Student in glasses and black shirt and black plaid pants leans against a brick wall

Story: Lisa Sollie | Photo: Cody Ingram

When University of West Alabama history major Brandon Williamson boards a plane this summer for Cape Town, South Africa, it will be his first flight and first trip out of the country. He is checking both items off his list of goals thanks to the Alpha South Study Abroad Experience and the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program.

The Alpha South Study Abroad Experience is a five-week program that opens the door to studying the history, politics, economy, and culture of South Africa along with its impact on world affairs. Sponsored by Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. and through one of its partners, Oglethorpe University, a private college in Brookhaven, Georgia, Williamson will have the opportunity to take two classes and earn up to six hours of academic credit toward his degree at UWA while in South Africa.

When he first heard about the study abroad experience, Williamson said he figured there would probably be ‘a thousand other fraternity brothers interested,’ and he would not be chosen. However, when applications opened in December 2023, Williamson decided he had nothing to lose and applied. “It was amazing when I heard my name called at our fraternity’s regional conference in March. I was not expecting it at all,” he recalls.

According to Connie Marine, international programs coordinator at UWA, Williamson is the fifth Gilman Scholar selected from the University. The first was Baylee Tindol, a marine biology major from Billingsley, Alabama, in 2017. A federally-funded program of the U.S. Department of State and supported in its implementation by the Institute of International Education, the scholarship, named after the late congressman Benjamin A. Gilman from New York, broadens the U.S. student population that studies abroad by providing scholarships to outstanding undergraduates who, due to financial constraints, might not otherwise participate. Since the program’s establishment in 2001, over 1,300 U.S. institutions have sent more than 34,000 Gilman Scholars to 150 countries around the globe.

“Based on my academic interests, being selected as a Gilman Scholar will allow me to delve into the intersections of classifying relatable U.S. history and its ties to South Africa. Most would consider Africa and America to correlate because of their reference to the Transatlantic Slave Trade during the antebellum periods,” noted Williamson. “Many may not know that South Africa and the U.S. fought for the Allied powers during World War I, and Africa remains an essential provider of minerals to support steel and technology in the U.S. today.” 

In addition to his studies, Williamson is also looking forward to exploring Cape Town, a vibrant and multicultural city and growing economic hub known for its natural beauty and thriving arts and dining scene.

An educational legacy
Williamson grew up in Jackson, Alabama, a small town like Livingston, he noted, except with a Walmart. His mom, who has spent her professional career in human resources, is the only one of her eight siblings to attend college. She recently returned to school to earn a Master of Business Administration degree. His younger sister, majoring in elementary education, recently completed her first year at Alabama A&M.

After an educational journey full of twists and turns, Williamson knew he was home when he arrived at UWA in January 2022 — yet his first semester on campus was far from easy. Within a few months of leaving home, his father became ill and ultimately passed away. Devasted, Williamson worked with his professors to finish the semester. “I knew God was watching out for me once I made it through that spring, and it was the confirmation that I needed to finish what I had started.”

In the fall of 2023, Williamson became a tutor with UWA’s TRIO Student Support Services program using his experience with the Dreams to Reality Mentoring and Tutoring Program he founded in 2018. He also became a resident assistant and then hall director for Hoover Apartments.  Williamson also became a brother in Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., the affiliation that ultimately opened the door to this once-in-a-lifetime experience to study abroad.

Investing in the future
As a Gilman scholar, Williamson must carry out a Follow-on Service Project upon his return to the U.S. The project should promote the Gilman Program and share the knowledge and skills recipients have gained overseas with their university campus and community, thereby broadening the program’s impact.

Williamson will collaborate with UWA’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and with International Programs to facilitate conversations to discuss African cultures and find ways to improve the visibility of their history and impact. Approaching history from both local and global perspectives and collaborating with professors on campus, he noted, will create a unique opportunity to explore the interconnectedness between race, economics, laws, and other vital areas of society and implement the knowledge he’s gained from his study abroad experiences. “By fostering mutual respect,” Williamson added, “we can cultivate a campus community that embraces diversity while valuing everyone’s unique background.” He also wants to equip UWA students to recognize the value of diverse educational experiences and promote study abroad as essential to fostering cultural growth and awareness.

“Studying abroad is a chance of a lifetime that students should take the initiative and act on,” he said. “It’s an excellent opportunity for them to broaden their horizons and enhance their understanding of other countries and cultures unlike their own.”

As a future educator, Williamson recognizes this trip will enhance his teaching and provide him with firsthand knowledge and experience that will “prove invaluable in my classroom. I’m excited and nervous but can’t wait to go!”