Service Meets Self-Interest: A Disabled Veteran Does Research Abroad
By Michael A. Verlezza, 2014-2015, Canada
Not long after 9/11, I enlisted in the United States Army. Eight years and two deployments later, my outlook on life grim, I opted to separate from the military. Rudderless, I enrolled at Bridgewater State University with the aim of completing an economics degree, and after some success, I was invited to an informational meeting with a member of Fulbright’s outreach team. Lured largely by the prospect of free pizza, I attended a meeting that would reset my life’s course.
As a freshman, I had taken a Canadian history course, and coupled with my complete lack of language skills, Canada seemed the strategic choice. Initially, I pitched a proposal that had me studying international exchange rates. I was assured that this was boring (even by economists’ standards) and told to go back to the drawing board. Not long after, the VA’s report outlining the frequency of veteran suicide was published. As a disabled veteran myself, I began to wonder what American tax dollars were getting us if they weren’t ensuring the safety and care of my fellow vets.
My Canadian history professor set me up with the Principal of the Royal Military College, and I put together a proposal whereby I would study federal spending on Canadian and American veterans. In addition, I proposed I augment my analytical skills (and thus my research) by taking a Master’s of Mathematics and Statistics from Queen’s University in Ontario.
I know now that living abroad, conducting research, and publishing peer-reviewed papers are the easy parts of completing a Fulbright grant, whereas the decision to apply is the most challenging part. It would involve uprooting my wife, asking her to take a leave from her career, but with her blessing I decided that rather than disqualify myself by not applying, I would force the U.S. Department of State to say no to me. I spent hours refining my statement and proposal, distilling my life story into just 500-words. I made concrete my most important values, creating a touchstone for the rest of my adult life. While many college graduates are stuck on the question of “What next?” I had direction and purpose.
Fulbright ultimately chose me as their ambassador. While in Ontario, I shared an office not just with Canadians, but with people from Iran, China, Germany, and Mexico. I conducted my research alongside Russian and Turkish statisticians. I met people I now count among my closest friends. I have since completed my master’s. My research was published, with follow-on publications forthcoming. I returned home and readily secured work in the private sector.
Through it all, I learned that I want to continue to serve the United States, in whatever role she demands. Because I have the capacity to serve, it is my responsibility to do so. This is why I chose to become a Fulbright U.S. Student Alumni Ambassador, as the emotional debt I owe Fulbright stands first in my mind. After having it broken by war, Fulbright did nothing short of rekindle my faith in the world.