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U.S. Fulbright

Bringing Darkness to Light on Fulbright, By Samantha Lakin, 2011-2012, Switzerland

December 27, 2011

My global perspective has truly evolved during my Fulbright grant in Lausanne, Switzerland.  The essence of my Fulbright research has been to record and analyze oral histories of child Holocaust survivors who were rescued as refugees and brought into Switzerland during World War II.  My project has become much more than a series of interviews with some of the world’s most unique individuals.  By meeting people who experienced one of history’s darkest periods of persecution and fanaticism, I have learned perhaps one of the most important lessons influencing my perspective: meaningful work and life in a multicultural environment require truly accepting others and extending oneself to build trust.  Many of the Holocaust survivors I’ve interviewed were rescued by non-Jewish citizens of different nationalities who risked their lives to combat the hatred the Nazi regime embodied.  Through their experiences with genocidal madness, these survivors have solidified my global perspective and helped me to believe in the strength of the individual.

Living and working in Switzerland as a Fulbright U.S. Student is exciting and challenging.  I have received an incredible response from the international and Swiss academic community, meeting with top World War II history scholars and gaining advice from some key players in the field.  I also had the unique opportunity to meet Mr. Serge Klarsfeld, the most famous modern lawyer known for trying Nazi criminals for crimes against humanity, and to speak with him about my Fulbright experience.  The respect I’ve gained as an up-and-coming scholar in Switzerland is rare.   The support from communities in Lausanne, Zurich, Basel, Geneva, and other local Swiss governments has been overwhelming.  I even had a chance to accompany a Swiss historian on a day-long trip across the French-Swiss border to learn about the history of border crossings during World War II and to gain a visual for my documented stories.  Additionally, videotaping interviews with the last generation of Holocaust survivor children (specifically, adolescents who were rescued and taken to Switzerland to escape Nazi persecution) has been an eye-opening experience.  Some survivors escaped through legal routes like the KinderTransport that left Germany for Switzerland right before the war, and others escaped clandestinely with organizations and “passeurs,” or smugglers, risking their lives to cross French and German borders into Switzerland.

As a Fulbright cultural ambassador to Switzerland from the United States, I have been able to make many connections that have enhanced my research.  At the United States Ambassador’s reception for Fulbrighters and alumni in Bern, I was able to meet Laura Bernier, a professional photographer and former Fulbrighter to Switzerland.  Since this meeting, Laura and I have been working together on a photographic representation of my research.  We’ve taken photos of the places in Switzerland where refugee children crossed borders and subsequently lived and worked, as well as portraits of the Holocaust survivors I’ve interviewed.  Ultimately, I cannot wait to finish my research, which will culminate in the publication of an article in an academic journal and also in a presentation at the United States Embassy in Switzerland in May 2012.  The Fulbright Program has allowed me to shed light on a multifaceted aspect of World War II and to showcase one of its little known histories.

For those recent graduates applying to the Fulbright Program to pursue a study or research grant, my advice is simple:

  • Find a project about which you are truly passionate and let your love for the subject shine through in your application.
  • Once you’ve found a great idea, focus and ground yourself in realistic expectations. 
  • Make sure your essays reveal your personality, but are also focused on what you can reasonably accomplish in a short year, why your research must be funded and why you are the right person for your project. 
  • Rally support from professors, scholars in the field and others.  Don’t be shy in asking for advice from your Fulbright Program Adviser or former Fulbrighters

The Fulbright experience — the unique opportunity to follow a passion for one year — is worth any challenge you may encounter beforehand.  I wish the best of luck to all of the 2012-2013 applicants!

Top photo: Samantha Lakin, 2011-2012, Switzerland, navigating the streets of Lausanne

Middle photo: Samantha Lakin, 2011-2012, Switzerland, interviewing a Holocaust survivor

Bottom photo: The French-Swiss Border, Crossing Point 50

All photos taken by Fulbright alumna Laura Bernier, 2008-2009, Switzerland

U.S. Fulbright Unknown

Seeing Through the Mirror, By Liz Lance, 2008-2009, Nepal

December 21, 2011

After visiting Nepal periodically since studying abroad there as an undergraduate, I returned on a Fulbright grant to work on a documentary photography project on beauty and body image in young women. I spent the next ten months interviewing and photographing my subjects, and although I worked independently, I still benefitted from a support network for encouragement and inspiration. Not long after returning to Nepal in September 2008, I began hearing about—a community of photographers and photography enthusiasts, Nepali and bideshi or foreigners, that met monthly for photography viewings and discussion. In short order, I spent the first of what was to be many Saturday mornings in the company of a dynamic group of primarily young Nepalis who were engaged in multimedia storytelling and other creative pursuits.

The connections I made through helped propel my work in fascinating directions throughout my Fulbright year. I traveled with Kathmandu musicians to Palpa District in Western Nepal, where I spent a few days with a young woman who ran a beauty parlor. I visited Dhaka, Bangladesh, with a contingent of Nepali photographers for the biannual Chobi Mela International Photography Festival. I met another engaged group of creative storytellers at VENT! Magazine, and with them, I taught a two-day photojournalism workshop to about 15 Nepali photographers.

