Fulbright Student Program Blog
Snapshots from Life on Kiribati

Snapshots from Life on Kiribati

By Aurora Brachman, Fulbright U.S. Student to Kiribati During my sophomore year at Pomona College I became aware of Kiribati, a small Pacific Island nation at risk of vanishing forever under rising More »

Bringing Seabirds to the Mountains: Environmental Storytelling Through Fulbright

Bringing Seabirds to the Mountains: Environmental Storytelling Through Fulbright

Fulbright-National Geographic program alumni Kevin McLean & Abby McBride recently attended the Mountainfilm Festival in Telluride, CO to speak about their work as fellows—offering a glimpse into some of the most groundbreaking More »

Discovering the Unexpected in West Virginia

Discovering the Unexpected in West Virginia

By Oyundari Ganbaatar, Foreign Fulbright Student, Mongolia When I first received the email inviting me to attend the weeklong Fulbright-Amizade service-learning program in Williamson, West Virginia, I was excited to share the More »

Lessons from Williamson

Lessons from Williamson

By Karen Jimeno, Fulbright Foreign Student, the Philippines The first time I heard about Williamson, West Virginia, I had no clue where it was.  Growing up in the Philippines, I had heard More »

 

Snapshots from Life on Kiribati

By Aurora Brachman, Fulbright U.S. Student to Kiribati

During my sophomore year at Pomona College I became aware of Kiribati, a small Pacific Island nation at risk of vanishing forever under rising sea levels. Scientists project that in as few as 30 years the entire country could be under water. Little did I know that Kiribati would play an important role in my life, and ultimately lead me to the Fulbright Program.

At the time, there was little information about how the 110,000 citizens of Kiribati were responding to this frightening prognosis. The media representations available were sensationalistic and objectifying, transforming Kiribati into a symbol of climate change, but failing to acknowledge the reality of the daily lives of the I-Kiribati. Despite never having never made a documentary before, I applied for and received a grant through the Pacific Basin Institute to create a documentary making the I-Kiribati and their stories the focal point.

Navigating Kiribati as an outsider is challenging. It is one of the least-developed countries in the world. Eighty percent of the population lives a subsistence lifestyle and there is severely limited access to electricity or running water. Though life will continue on the island for the next few decades, climate change is already making its mark. Some of my closest friends have had their homes destroyed by King Tides – exceptionally high tides that have become more powerful in recent years and are inundating the island, flooding homes and turning fresh water brackish. One friend lost her baby sister to dehydration from drinking water contaminated with oceanwater.

Yet what struck me most about Kiribati had nothing to do with climate change. Kiribati is vibrant in a way I didn’t know anything could be. I have never encountered a group of people that radiate love the way Kiribati people do. During my time there, I befriended a tight knit group of high school students, and they became my liaisons to their world. I was 19 at the time and so were they, and despite our vastly different life experiences, we related as most 19-year-olds do. We commiserated over our anxieties surrounding our encroaching adulthood, discussed our dreams for our futures, and shared our fears about a world paralyzed to act on climate change.

Yet when I asked my friends what they would miss most about Kiribati when they are forced to leave, and the resounding answer was, “the way we treat each other.”

After returning to Pomona, I dreamt of going back to Kiribati. I applied for and was accepted to the Fulbright Program. As someone interested in an artistic field, I didn’t know if my work would be deemed “scholarly enough” or worthy of a Fulbright – but my worries were unfounded. I strongly believe that no one who is interested in applying for Fulbright should be under the false impression that Fulbright is not for them. Fulbright is an incredible resource, and if you have a passion for something, you should absolutely apply.

In consultation with my Kiribati network, I developed a new project for my Fulbright, tentatively titled Life Between the Tides. An anthology series, Life Between the Tides is intended to be a platform of empowerment and self-representation for Kiribati and to build respect, empathy, and understanding of Kiribati people to ease their transition when they are forced to migrate from their country in the near future.

My post-production work will be supported by funding through a granting institution called “Pacific Islanders in Communications,” an organization funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). I was extremely fortunate to receive the funding as well as a commitment to digital and potential television distribution through the CPB. Life Between the Tides is projected to be released by the beginning of next year.

My time in Kiribati was one of the most challenging but rewarding experiences of my life. I treasure the lessons it taught me, and the fortitude and resilience I discovered that I never knew I had. Any challenges I face now pale in comparison to what I overcame on my Fulbright. I feel a kind of self-assuredness and self-confidence in my ability as a filmmaker, and a person, that I never had prior to this experience.

This September I will begin my MFA in Documentary Film and Video at Stanford University. I am both anxious and excited to be expanding upon my skills as a filmmaker, storyteller, and artist. In addition to refining my own abilities as a filmmaker, I want to pioneer a new form of participatory documentary filmmaking that works with disenfranchised communities to help equip them with the skills and tools to tell their own stories.

