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Gilman Scholar Alexis Coiner Shares Her Journey to Florence

Alexis Coiner and Team BannerAlexis Coiner (far right) participates in the Physician Observation in Florence, Italy.

If you’re looking for Lexi Coiner, you’re going to have to move quickly. The cellular and molecular biology major runs on a tight, fast-paced schedule. You’ll most likely find her in the Honors College, buried in textbooks and mountains of notes, conducting diabetes research, kayaking, rock climbing or reading. But in December of 2017, she was in and out of the Office of National Scholarships every week securing her place among a prestigious group of students - Gilman Scholarship recipients.

With her eyes set on the USF Science in Florence program, Coiner set off on her journey to find a way to help pay for her way to Italy. When her Honors College adviser recommended going to the Office of National Scholarships, Coiner realized she hadn’t been taking her own advice.

Having been a peer mentor for the Honors College, she had told her students about the office but had never actually been herself. Next thing she knew, Coiner would be spending about a month and a half talking with ONS advisors and working on her Gilman Scholarship application.

“They really lined things up for me,” said Coiner. “They helped me work on my personal statement and my portfolio for the entire thing.”

For Coiner, the personal statement was the hardest, as she wrote it like a lab report the first time. This part of the application is one of the most important, since the Gilman Scholarship seeks Pell Grant recipients who are diverse and passionate about their goals but need financial assistance in order to carry them out abroad. As a first-generation college student and second-generation American who had previously studied in Argentina, Coiner was a perfect candidate for the award.

“Play on your strengths and your passions,” said Coiner. “Don’t go somewhere because you want to go somewhere, find somewhere that helps your goals.”

Alexis Coiner in Italy BannerAlexis Coiner enjoys the view in Gubbio, Italy.

Her place was Florence. After receiving the Gilman Scholarship, Coiner packed her blister-inducing 50-pound suitcase later dubbed “Big Mama” and flew to Italy in the summer of 2018. There, she studied biochemistry and spent about ten hours each week shadowing physicians in hospitals. One of her most notable experiences was being able to work with the da Vinci surgical system (yes, the type of machine that did surgery on a grape).

“It’s pretty much completely computer-operated, so the surgeon sits behind it and controls the instruments without even touching the patient,” said Coiner.

Apart from the technology in the hospitals, Coiner noticed that the atmosphere in Italian hospitals is much different compared to American hospitals.

“It really gave me perspective on the difference between American and Italian healthcare,” said Coiner. “They’re much more friendly over there with their patients and their staff.”

In Italy, employees take a three hour break for lunch in order to go home to their families and eat with them. Many people, especially the older generation, take walks in the evening. She also noticed an emphasis on conversation and personal connection, a quality she hopes to embrace and teach to the future peer mentors she trains.

As everyone was so friendly, helpful and relatively stress free, Lexi Coiner’s biggest takeaway from her study abroad experience was to be more relaxed and to not stress so much. Her experience sparked an itching desire to study abroad again and complete an MD-PhD after her graduation in Fall 2019.

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The U.S. State Department’s Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship supports study abroad experiences for undergraduate Pell Grant recipients. It offers up to $5,000 for international study or internship programs or $8,000 for programs studying a critical language. The purpose of the scholarship is to foster an understanding of other cultures, countries, economies and languages that will enable future leadership roles in government and the private sector.