By the end of my grant year, when I had completed five multimedia stories on different women, I presented my work to the community and engaged in a layered discussion on beauty and femininity with a packed house of Kathmanduites. was all that I was looking for and more: not only a supportive and inspirational community, but also a series of open doors that facilitated the growth of my project in unexpected and fulfilling ways. Beyond the scope of my work, also introduced me to a number of Nepalis who would come to be great friends.  I even helped introduce two friends who will marry in the coming year!

In all of this immersion into the community of Kathmandu artists, I began to think less and less of myself as an American among Nepalis, and more as photographer among other photographers. But I think the impetus for that was as much a reflection of how I was being treated by my Nepali friends and colleagues as it was how I felt about living in Nepal on my Fulbright grant. My Nepali slang had sharpened enough that I no longer needed constant translation for their colloquial shorthand, my Nepali friends were passing around the same viral YouTube videos that my friends back home would send me, and we were all updating our statuses and posting photos on Facebook (when not suffering from Kathmandu’s crippling rolling blackouts). Though we came from vastly different cultural upbringings, we looked to the same sources for creative inspiration and “geeked out” in eerily similar ways over technical achievements in Photoshop and FinalCutPro. As is often the lesson in cultural exchange, we were more alike than we were different (though they had decidedly better food).

Over a year earlier, back home in San Francisco, I spent three months researching and honing my Fulbright proposal; foregrounding the issue––beauty and body image––I was examining and stressing the contribution I would make to their domestic and international understanding. Though I will never know the specific reasons why I was awarded a Fulbright grant, I think one of my proposal’s strengths was the public nature of my proposed work. A journalistic project naturally lends itself well to projecting an issue into the public discourse that allows for meaningful cultural exchange.  And while every project need not become journalistic, nor every journalistic project be funded, an application that includes a specific and organic avenue for sharing it with your community at home and abroad is likely to appear stronger. I was also able to craft a successful proposal because of my friends’ input. I sent a draft around to four or five people who gave me very specific feedback.  I was able to incorporate their suggestions, such as restricting my project proposal to elements that were reasonable to achieve in a ten-month period because I began working on my proposal so far ahead of the deadline.

As I reflect back on my Fulbright experience of almost two years ago, I realize the most rewarding aspect of it was how unexpected it was. When I was preparing my Fulbright application, I never imagined myself connecting to a creative community in the way I would end up doing largely because I didn’t know one existed. But by following a tip from a few friends, my Fulbright experience transcended my original two-page proposal in more ways than I could have imagined.

Photo: Liz Lance, 2008-2009, Nepal, interacts with students during a photojournalism workshop she taught with VENT! Magazine in June 2009

Questions for Liz about her Fulbright experinces?  Email her at

U.S. Fulbright

Working on an application for the Fulbright Public Policy Fellowship? Join today’s webinar at 2:30-4:00 pm EST to hear tips on how to write your essays and obtain letters of reference.

December 15, 2011

Today’s webinar will feature the Fulbright U.S. Student Program team offering guidance on crafting the different components of the Fulbright Public Policy Fellowship application.

The webinar will also be specifically geared towards answering any questions you may have and will allow ample time for Q&A.

To register, please click on the following link:

All times are Eastern Time Zone.

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email with information about joining the webinar.  If you have not done so already, you will need to download the GoToMeeting/GoToWebinar client software.

System Requirements
PC-based attendees
Required: Windows® 2000, XP or newer
Macintosh®-based attendees
Required: Mac OS® X 10.4 (Tiger®) or newer

U.S. Fulbright

Interested in learning more about studying the power of music as a global force for promoting mutual understanding? Attend today’s Fulbright-mtvU webinar at 2:30-4:00 p.m., EST.

December 7, 2011

For the past five years, Fulbright-mtvU Fellows have studied the power of using music as a global force for promoting mutual understanding.  Now entering its sixth year, we encourage all interested applicants to join today’s informational webinar.

During the webinar, mtvU and IIE staff will discuss the fellowship’s goals and how to apply.  If available, Fulbright-mtvU alumni will be on hand to discuss their experiences and answer questions.  All interested program advisers are also welcome to attend and participate in the Q&A session.

To register, click on the following link:

All times indicated are Eastern Time Zone.

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email with information about joining the webinar.  If you have not done so already, you will need to download the GoToMeeting/GoToWebinar client software.

System Requirements
Windows PC: Windows 2000, XP, or newer
Mac: OS X 10.4 (Tiger) or newer

Interested in what it’s like to be a Fulbright-mtvU Student?  Check out the Fulbright-mtvU blog and 2011 Fulbright-mtvU recipient Lauren Knapp’s timelapse video of Ulaanbataar, Mongolia:

Timelapse: Ulaanbaatar 4-Way from Lauren Knapp on Vimeo.

