Erica Desjardins: Fulbright recipient to study international affairs in France

Recent University of Maine graduate Erica Desjardins of Bangor, Maine received an award from the Fulbright U.S. Student Program to pursue a master’s degree in European and International Affairs at Cergy Paris University in France.

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program, a signature program from the U.S. Department of State, funds opportunities for U.S students to conduct research, earn a degree or teach English as a second language in one of more than 140 countries. Recipients like Desjardins, who is majored in international relations at UMaine with a concentration in international security and a minor in French, are selected based on their academic achievements and potential to be cultural ambassadors. 

Desjardins joins the ranks of the 32 other UMaine students who have participated in the Fulbright U.S. student program since its start in 1946. She also is the first in recent years to be awarded a Fulbright Study Research award to complete a degree. 

Desjardins needed to have advanced knowledge of French and German to earn her award and study at Cergy Paris University. She is a native German speaker and as part of her application to the university — which is a separate process from the Fulbright application — she was asked to interview in French and German.

While at UMaine, Desjardins has studied a wide range of topics in international affairs, including American foreign policy, international relations, Central Asia and the South Caucasus, terrorism, European politics and the global political economy. She says she feels that her “previous studies and professional experiences would help [her] to smoothly transition into this area of studies.” 

According to Fulbright, Cergy Paris University is a multidisciplinary teaching and research university located outside of Paris with five graduate schools that focus on law and political science; business and management; education; arts and humanities; and sciences, engineering and economics. Desjardins plans to begin her 10-month long graduate program there in August. She says she looks forward to studying abroad to help achieve her goal of working for a U.S. embassy anywhere in the world, as well as enhancing her ability to speak French.  

“I am extremely honored to have received this prestigious award. I feel very fortunate to have been given this amazing opportunity,” Desjardins says. “While I am in France, I want to make the most of my experience by getting involved as much as possible with my university and community. As one of the most diverse cities in the world, I am looking forward to meeting new people!”

Desjardins’ application was supported by the UMaine Office of Major Scholarships and by Fulbright Program adviser and anthropology professor Christine Beitl. Several UMaine faculty members contributed to the success of her application by writing recommendation letters and by participating in the internal campus review process. 

“Erica is a brilliant and insightful student who has worked so hard during her time at UMaine to earn this opportunity,” says Kristin Vekasi, director of international affairs. “We are thrilled that she will be representing the U.S. abroad during the Fulbright program.”

We spoke with Desjardins more about her goals and experiences at UMaine: 

What motivated you to pursue a master’s degree abroad?
When my older brother attended UMaine, he studied abroad in Ankara, Turkey in 2014. As a 13-year-old, I was amazed by all of the incredible stories and pictures he had to share, and it was at that moment I promised myself that someday I would study abroad too. During my junior year at UMaine, I finally fulfilled my promise to myself and I studied abroad in Bulgaria. It was the best experience of my life. Being fully immersed in a new culture is not only exciting, but extremely rewarding. In fact, I enjoyed my time abroad so much that I came back to UMaine to work as a study abroad peer adviser because I wanted to help others embark on a study abroad journey like I did. With the thought in mind that my final year at UMaine would fly by, I began searching for post-graduation opportunities fairly early on. I had no clue where to begin, nor any idea of what I wanted to do after graduation. Eventually, however, I stumbled upon the Fulbright scholarship opportunity and began looking through the programs being offered. I discovered a particular program and I was convinced that it would be perfect for me, given the eligibility requirements. This program requires students to speak advanced levels of German and French, among other requirements. As a native German speaker and a student minoring in French, I was very drawn to this program and I know that studying in France will help heighten my language skills. I am a firm believer in going abroad and experiencing the world. It’s one thing to read about a culture in a textbook, but it’s another thing to go and experience it for yourself. 

How will this program assist you with your academic or professional goals
For nearly my entire life, I have envisioned myself working in an embassy somewhere in the world. During my undergraduate career, I have developed a stronger understanding of what path I could take to reach my professional goal. My dream job is to become a foreign service officer for the United States Department of State, either as a political officer or a public diplomacy officer. As the Fulbright program is funded through the U.S. Department of State, I feel as though this award will work as a stepping stone and will help bring me closer to my career goal. Additionally, the Fulbright program grants alumni with a non-competitive eligibility hiring status within the federal government after the completion of the program, so I am hoping to take advantage of this incredible opportunity.

Why did you choose to pursue your undergraduate degree at UMaine?
I chose to pursue my undergraduate degree at the University of Maine because all three of my older siblings attended UMaine and I have always looked up to them, so I wanted to follow in their footsteps. 