Compelling stories do not only lie at the center of the Pacific. Now, more than ever, there is a critical need for fostering greater understanding across communities through nuanced storytelling that honors the lives of its subjects. I hope to always use my position as a documentary filmmaker to uplift the narratives of those who struggle to have their voices heard.

Photo credit: Aurora Brachman and Darren James

Bringing Seabirds to the Mountains: Environmental Storytelling Through Fulbright

Fulbright-National Geographic program alumni Kevin McLean & Abby McBride recently attended the Mountainfilm Festival in Telluride, CO to speak about their work as fellows—offering a glimpse into some of the most groundbreaking storytelling of the modern age.

Held every Memorial Day weekend, Mountainfilm is a documentary film festival featuring nonfiction stories about environmental, cultural, political, and social justice issues. Along with exceptional documentaries, the festival goes beyond the medium of film by bringing together change makers and visionary artists like Kevin and Abby for interactive talks, gallery walks, and presentations.

At the festival, Kevin and Abby took the stage to share stories from their Fulbright experiences during the “Emerging Storytellers Presentation.” Abby also exhibited some of her nature illustrations during the festival’s gallery walk. From Northern Harriers in flight to gulls alighting on rocks and horseshoe crabs crawling on the beach, the art she presented displayed the remarkable and magical qualities of nature and science.

Abby explores nature and science through an artform she dubs “sketchbiologizing.” She travels globally to sketch wildlife and write stories about science and conservation. As a Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellow, she spent National Geographic’s “Year of the Bird” in New Zealand, home to the world’s most diverse and endangered seabirds. While there, she reported on efforts to reverse centuries of harm toward birds that make their living from the ocean: penguins, prions, storm-petrels, shearwaters, shags, gulls, gannets, mollymawks, and others. Her nine-month adventure involved roaming New Zealand’s coasts in an old station wagon named “Indy,” living out of a coffin-sized tent, rappelling down sea cliffs, following conservation dogs in search of nest burrows, hitching rides on sailing ships, being chased by sea lions on remote subantarctic islands, and helping with remarkable seabird conservation efforts around the country. All the while, she sketched copiously and recorded vertigo-inducing GoPro footage to illustrate her stories for the National Geographic Explorers blog.

“Fulbright gave me the opportunity to spend a year in the seabird capital of the world, writing and illustrating stories about these endangered species that are the coal-mine-canaries for the ocean,” said McBride. “Through this festival I was able to bring those seabird stories to the mountains. It feels like a fitting metaphor for how interconnected these global systems really are.”

Kevin McLean, a graduate student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, is particularly interested in expanding human knowledge of hard-to-reach species and ecosystems, as well as making science communication more palatable to public audiences. As a Fulbright-National Geographic storyteller, he traveled to Malaysian Borneo and the Ecuadorian Amazon to survey canopy wildlife in two of the most biodiverse areas of the world. As he collected his scientific data, he used writing, photos, and videos to provide a view of some of the least-known species in the forest for the National Geographic Explorers blog.

“Fulbright gave me the opportunity to study species that are rarely seen, even in the most biodiverse places on the planet. Spending time immersed in these places allowed me to make lasting connections with students and researchers in my host countries, and the platform I had as a digital storytelling fellow allowed me to share the species I was studying with a global audience,” McLean said. “The spirit of curiosity, adventure, and environmental justice at Mountainfilm creates a really engaged audience, and the conversations I had with fellow adventurers and storytellers gave me great ideas and inspiration for where to take my work next.”

The Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellowship supports young and promising scientists, adventurers and journalists as they venture across the globe to document and share some of today’s most pressing stories through multimedia platforms. Learn more about the fellowship on the Fulbright U.S. Student Program website.

Discovering the Unexpected in West Virginia

By Oyundari Ganbaatar, Foreign Fulbright Student, Mongolia

Oyundari visits a PK-8 School in Williamson, WV.

When I first received the email inviting me to attend the weeklong Fulbright-Amizade service-learning program in Williamson, West Virginia, I was excited to share the great news with my family and friends. However, their reactions were indifferent. My family in Mongolia had never heard of Williamson, and my friends in the U.S. told me that there is nothing to see or do in that part of the country. But I wasn’t discouraged. Instead, I was even more curious to learn about this unfamiliar town.

On May 11, 2019, I traveled from Houston to Charleston, West Virginia, where I met with other Fulbright-Amizade participants from 11 different countries. From there, we drove to Williamson. Our hour and a half-long drive to Williamson was filled with picturesque mountains and vibrant green forest.

During our first few days in Williamson, we learned about the town by visiting different sites, engaging in service activities and meeting with community members. One week is not enough time to learn everything about the town, but it was long enough to break the negative stereotypes we had heard before the trip. It is true that Williamson struggles with many hardships, including the opioid crisis, chronic diseases, unemployment, and depopulation. But are these not global issues that almost every city and country in the world also deal with?

