Two RU-N Honors College juniors recently became the only students from the state of New Jersey to win early-round Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarships to study abroad later this year.
Alexandra Torres and Bakhtawer Kahn are known to be virtually inseparable on campus. They both hail from neighboring Harrison, N.J., where they attended the same elementary, middle, and high schools, but they did not become friends until joining the Honors College cohort in the fall of 2015. Both women are now majoring in biology with a concentration in neurobiology and minoring in chemistry, and they are both pre-medical students.
In addition to being in the Honors College, Torres and Khan are also undergraduate researchers in the Mena Laboratory of Neural Circuits, a research lab affiliated with the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience (CMBN).
In 2017 the duo decided they wanted to study abroad together and zeroed in on Atlantis, a Washington, D.C.–based organization that partners with U.S. universities to send pre-med students overseas to shadow practicing physicians. This competitive opportunity has been made available at RU-N through the efforts of Dean Sofia Pinto-Figueroa and her team, who advise students who intend to go to medical school or into other health professions. Torres and Khan will both travel to Milan, Italy, later this year after winning a spot in the program.
But the Atlantis opportunity isn’t free, and when Torres and Khan decided to apply, they approached Honors College Director Brian Murphy to seek possible funding sources to cover the program's roughly $5000 cost.
That’s where the Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship came in. Sponsored by the U.S. State Department, this competitive award helps students with financial needs to study abroad. Because almost half of the Honors College’s nearly 300 students are eligible for Pell grants, in addition to having sterling academic records and undergraduate research experience, they can be strong applicants for the scholarship. Torres and Khan applied for early-round funds, then went up against a tough national pool of students.
“Alexandra and Bakhtawer are two extraordinarily talented women who deserve the opportunity to shine, and I am thrilled that the Honors College helped make that happen here,” says Murphy. “All of us are proud of the contributions they have made to the University over the last two-and-a-half years, and I had a feeling they’d be the kind of applicants the Gilman selection committee is looking for. So, I urged them to apply as soon as they came to me to ask about the Atlantis.”
In addition to the Gilman, Honors College students have won a variety of national and international scholarships and fellowships, including the Truman, Fulbright, Goldwater and Gates-Cambridge awards.
“I can’t say we were optimistic when we applied for either the Atlantis or Gilman, since both are really competitive,” says Torres, who is a first-generation daughter of Portuguese parents. “We could not believe it when we were both named recipients. It still feels surreal.”
Kahn, who was born in Pakistan and moved to the U.S. as a child, has known she wanted to be a psychiatrist since age 13, when she first read the works of Khaled Hosseini, a physician-turned-novelist who wrote the New York Times bestseller The Kite Runner.
“The more I read of his work, the more I actively researched how people who have gone through the traumas portrayed in his novels are helped,” says Kahn. “Once I realized how stigmatized mental-health issues are, I realized that, too often, victims of psychological trauma are not adequately cared for. I decided that I wanted to help people by becoming a psychiatrist. Ever since then, I have directed my studies towards medicine.”
After returning from their three-week-long travels in Italy, the pair will team up with the Honors College and their home school district to host events and share their Gilman and Atlantis experiences, one of the requirements for Gilman winners.
They’ll be all too happy to spread the word.
“Rutgers-Newark has made so many things possible for us, and we are deeply grateful to everyone at the Honors College for their unwavering kindness, patience, and enthusiasm,” says Torres. “Italy has so much history and knowledge to offer, but the best part of this experience has been working with the incredibly generous, gracious people who have made it all possible.”