Not able to join today’s webinar but still want to learn more about Fulbright-mtvU?  Click here to see the guidance session/webinar schedule.

U.S. Fulbright

The Syrian Hospitality Waltz, By Antonio Tahhan, 2010-2011, Syria

December 6, 2011

Lost, I strolled up to a middle-aged gentleman standing a few feet beside me who was leisurely munching on a bag of peanuts.  I cleared my throat as I approached him.  “Marhaba,” I said in my peculiar Arabic accent, trying my best to say “Hello.”  As the man turned to me, I asked if he could direct me to the market.

There was no rush; everything in Aleppo, Syria, happens in its own time.  The man offered me some of his peanuts.  I declined politely as he extended the snack-sized bag.  I made sure to say, “Shokran,” or “Thank you,” so as to not offend, but he insisted.  Having already lived here for a few months on my Fulbright grant, I understood this was part of the intricate, Syrian hospitality waltz.  It’s a well-established, figurative dance based on a set of unspoken rules.  If you watch it take place between two locals, it can be quite beautiful.  I was still learning.  I explained how I had just eaten lunch and was absolutely stuffed.  I followed with a comment about how delicious my meal had been, and he smiled and instructed me to follow him.

We exchanged stories as we walked down the busy street.  I mentioned that I was a Fulbright Student studying food in Aleppo; he chuckled and assured me I had come to the right place.  In fact, many Arabs and food scholars consider Aleppo to be the culinary capital of the Middle East.  Historically situated along the Silk Road, Aleppo has served as the home for a myriad of cultures: Armenian, Circassian, Greek, Jewish, Kurdish, and Turkish.  They have all played a role in shaping what Aleppan food is today.

The conversation with the older gentleman went smoothly, as if I were chatting with an old friend.  Once he knew I was there to study lunch, he began to tell me of all the dishes I needed to taste.  As we passed prominent landmarks, he interjected to explain how I could find my way in case I ever got lost again.  He insisted on walking with me until he felt confident I could find the market.  When we arrived at the point where we parted ways, he extended his bag of peanuts one more time.  I couldn’t say no, not after all that we’d shared.  That would be considered, “aaeeb,” or “shameful.”

I politely grabbed a couple peanuts from the small bag and tossed them in my mouth.  They were dry-roasted and salted, and actually very tasty.  I thanked him again, “Shokran,” and repeated it a couple more times.  He responded by extending his open hand across his chest, over his heart, saying, “Ya meet ahlan w sahlan,” which roughly translates into, “Oh, you are most welcome a hundred times over.”

In Syria, and across much of the Middle East, symbolic gestures, however small, can have significant social implications.  These gestures are equivalent to the imperceptible signals exchanged between two dance partners on a dance floor.  Placing your hand over your heart is understood to be a gesture of openness and sincerity.  Numbers also play an important role in social exchange.  Many Arabic phrases can be reinforced by a quantitative amount.  For instance, if you want to congratulate someone, you can say, “Mabrook.”  But for emphasis, you would say, “Alf mabrook,” which literally means, “A thousand congratulations.”  Even ordinary exchanges can sometimes trigger the waltz.  The expression for “good morning” is “sabah al kher,” literally, “morning of goodness.”  A standard response would be “sabah al noor,” or, “morning of light,” but you might also hear, “ya meet sabah,” which translates into “one hundred beautiful mornings.”

During my stay in Syria, I met many people, like the middle-aged man, who were interested in getting to know me – and vice versa.  Conversations that started about eggplants and parsley evolved into stories of love and companionship, culture and politics. 

These exchanges, however imperceptible, are indicators of a larger dance meant to teach us about one another.  They are a means by which we can participate in each other’s cultures and form relationships based on mutual understanding.  I consider these interactions to be highlights of my Fulbright in Syria.  These are the interactions I carry in my heart and continue to share on my blog in an effort to continue the waltz I started more than a year ago.

My tips for Fulbright applicants:

  • If you are in a city with other Fulbright students, try not to spend most of your time with them.  The best experiences come when you form new relationships with locals from your host country.
  • If you are interested in improving your language skills, set up informal conversation sessions with someone who has similar interests.  This will make language learning more enjoyable and will be a great way to meet new people.
  • Participate in local events that align with your personal interests.  This will help you establish a network of friends you can connect with during – and after – your Fulbright grant.
  • Never stay at home by yourself.  Always reach outside of your comfort zone.  Meet new people even if it seems awkward or difficult at times.  Invite friends to share a meal, set up weekly movie nights – participate in events that are fun.  Remember that cultural exchange can happen anywhere, anytime.

Top Photo: Antonio Tahhan, 2010-2011, Syria (second from left), forming friendships with Bedouins who hosted him during a camping trip to Palmyra, Syria

Middle Photo: One of the many entrances to the interconnected labyrinths that make up the ancient markets of Aleppo

Bottom Photo:Antonio Tahhan, 2010-2011, Syria, walking through the valley in Ma’loula — a town of about 2,000 inhabitants and one of the only remaining places on earth where Aramaic is still spoken.