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Happy Belated Birthday, NOVA Gilman Scholar Nicolas Rodriguez!

Happy Belated Birthday, NOVA Gilman Scholar Nicolas Rodriguez!

Nicolas Rodriguez recently celebrated his 32nd birthday! The next day, he was flying to Tokyo, Japan, to do an internship. Nicolas had never been out of the United States before. He teared up a bit when he learned he won the Gilman scholarship because he said it was almost like a dream come true!

The Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship offers international study abroad or internship opportunities to students who could not otherwise afford such a valuable and life-changing experience.

NOVA spoke with Nicolas before he left for his internship in Japan.

"I didn't have the money to front the cost of this internship program. I am a working-class student and hardly make enough money to survive. Going overseas still feels like a long shot, even though it's happening. I feel beyond blessed!

With my Gilman scholarship, I wanted to pursue an art internship program overseas, working at an animation studio or something like that. What ended up happening was that I got an interview with a company called Skydea ( It's a graphics company, and I will be doing illustrations of cartoon animals for a Japanese learning app. 

When I entered the fall semester, I had no intention of making plans to travel abroad. I was ready to move on and planned on applying for spring graduation. I thought the spring semester would be my last at NOVA. But then I got an email from Leeza Fernand, NOVA’s associate director of International Education & Sponsored Programs, saying that I qualify for the Gilman scholarship due to my academic achievements, informing me I had a 3.9 GPA and that I could win up to $5,000. At first, I didn't even realize it was for a travel abroad program. Then I was just like, "Oh! I can win money to go overseas. Yeah, I'm going to do it!"

One of the things I wrote in my essay when applying for the Gilman scholarship was that, especially with my illustrations, I want to have a heavy focus on LGBTQ youth between the ages of five and 25, and I want to focus on mental health and wellness, as well as seeing LGBTQ adults thriving, because a lot of what I noticed as a queer person was that I didn't have that representation growing up.

Tell us a little about yourself and your background: 
I graduated from Gar-Field High School in Woodbridge in 2009. I fully intended to go to NOVA in 2010, but life happened, and I was unable to go. Then living in D.C., I tried going to school in the city and did one semester at UDC (The University of the District of Columbia). But by the time I applied again to UDC, the registration office wasn't getting back to me. I called them, emailed them, and I wasn't getting answers.

After working in the hospitality industry, I wanted a career change, so I quit my job at a restaurant. But then both life and COVID happened. After weathering those storms, I was at a crossroads. Going back to school made the most sense, and NOVA seemed like the natural choice. I'm familiar with NOVA, and I know how good a school NOVA is and how reputable it is in this area.

Honestly, I feel like I would still be struggling if I hadn't applied to NOVA. I don't want to say that serving or bartending are dead-end jobs, because they can be lucrative, but I wanted something else. I knew being financially unstable was something I didn't want to do anymore.

What are you studying at NOVA? 
My goal in joining NOVA was to get a degree in graphic design to go back into the workforce. But I realized that wasn't the field I wanted to go into. So, I switched to visual arts because I realized that I wanted to do illustration and animation.

I want to learn animation. This is something I've wanted since being inspired by the Lion King at a very young age. I think I want to learn how to storyboard, learn how to create graphic novels and learn how to animate them because, I think eventually, I would like to work for Nickelodeon. 

Right now, I'm taking a full course load at NOVA and focusing on this internship in Japan.

Tell Us About Your Experience at NOVA, i.e., professors you’ve liked and friends you’ve met.
My experience at NOVA has been exclusively virtual. Every interaction I’ve had with other people at NOVA has been through a computer screen. But my experiences overall have been positive. I’ve enjoyed my time at NOVA very much. I am working on getting life back on track. 

What would you tell a student coming to NOVA?
I would tell them, don’t think that anything isn’t for you. For a long time, and it’s a huge part of the reason why I didn’t go to school, I didn’t think school was a path for me. I felt like it was for middle-class to upper-class people who had access to money, to education, to finances and to people who have resources.

I’m a first-generation college student. I wasn’t given these resources, and I had to figure out everything by myself. I think, if you want something, just do it. Life is too short. I’ve spent the last decade trying to figure out what I wanted to do when I knew what I wanted all along.

Where do you see yourself after NOVA or what career pursuits are you exploring?
Right now, my plan is to go to Japan, come back, and finish at NOVA. I have applied to MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) for their transfer program. I’m looking at other art schools on the East Coast. After graduating from MICA or another arts school, when I come back, I’m hoping to find a job in D.C.

I just want to say that I’m grateful that I didn’t give up, I kept going and that I was even given this opportunity in the first place. This is a special moment for me, and I really feel that it’s going to be life-changing!

The U.S. Department of State’s Gilman Scholarship is an undergraduate scholarship program for U.S. citizens or nationals of limited financial means to enable them to study or intern abroad. The program provides awards of up to $5,000 for students who are U.S. citizens, Federal Pell Grant recipients and studying at the undergraduate level at a two- or four-year institution. In the past two years alone, NOVA has had an impressive ten students receive this highly competitive scholarship! In fall 2022, eight applied and five received the scholarship! We are here to help NOVA students be the next recipient!

For more on the Gilman Scholarship, contact Leeza Fernand, associate director of the Office of International Education & Sponsored Programs,

Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) is the largest public institution of higher learning in the Commonwealth of Virginia and one of America's largest community colleges. NOVA enrolls nearly 80,000 students at its six campuses in Alexandria, Annandale, Loudoun, Manassas, Springfield (Medical Education Campus) and Woodbridge, through NOVA Online and high school dual enrollment. We offer more than 100 associate degree and certificate programs to help our students reach their academic and professional goals through university transfers and access to the most in-demand careers. At NOVA, we strive to ensure that every student succeeds, every program achieves and every community prospers. For more information about NOVA and its programs or services, visit our website, www.nvcc.eduor call 703.323.3000.