The Fulbright-Amizade group on top of Death Rock Mountain.

We experienced many positive moments while in Williamson. We saw a community that has identified their problems and is doing everything they can to change things for the better. Despite the struggles caused by the decline of the coal industry and several devastating floods, Williamson is a town that works hard to solve their problems together as a community. They’ve implemented programs such as the Health and Wellness Center to provide affordable health and dental care for residents, a recovery center to deal with the county’s drug problem, sustainable tourism to attract new visitors, active living programs that encourage community members to adopt a healthier lifestyle, and in-home parenting education programs to make sure no family is left behind.

This experience was eye-opening. Through Fulbright-Amizade, I now understand the importance of working together to overcome difficulties. I witnessed the hard work and perseverance of the Williamson community. I learned about concepts that I can apply to my community when I return to Mongolia. Moreover, I believe we also impacted those we met in Williamson by not only sharing and introducing our cultures and stories, but also helping them to tell their stories to us. Ultimately, the trip was about the importance of mutual understanding and mutual benefit. I hope the community will continue its optimism and hard work towards positive change and sustainable development. I would be delighted to visit Williamson again in the future to see their progress and achievements in the years to come.

Oyundari is pursuing a master’s in public policy at the University of Houston.

Lessons from Williamson

Karen Jimeno

By Karen Jimeno, Fulbright Foreign Student, the Philippines

The first time I heard about Williamson, West Virginia, I had no clue where it was.  Growing up in the Philippines, I had heard about New York and other U.S. cities like San Francisco and Miami through movies and magazines. John Denver’s famous song “Take me Home, Country Roads” was the most familiarity I had with West Virginia. I learned from my Google research that Williamson was once a prosperous coal mining town, but its commerce and population declined after devastating floods and the collapse of the coal industry. Other articles painted a bleaker picture of what I should expect—a poor area full of “hillbillies.”

Spending a week in Williamson with Fulbright-Amizade made me realize how perceptions can be misleading, or outright inaccurate. In this era of misinformation and unreliable sources, there is nothing like first-hand experience to understand people and places. I share here lessons I learned while discovering the “true” Williamson.

Purpose & Passion

I met 21-year old Chandler when we visited Williamson’s fire department.  Chandler had something I rarely see these days: so much passion and love for his job. He beamed with pride as he told us of his family legacy, as his father and grandfather had worked for the same fire department.  I later found the same passion and sense of purpose among the lawyers at the Public Defender’s Office, and among the medical staff and doctors of the Williamson Health & Wellness Center. As a lawyer, I was particularly inspired by Chief Public Defender Teresa McCune who, after 20 years in that office, is still excited about going to work every day.

Love & Family

Mrs. Starr shared with me her family’s home-made chocolate syrup recipe. It was delicious!

We spent a day working at the Starr Family’s Honey Bee Farm. As Arlene Starr stood in her kitchen preparing snacks for us, she shared how she got into a car accident while her brother was driving through Williamson.  While getting treated for an injury in the ER, she told the medical attendants that it was her first time in Williamson and she never planned to come back. “Over 40 years later, I’m still here,” Arlene continued with a smile.

The ER is where Arlene met her husband Paul Starr. They settled in Williamson and raised a close-knit family. Arlene showed me the room where her grandkids stay during their visits, the beds clad with handmade quilts. I’ve always prided myself as coming from a Philippine culture where family ties are strong. I discovered that we share those same values with Americans like the Starr family, whose warmth and hospitality made us, a group of foreigners, feel welcomed and loved in their home.

Heritage & Identity

William Duty III graciously poses for a photo with the Amizade crew!

William Duty III, or “Papa Bill,” as he is fondly called in the community, hails from a family of lawyers. His son, William IV, is now one of the lawyers at the Public Defender’s Office.  While Papa Bill and his family have the financial means to live anywhere, they choose to remain in Williamson.  Lawyer Jim and his father Dr. Leo Pajarillo (who happen to be Filipino by ethnicity) have built their careers in Williamson despite opportunities elsewhere.  America’s Got Talent winner Landau Eugene Murphy Jr. could be living a celebrity lifestyle elsewhere, but he remains a down-to-earth guy who prefers to keep the Williamson area as his home.

Heritage and identity have kept talented people in Williamson.  Chris Dotson, who leads Williamson Forward, an organization which showcases developments in Williamson, shared why they try to break misconceptions and improve the town’s quality of life: “I want my son to have something to come home to, should he want Williamson to be his home.”  I admire the absence of pretention.  Amidst global movements toward sustainability, the people of Williamson acknowledge their coal heritage while striving to reinvent their city to be better.