Describe any research, internships or scholarly pursuits in which you have participated.
In the summer of 2022, I interned for the Borgen Project, a nonprofit organization that battles global poverty by making it a priority of American foreign policy. I enjoyed this internship and it sparked a new subject of interest in me: battling global poverty.

Beyond academics, what extracurricular activities have occupied your time?
There are a few extracurricular activities that I have participated in at UMaine. I spent two years as a diver for the UMaine Women’s Swimming and Diving team and I spent three years as the German Club treasurer. I have also worked as a study abroad peer adviser for UMaine’s Office of International Programs. 

Have you worked closely with a mentor, professor or role model who made your time at UMaine better?
I have worked closely with many mentors and professors at the University of Maine, all of which have helped me grow so much as an individual and I cannot thank all of them enough. One person in particular is Nives Dal Bo-Wheeler. Nives is the director of the Office of Major Scholarships and has greatly assisted me during my Fulbright scholarship application. I don’t think my application would have been so strong if it wasn’t for her help, and for that I am very grateful. She works really hard in advising students to submit their best work and her encouragement leaves students feeling hopeful and proud, no matter what. Recently, Nives hosted an event called “I Hit Submit” that recognized every student who submitted an application to any scholarship this year, regardless of whether the student received the scholarship or not. As many application processes are tedious, I think this event is remarkable because it celebrates the hard work of each student, which is very uplifting. 

Did you have an experience at UMaine that shaped or changed how you see the world?
Before studying abroad in Bulgaria, I was originally planning to study abroad in Germany. I had been dead-set on that idea. I even received the Gilman Scholarship to study abroad in Mannheim, Germany. But as the time drew nearer, COVID-19 ruined all those plans for me. I remember the day the study abroad adviser called me bearing the news that they could no longer send students to Germany due to COVID issues, and then she told me I had about one week to decide where else to go. She recommended that I check out American University in Bulgaria. As deadlines were rapidly approaching, I didn’t really have any other option, so I followed her advice. Since the Gilman scholarship is program-specific, I was not able to transfer the award to a new program, meaning I lost all means of funding. My adviser, however, told me about many other scholarships that I could quickly apply for, which I was luckily able to receive. During this stressful situation, UMaine staff and friends supported and helped me, which was very comforting. This experience taught me that life is extremely unpredictable and challenging, but it is important to be flexible and make the most of the difficult situation. Little did I know that going to Bulgaria would have such a positive impact on my life, so this situation definitely shaped me into a more optimistic person. 

Describe UMaine in one word
If I had to describe UMaine in one word, I would say “dedicated!”

Please explain
After my exchange semester in Bulgaria, I’ve stayed in contact with many students from all over the country and the world. I often tell them about various events and activities happening on campus. Their responses are often along the lines of, “I wish my university did that!” This is very eye-opening to me because it truly makes me realize how many universities, not just across the country, but even across the whole world, are not as involved as UMaine is. If you want to study abroad, the Office of International Programs is dedicated to making sure it happens, regardless of one’s financial needs or restrictions. If someone wishes to participate in a club, the UMaine community welcomes and accepts them into the club with open arms. If someone needs extra time or help, UMaine provides accommodations accordingly. If someone needs assistance with a scholarship application, the Office of Major Scholarships has a devoted team of advisers. Compared to other universities, UMaine has a lot to offer in services. UMaine does what it can to set students up for success because they are very dedicated to the student body and community. I think UMaine’s dedication is very evident in all areas of student life. 

How has UMaine prepared you for your post-graduation endeavors?
The Political Science and International Affairs departments offer a wide range of courses that have expanded my knowledge and provided me with new perspectives. But my academic knowledge is not the only area where UMaine has shaped me and prepared me for my future. Being a part of such a supportive community has been highly motivating. Having a strong sense of belonging has further developed my connections with peers, professors and anyone I encounter. UMaine has prepared me to take challenges head-on, to treat everyone I meet with respect and kindness, and to always put forth my best effort. 

Overall, I am very grateful for the wonderful experience I have had at UMaine. I have taken so many interesting classes, I have worked with devoted professors and faculty members, I was able to have a memorable study abroad experience and I made many lifelong friends. Last weekend, I attended the University of Maine Foundation’s True Blue Toast, where graduating students who have donated to a UMaine organization are given a philanthropy cord and pin. I definitely intend to maintain a tradition of giving back to UMaine because UMaine has truly given so much to me. 

Students interested in applying for the Fulbright U.S. Student Program can contact the Office of Major Scholarships at for application support. 

Contact: Marcus Wolf, 207.581.3721;