.”
Taking a chance, Barrows decided to apply. As odds would have it, the school had a large influx of students apply in the spring. By the end of April, Barrows hadn’t received word, so she thought she hadn’t gotten it. But then later that same week, she received an email confirming that she had been selected. “I was just totally excited,” Barrows said.
The $4,000 scholarship allows her to study abroad for eight weeks in Costa Rica. She left on May 11 and will return on July 5. While there, she is living with a host family and taking two intensive Spanish-language courses that will count toward her degree plan.
“One of the reasons why this trip is so important to me is, when I graduate, I will be certified to teach English as a Second Language (ESL). I want to have that experience of being in a different country where nobody speaks my language. I want to know how that feels so I can empathize with them and be better equipped to help them,” said Barrows, who plans to graduate in spring 2016 and wants to be an elementary educator in the Cedar Park area. She also wants to pursue a Master’s degree to become an applied behavioral analyst, which would allow her to work with students who have autism.
A graduate of Travis High School in Austin, Barrows lives in Cedar Park with her three children, ages 13, 13 and 10. Barrows said she credits a strong support system with allowing her to achieve her dreams while also being a mom.
“It is very difficult,” she said. “I could not do it without my mother and my grandmother. They are very supportive. Anything I need, they are always there. I know I would not be able to reach my goals of becoming an educator if I didn’t have my mom and my grandmother in my life.”
As part of the scholarship, when she returns she will find ways to promote the Gillman scholarship to her classmates. She said she wants to encourage others to pursue study abroad opportunities.
“I know a lot of people in my situation think, ‘I could never study abroad.’ I want to let more people know, especially minority groups, that you can do it,” Barrows said, adding that she thinks her position as president of the Honor Society will help.
“Because I’m in that higher position, I have more influence over the students,” she said. “I think I could speak to them and let them know, ‘If I can do this, you can too.’”
She said despite the challenges of balancing school and motherhood, her passion for teaching continues to fuel her. She is grateful to have the opportunity to pursue her dream.
“Do not put an age on the things you can do,” she said. “If there is a desire to do something, it doesn’t matter if it is college or starting a business, follow your dream. You are the only person who can follow your dreams. Don’t listen to naysayers, do what’s in your heart.”