The synapses firing inside Arianna Garcia Guerrero's prodigious mind allowed her to learn many languages over time. Her fluency in English, Spanish, Russian, Georgian, Italian, French, German and Portuguese (plus a little Turkish) gives her a large vocabulary.
Yet, along the way to earning a prestigious scholarship, the Carnegie Mellon University junior found she would have to learn a new type of language in order to achieve her dreams.
Different languages and cultures surrounded Guerrero during her childhood in Washington Heights, a multicultural neighborhood near the northern tip of Manhattan, and influenced her educational path.
"Every time I go back, I think I fall in love with that neighborhood all over again," Guerrero said. "There's so many different cultures there ... I think that's what really influenced my love of languages and learning history."
She is majoring in international relations and politics(opens in new window) with a minor in cybersecurity and international conflict(opens in new window), and she will continue studying history after she graduates in 2023. Guerrero, a first-generation college student and the daughter of a Mexican immigrant, is one of 16 students in the country to receive a 2022 Beinecke Scholarship, which provides $34,000 worth of funding for graduate education. Only one other Carnegie Mellon student has received a Beinecke Scholarship, in 1996.
"It's really a premier scholarship for outstanding undergraduates in the arts, humanities and social sciences," said Richelle Bernazzoli, CMU's director of Undergraduate Research and Scholar Development(opens in new window). "This is one of the few that really seeks out students who want to follow the path of having a scholarly career in the arts, humanities and social sciences, and they really invest in them. They don't just give them money for graduate school, they really take care of the students that they select."
Guerrero understood the need to leave her beloved neighborhood in search of the best education she could get. She attended middle school at De La Salle Academy, a Catholic school that started on 92nd Street before moving south to Midtown, and went to high school at The Nightingale-Bamford School, an all-girls institution on the Upper East Side.
Guerrero's sister, Graciela Garcia, paved the way for Guerrero at Carnegie Mellon. Garcia graduated in 2019 and now works at Apple.
When Guerrero arrived at Carnegie Mellon, she was interested in foreign affairs. She wanted to be a diplomat. Her first international relations and politics course, Decision Processes of American Political Institutions, challenged her.
"It was almost as if I was learning a new language," she said. "I did not understand any of the material, any of the readings. I would hear my peers talk about the readings and be able to converse about all these topics, and I felt out of place. I had almost decided that this wasn't for me. I was like, I definitely don't fit in, I could never learn how to speak this way."
She visited the professor, Geoffrey McGovern.
"If you're not able to learn this material, but you're excelling in your other classes, then that means it's something that I have to change in terms of how I help you learn the material," McGovern told her.
"That, for me, was the first time that I had ever heard a professor take that approach to learning. That's a major reason why I'm still in this major today."
During her time at Carnegie Mellon, Guerrero became the president of First Together(opens in new window), an organization that supports first-generation college students, and an ambassador for Tartan Scholars(opens in new window), a program designed to aid students who excel academically and come from low-income backgrounds. She conducted research with Institute for Politics and Strategy (IPS) professor Dani Nedal, a process she started within days of arriving at CMU.
"I remember at the time almost falling off my seat while we were talking, because she told me about all these languages she had taught herself and all these interests she had in different parts of the world and different aspects of international relations," Bernazzoli said. "I just knew then that she was a very driven and very talented student.
"She was able to get involved in this research where she could analyze documents in Russian and Georgian and actually add real value because she was the one on the research team who had that capability. That is pretty special."
Last spring, Guerrero participated in the Washington Semester Program(opens in new window), an opportunity housed within IPS that allows students to study, intern and live in Washington, D.C. for a semester. Her days as an intern at the American Foreign Policy Council often started before dawn and included research on the Russian forces that were, at the time, deploying along the Ukrainian border.
"I worked with one other student on a briefing book that was going to be given to a delegation that actually took a trip to Ukraine to assess the area and find out some more details about where the troops were stationed," Guerrero said. "It was amazing to think that that information that was compiled and all those articles that we looked at really played an important role in the analysis that that delegation made afterward."
Guerrero received financial assistance for that D.C. semester from a Friedman Fellowship(opens in new window), which supports Carnegie Mellon students interning in the nation's capital. Trustee emerita Cynthia Friedman started the Fellowships two decades ago in honor of her husband Milton, a CMU alumnus.
"It was really helpful because being in D.C. is very expensive," Guerrero said. "Without that fellowship, I would not have been able to afford being there ... It was really nice to see somebody so excited about the educational pursuits of students that they have never really gotten the chance to meet, and seeing how invested they are in that, that's something that was so beautiful."
The Beinecke Scholarship, founded in 1971 by The Sperry and Hutchinson Company to support students in the arts, humanities and social sciences, has awarded nearly 700 scholarships since its inception. The scholarship limits submissions to one student per university, and a Carnegie Mellon committee reviews internal applications to determine the strongest candidate. After the committee selected Guerrero, she and Bernazzoli went back and forth on her personal statement, trying to expound upon her background, research interests and future goals while staying within the word count.
"I would hear more and more with every conversation about interesting research topics that she had worked on, things that she had learned along the way, and how she put her skills and language competencies to use," Bernazzoli said.
The awarding of her scholarship coincided with Spring Carnival, a nice way to celebrate.
"I never imagined coming to CMU, to be able to achieve half of what I've been able to do in terms of research," Guerrero said. "It's amazing how support and guidance and advice from professors can bring you so far. I'm grateful for that and for this opportunity."