Ximena Mantilla was selected by the Fulbright Scholars Program to earn her master’s degree in forensic science from Texas Tech.
When Ximena Mantilla worked as a forensic examiner for the Bolivian police, she was the only woman in that position. Though she loved forensic science, she knew the level of education she desired wasn't possible in Bolivia, where the discipline is just beginning to develop. She knew she needed to go abroad to learn more about the work she loved; she knew she wanted to come to the United States.
Born in La Paz, Bolivia, Mantilla grew up sneaking crime and investigation magazines from her grandfather and wondering why she was the only one in her family who wasn't repelled by corpses or blood.
“I'm the only one in my family who likes to work with corpses, blood, those kinds of things,” Mantilla said. “Even my dad, a police officer, doesn't know where my tendency comes from. Not even he can tolerate handling corpses; my mom and siblings are afraid of even seeing one.”
Due to her unique inclinations, Mantilla studied forensic medicine at Mayor de San Andres University in Bolivia where she earned her master's degree. It was there a professor told her the best forensic science was in the United States.
“My older sister saw the announcement and encouraged me to apply to the Fulbright program offered by the American Embassy in Bolivia,” Mantilla said. “I wasn't sure, because I thought it would be too hard to be selected. I had already applied for many other scholarships and didn't make it.”
After some encouragement from her family, Mantilla applied for the Fulbright program. A few weeks later, she received a call informing her she had earned an interview.
“I was so surprised,” Mantilla said. “The day of the interview I was really nervous.”
Mantilla remembers a kind woman at the American Embassy who told her she would do great and had a good chance of being selected since she had never seen a forensic professional there before.
“During the interview I was as honest as I could be,” Mantilla said. “I thought, ‘I don't have anything to lose. I want to tell these people how much I love my work and why I want to keep increasing my knowledge to benefit what I do.'”
Two weeks later, while at work, Mantilla received a call.
“They told me I had been selected as a Fulbrighter,” Mantilla said. “I could not believe it. I did it! When I called my sister, who had encouraged me to apply, she was so excited that she started to cry. She always believed in me – in a way, my sister is responsible for me being here right now.”
Mantilla said while looking at American universities online, Texas Tech stuck out to her immediately.
“I liked the campus at first sight,” Mantilla said. “It also was one of the few colleges with a forensic science program with two different tracks: science and investigation. I read about its degree program and I knew I wanted to go to Texas Tech.”
Mantilla is currently a master's student in Texas Tech's forensic science program. Whitney McClendon, one of Mantilla's former professors in crime scene investigation, said she thoroughly enjoyed having Mantilla in class.
“She is an extremely intelligent student who grasped at every opportunity to learn,” McClendon said. “She also brought applicable life experience that provided different perspectives to crime scene investigation. She excelled in every capacity during the class.”
McClendon said the Fulbright Scholars program won't only benefit Mantilla, but her home country of Bolivia as well.
“Ximena will return to Bolivia and be able to apply everything she has learned through Texas Tech,” McClendon said. “Her hard work will help ensure crime scenes are processed completely and accurately.”
Though the adjustment of living in a new country has been difficult, Mantilla said she has learned that people's weaknesses are most evident when they are alone and far away from loved ones. She's also learned how to turn those weaknesses into strengths.
“I miss my family so much every day, but they support me from where they are,” Mantilla said.
Though she misses her family, her dog and her home country's food, Mantilla said she still would recommend the Fulbright program to anyone interested in studying abroad.
“This is a great experience the Fulbright program gives; it's a great reward for the effort you have been making in your country and a great resource to learn more,” Mantilla said. “You will have the chance to go back to your country and apply what you've learned during the time you were in the United States.”
After graduation, Mantilla hopes to return to her home country and continue working for the Bolivian police.
“I hope to continue being a trainer of the homicide and crime scene investigators, teaching them what I've learned here,” Mantilla said. “I also would love the chance to be a professor in the same forensic medicine program I completed at my university.”
Mantilla said she is grateful for the opportunity Texas Tech and the Fulbright Scholars program has given her to continue learning about the field she loves.
“In my future career, I'll be able to convey what I know thanks to my experiences with Fulbright and Texas Tech,” Mantilla said. “I'll always remember my time here.”