Recent alumna makes history as TU’s first Gates Cambridge Scholar

First-generation college graduate Briseyda Barrientos Ariza ’22 wins top postgraduate award to the University of Cambridge

By Rebecca Kirkman on February 15, 2023

Woman posing for portrait on staircase
(Alex Wright / Towson University)

Briseyda Barrientos Ariza ’22 has been named a Gates Cambridge Scholar, the first TU student to receive this prestigious international scholarship.  

She is among just 23 students from the U.S. to receive the full-cost scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge. TU is among four institutions that have produced a Gates Cambridge Scholar for the first time this year.

“To witness one of TU's brightest scholars go on to such a world-renowned institution brings our entire academic community immense pride,” says Interim President Melanie Perreault. “Briseyda is beyond deserving of this prestigious honor, and I hope her success will serve as an inspiration for her fellow Tigers as they pursue their own dreams here at Towson University.”

Gates Cambridge Scholars are selected for outstanding intellectual ability, reasons for their choice of course, a commitment to improving the lives of others and their leadership potential. At the University of Cambridge, Barrientos Ariza will pursue a Master of Philosophy in European, Latin American and comparative literatures and cultures.

Established in 2000 by a donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Gates Cambridge Scholarship program builds a global network of future leaders committed to improving the lives of others by selecting outstanding scholars and providing them with financial and non-financial support at one of the world’s leading universities. 

Barrientos Ariza is a first-generation U.S. citizen and college graduate who majored in English literature and psychology. While at TU, she worked as a resident assistant and Writing Center tutor, founded the Honorables of Color within the TU Honors College and established an annual scholarship. She is a university scholar and summa cum laude graduate of the College of Liberal Arts.

“Briseyda’s accomplishment is a culmination of her outstanding track-record at TU,” says Clare Muhoro, acting vice provost for academic affairs. “I have no doubt that she will continue to channel her extraordinary academic capabilities and character to positively transform and bring fresh perspectives to her academic field and community. The University of Cambridge is fortunate to have her.”

Within the Office of the Provost, Competitive Fellowships and Awards (CFA), led by Mary Sajini Devadas, associate professor of chemistry, guides students in applying to highly competitive scholarships such as the Gates Cambridge Scholarship. 

“I have been working with Briseyda for just over a year preparing her portfolio for these prestigious scholarships and she has been a pleasure to work with,” Devadas says. “From Day One, I was impressed with her lucid and coherent writing and her passion to lend her voice for equity and justice. Briseyda is a scholar beyond her years and the world is now her center stage. I look forward to the many changes she will continue to make as part of her scholastic pursuits at Cambridge.”

“CFA also thanks the faculty who helped with practice interviews in her field of study: Drs. Fehskens and Vincent from the Department of English, and Mairin Barney at the Writing Center,” Devadas adds.

The Gates Cambridge announcement follows unprecedented recognition of TU students and alumni in highly sought-after awards, including the university’s first year as a top student Fulbright producing institution as well as its first year with two Rhodes Scholarship finalists and a Truman Scholarship finalist.

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Building on undergraduate research

Barrientos Ariza’s research focuses on female figures of Central American folklore. She has presented her work at the 2022 Northeast Regional Honors Council Conference in Philadelphia with a travel grant from the Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Inquiry and will present this spring at the 2023 Northeast Modern Language Association Convention in Niagara Falls.

“During my studies at TU, I returned to the stories of my girlhood in Guatemala and applied intellectual frameworks to my experiences,” she says. As a recipient of the Leadership for Public Good Fellowship through the Office of Competitive Fellowships and Awards (CFA), Barrientos Ariza was able to travel to Guatemala to collect the oral histories of Guatemalans on their encounters with regional folkloric figures.

“I built upon my fieldwork in my undergraduate honors thesis, where I examined the function of La Llorona and La Siguanaba orature and their products as counterstories and symptoms of colonial trauma,” she says.

Barrientos Ariza describes her selection as a Gates Cambridge Scholar as a “love letter” to her Central American community.

“Having the opportunity to study at this prestigious institution that would otherwise be inaccessible to me, being able to go there because of them and their stories, taking my community with me as I study the ontologies of our ancestors and diaspora there—all of it, is something I do not take lightly,” Barrientos Ariza says. “I see this award as a promise of responsibility and duty, not only to the communities from which I am so rooted, but to all the systemically excluded and occluded people of the world. This is more about them than it is about me.”

Barrientos Ariza is most looking forward to joining the Gates Cambridge community, one she describes as “full of individuals from around the world who understand precisely the significance and imperativeness of using our energies to make this world a better place within our lifetimes.”

At Cambridge, under the supervision of Assistant Professor Carlos Fonseca, she will broaden her work to look at how oral history and the intergenerational stories told by the Central American diaspora reframe colonial narratives, allowing for new ones to emerge. 

A foundation in the liberal arts

Barrientos Ariza points to faculty within the College of Liberal Arts, including Professor Erin Fehskens, Professor Jennifer Ballengee, Associate Professor Jonathan Vincent and Associate Professor Adam Jabbur in the Department of English, among many others, for encouraging her curiosity and providing her with the tools to think critically and contribute to society.

“My liberal arts education has raised my consciousness and encouraged me to engage critically and creatively with the world around me in an aim to actively participate in the transformation of the world,” she says.

She also points to the TU Writing Center, where she served as a writing tutor and organized TU's first Antiracist Pedagogy and Writing Symposium, as a central point of her liberal arts education where she was “able to put to practice what a liberal arts education entails one-on-one with thousands of students.”

“Without my liberal arts education and the support of my humanities professors, I would not have been able to obtain the Leadership for Public Good Fellowship, hold the first teaching assistantship position in the English department financed by BTU–Partnerships for Greater Baltimore, participate in regional academic conferences, nor embark on an undergraduate thesis project that became the catalyst for my application to the University of Cambridge and my overall academic career,” she adds. “For this, and for making it possible for me to become myself, I will always be grateful to and for my liberal arts education.”

Barrientos Ariza encourages her peers to make use of the resources offered by TU CFA to put forward competitive portfolios for nationally competitive scholarships and awards.

“It is never too early to start getting involved in research and your community,” she advises. “I encourage you to find your passions and pursue them exceptionally well in all the areas of your life: academic, personal, professional, etc.”