By Ron Menchaca
College of Charleston graduating senior Hillary McLaurin was walking between classes and checking her email one day last month when a message popped up with the subject line: “Congratulations on Your Fulbright Award.”
“I wasn’t even expecting to hear back that day,” she says of receiving the official notice from the prestigious Fulbright U.S. Student Program. “I remember I was walking on the sidewalk, and I nearly stumbled into traffic reading that email. It was a pretty exciting day.”
Beginning in September 2019, McLaurin will serve for 10 months as an English teaching assistant in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where she will teach English to school children and represent the U.S. as a cultural ambassador.
The Fulbright award culminates a hugely successful and jam-packed college career for the Florence, South Carolina, native. As a double-major in German and computer information systems with a minor in German studies, McLaurin maximized her academic experience, which included numerous domestic and international travel opportunities. As a CofC student, she has visited Germany, Cuba, Charlotte, Atlanta, New York and Miami. And two days after she graduates on May 11, 2019, she’ll leave on a cultural immersion trip to Ireland and Northern Ireland.
McLaurin came to the College through the SPECTRA program, which assists multicultural and first-generation students with their transition from high school to college. She initially planned to study chemistry, but after starting a job in the Dean’s Office in the School of Business and getting involved in the ImpactX tech startup accelerator program (formerly ICAT) as a sophomore, she became more interested in technology and entrepreneurship.
Her team developed and pitched an app called FitBank, which was designed to help businesses incentivize their employees for being more active. Although the project did not win funding, the experience inspired McLaurin to pursue a major in computer information systems.
“Pitching in front of an auditorium full of people was probably one of the scariest things I’ve done in college,” she says.
McLaurin’s interest in German, her other major, first took root in middle school. She began learning German as part of her school’s participation in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program and continued taking German throughout high school and college.
She made her first visit to Germany in the summer of 2017 as part of an internship program offered through the Department of German and Russian Studies, funding half of her trip by winning a nationally competitive Gilman Scholarship. The experience cemented her fascination with German culture and ingenuity, particularly in the area of waste-reduction technologies and environmental sustainability.
The internship in Germany was divided into two parts – a language program that took place in Berlin and an internship component at a company near Munich called Mikrotron. The company builds high-speed cameras used to photograph vehicle safety tests, and McLaurin worked in web development, helping to update the camera software.
She has also traveled extensively and participated in several social justice projects as part of the Bonner Leaderand Alternative Break programs. In 2017, she organized and led a 10-day winter break trip to Cuba. She and the other students visited Vinales and Havana and took part in cultural activities such as learning salsa and touring museums.
Her next international trip through the Bonner program will take her to Ireland and Northern Ireland, where she’ll spend two weeks volunteering and participating in cultural experiences. After that, she’ll return to campus for the rest of the summer to work on a research project with computer science professor Xenia Mountrouidou (aka Dr. X). They’ll be studying the internet of things and devices such as smart thermostats.
And then, in the fall, she’ll be off to Germany for her Fulbright.
Morgan Koerner, associate professor of German and chair of the department, says McLaurin’s leadership skills, tenacity, chutzpah and sense of humor will serve her well as she heads off to Germany and in her future career path.
“It’s been a joy to work with Hillary and witness her tremendous personal growth here at CofC,” says Koerner. “She has been a model student in her constant search for and embrace of new challenges and possibilities for growth, such as when she spent the summer after her sophomore year on our summer internship in Germany program in Berlin and Munich, or when she performed in German to a live audience of 150 people in the final project of my Deutschland 1968 course.”
In addition to Koerner, McLaurin credits several other faculty and staff members for supporting her academic journey at CofC: Anton Vander Zee, assistant professor, Honors College Faculty Fellow and director of the Office of Nationally Competitive Awards; Jocelyn Evans, associate dean in the School of Business; and former CofC staff members Deni Mitchell and Domenico Ruggerio.
When she has not been traveling or studying, McLaurin has stayed busy with part-time jobs and volunteer work. For the past four years she has volunteered to teach English to non-native speakers at St. Matthew’s Lutheran on King Street. To earn extra money, she has also worked part-time on the College’s IT Helpdesk since 2018, providing technical support to students, faculty and staff.
McLaurin is still weighing what she wants to do after she returns from Germany in 2020. She’s thinking about graduate school, possibly an MBA, or perhaps getting involved with a technology incubator program. Google runs one in Berlin, she says.
She says her ambition and strong work ethic come from her parents. Her father worked as a mechanic for many years and is now a truck driver. Her mother, a preschool teacher, passed away when McLaurin was 13. “My parents always encouraged me to work hard, try my best,” she says.
Asked what drives her to push herself in so many different directions, McLaurin pauses for a moment before saying, “I never want to be at a point in my life where I’m complacent. I just feel like I always have to be working towards something. I like being able to contribute to things bigger than me.”
Source: The College Today