Choices & Change

In the midst of an opioid crisis, Durand Warren and his team at the Williamson Recovery Center emphasized that “the community really has to get together” to solve this problem.  The community of Williamson has banded together to change lifestyles, promote employment, and aid recovery from drug problems.  During our visit, we watched the movie “Choices”—Ron James’ real-life story of addiction and recovery. Ron James, who was present at the movie screening, is living proof that change and positive transformations are possible. These interactions were particularly touching for me because my home country is also struggling with drug problems. Through Williamson’s programs, I witnessed how holistic approaches to rehabilitation are possible.

Community

Last but not least, the group of all-star Amizade volunteers!

The sense of community in Williamson is exceptional.  I ran with wellness coach Alexis Batausa and the Tug Valley Road Runners Club for their Tuesday Night Track event and saw how community members supported each other in adopting a healthier lifestyle.  While walking around Williamson with Nate Siggers, Amizade Site Director, I saw people stop to greet him.  This was not just a town—it was a community of people that truly cared for and felt connected to each other.

Faced with challenges, Williamson has emerged with a strong sense of identity. It is brimming with beauty—not only in Appalachia’s natural landscapes, but more importantly in its people.  I left Williamson feeling inspired, uplifted, and full of ideas that I want to take back to the Philippines. Our learning experience was a two-way street. As much as I was able to get rid of my erroneous perceptions about Williamson, I also clarified misconceptions about the Philippines. I had an amusing conversation with a Williamson local who told me he was on the verge of visiting the Philippines but backed out after watching an episode of “Locked-up Abroad.”

After a week, I now have friends from Williamson and from 11 different countries. I gave seven days of my time, and in return received lessons and friendships for a lifetime.

What Chilean Jewelry-Making Taught Me: A Fulbright Year in Review

By Sarah Lightfoot Vidal, Fulbright U.S. Student to Chile (Engineering) 

In March 2014, I began the biggest adventure of my life to date—a Fulbright research fellowship with el Centro de Investigación de Polímeros Avanzados (the Center for Advanced Polymers Research, or CIPA) in Concepción, Chile, studying biological polyesters and biomaterials.  I had never before been afforded the opportunity to live in a foreign country, much less while also working on two of my greatest passions: the Spanish language, and polymers.

One day after working in the lab at CIPA, I stopped by a café (BAC-Bon Appétit Chile) for an espresso.  On my way out, I noticed a flyer for joyeria, jewelry making.  I love art and had been searching for a small class to supplement my experiences in engineering through Fulbright, with an opportunity to do something completely different from my day-today life.  I quickly contacted the professor (profe), and we were set for our first 3-hour class.

In the 3 months of my apprenticeship, I had the joy of learning metallurgy from a practical, artistic point of view.  Thrillingly, this included working with a flame!  My professor would explain why we need to alloy the silver (plata) with another metal to increase its strength and our ability to cold-work it—practical evidence for engineering themes I had already learned at Drexel University.  I developed vocabulary I would not have learned in my scientific lab: some words I didn’t even know the equivalent of in English.  When it came time to begin a new piece, my professor took me to select a stone from another artist who had rooms full of beautiful raw and polished ones, both common and rare, indigenous treasures of Chile.  During my year in Chile I also purchased lapis lazuli jewelry (an indigenous stone of Chile) from local vendors, but the pride I felt upon completing my own pieces, start-to-finish, was incomparable.

My Fulbright project with CIPA focused on the development of biologically-produced polyester nanoparticles, for the encapsulation of quercetin (a polyphenol) and ultimately as a model for indigenous Chilean vegetable extracts.  Through the use of nanoparticles, which by comparison would be smaller in size than a common virus, we hoped to selectively deliver these extracts to patients either as a protective coating on biomedical devices or encapsulated via wound dressings.

To many it may seem like a stretch to connect silver-working with biomedical polymers research, but to me, this is what brought my Fulbright experience full circle.  I see similarities in encapsulating polyphenols or drugs to protecting a precious stone with metal; I equated the processing of large polymer pellets into small nanoparticles to the melting and reformation of the metal.  I was inspired by the skill and prevalence of talented Chilean artisans: a living manifestation of years of culture and experience of such a beautiful and complex country.  By recognizing that art and culture are fundamentally intertwined with science, we create an opportunity to collaborate and learn from those in fields different from our own.  Fulbright afforded me the chance to explore without fear and encouraged me to consume knowledge in anything and everything. I will always be grateful to Fulbright and to the beautiful country of Chile, which welcomed me and taught me so much about life.

Application tips:

  • Do not discourage yourself from applying—with a clear vision and strong motivation, your dream Fulbright experience is possible. Apply!
  • Start searching for your host affiliation early; be persistent but keep an open mind on all opportunities.
  • On editing, be receptive to suggestions from others, but ultimately the application is your own. You need to be content with your final product.