Cherry Hill’s well-traveled Westman finds a purpose

Fulbright semi-finalist dedicated to improving mental health.

Cherry Hill resident, Rutgers-Camden student and Fulbright Scholarship semifinalist Erica Westman has traveled much throughout her youth. She’s hoping to gain an English teaching assistantship in Lithuania to help de-stigmatize mental-health issues there.

Four students in their final year of undergraduate studies at Rutgers University–Camden have been selected as semi-finalists in the 2020-21 Fulbright Scholarship competition, which is the largest U.S. exchange program worldwide.

Erica Westman — a Cherry Hill resident and Fulbright hopeful who, on the surface, has lived a life many would only dream about in less than a quarter century — is intent on using her extensive travels and harrowing life experience to try and bring about a positive change in the world.

Born in Florida, Westman followed her education-professional parents across the country, first to Michigan and then to Texas, before landing in New Jersey. Relocating multiple times at a young age forced her to learn how to adapt, make friends, and absorb new experiences. But it all left something to be desired.

“We moved to Texas when I was 10, in El Paso, which is predominantly Hispanic. So all my friends spoke Spanish and they all spent their weekends in Juarez, and I was a minority,” she explained.

“My friends, whoever I began dating, they all spent their lives just traveling all over, and that was something I felt I missed out on, even though I grew up in different places. That sparked something in me, where I thought, this is what I want to do — I want to move around and live in different places.”

But a road well traveled often encounters unexpected detours, and Westman’s landing in Cherry Hill was fraught with personal potholes in spite of a soothing setting.

“I was in school in Hawaii. I spent a year there, and even before I was in school, I was diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder. I was so set on going to school in Hawaii because I wanted to experience things that my friends had experienced in the past,” Westman admitted.

“I went there and I attempted suicide. I really wanted to stay, but I realized that it wasn’t a good fit for me, to have to drive around to doctors appointments and everything else. So, I transferred to Rutgers-Camden because it was closer to my family, because my parents lived in Cherry Hill.”

The stability that afforded Westman in being so close to her loved ones and close to the medical help she needed, ended up being the spark which propelled her to pursue the full scope of her dreams. For now, that means finishing up a criminal justice major — a course of study also inspired by her time seeking mental health treatment in Hawaii — and waiting for word on her Fulbright goal, an English teaching assistantship in Lithuania.

“I find Russia, the Ukraine and the Baltics very interesting. Lithuania actually has very disturbing numbers when it comes to mental health. The World Health Organization released some statistics a few years ago, saying … usually only people with money get help and stigmatization of people with mental health disorders is very bad,” Westman revealed.

“I want to lower the stigmatization of mental health, with the help of the U.S. Embassy which is who I’d be working with.”

In the long term, Westman wants to work with the State Department and become an ambassador — fitting in with her philosophy of loving her native country but needing to experience life elsewhere around the globe. In the short term, given her health and educational journeys, Westman admits that staying close to home is the safest bet.

“I feel like graduate school and getting a PhD is in my future and I want to stay here and do that, especially through Rutgers,” she said.

“I’ve made great connections with people, and I see myself around here for the next six to 10 years being able to use those connections. After that, I don’t know where I’m gonna be.”

Each year, the Fulbright Commission receives approximately 10,000 applications and presents an average of 2,000 awards for students to conduct research, study, or teach abroad in more than 140 countries.

Fulbright grants are awarded to individuals who have a demonstrated record of academic excellence, as well as evidence of service and leadership potential. Final scholarship selections are expected to be announced before May.