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2020

U.S. Fulbright

Here and There: Hispanic Identity and Access Abroad

September 24, 2020

This National Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re highlighting the contributions of outstanding Fulbrighters who live the Fulbright mission through their identities and goals. In this Q&A, Fulbright Student Alumni Ambassadors Tania Aparicio, Maren Lujan, and Abraham De La Rosa share their experiences and discuss inclusion and equity in international education, especially as it relates to their own experiences and identities.

Tania Aparicio, 2018 Fulbright U.S. Student in Sociology and Film to Mexico
In Mexico, Tania conducted qualitative research for her doctoral dissertation, which focuses on the decision-making process involved in film curatorship. Her doctoral thesis proposes that curatorship is a collective process influenced by the principles that organizations stand for and not based on individual taste, as other scholars have previously claimed. Working with the curatorial team at the Cineteca Nacional de Mexico, Tania conducted participant observation on how film curators make and justify programmatic decisions.

 

Abraham M. De La Rosa, 2018 Fulbright U.S. Student in Public Administration to Italy
Abraham earned a master’s degree in Public Administration through the SDA Bocconi School of Management in Milan, Italy, where he studied how the public and private sectors can collaborate to tackle new challenges across the globe. As part of this program, he interned with Officine Innovazione-Deloitte Italy and Rise Products to conduct market research on the global flour industry and upcycling products. In addition to his coursework, Abraham worked on a capstone research project focused on social impact bonds for refugees in the European Union, which he presented at the European Investment Bank in Luxemburg.

 

Maren A. Lujan, 2017 Fulbright U.S. Student in Anthropology to Sierra Leone
Maren’s Fulbright research focused on studying social and cultural structures impacting women’s access to healthcare. While in Sierra Leone, Maren conducted ethnographic research in a rural town, as well as system analysis at the regional and national levels. She worked with a Sierra Leonean research assistant and collaborated with a non-governmental organization, FOCUS 1000, to employ participatory research techniques at the local level.

 

 


1. Tell us a little about your path to Fulbright. Who or what inspired you to apply?

Tania: Fulbright is one of the most prestigious grants for graduate students. I had looked into programs to fund research in Mexico, and found my doctoral dissertation project, which is arts-based, was a good fit for the Fulbright Open Study/Research Award to Mexico. When I started my application in early May, I attended an informational session at my university. There, I met Katie Wolff, Assistant Director of Global Engagement & International Programs, and The New School’s Fulbright Program Adviser. She met with me and helped me set up a timeline to get my application materials completed during the summer. I could not have done it without her.

Abraham: I had known about Fulbright for a couple of years, but I had the misconception that Fulbright was for STEM students to continue undergraduate research projects. It was not until a few years ago that I discovered that there are a lot of different Fulbright awards available across the world. While I was working full time, I discovered that you could pursue a master’s program through Fulbright. I found an award that aligned with my educational and professional background, as well as what I wanted to continue to learn, and I decided to apply. The process was quite hectic, especially since I was working. Luckily, I had the support of my supervisor and roommate, who made sure I stayed with my application and submitted.

Maren: I don’t recall exactly what prompted me to apply. I wasn’t even entirely sure what Fulbright was before applying. A friend of mine had completed a program through Fulbright, so I was familiar with the name; perhaps a professor mentioned it offhand as an option. I applied, got it, and then figured it out from there!

 

2. Tell us a little about your Fulbright research topic and project. What did a typical day as a Fulbrighter look like for you?

Tania: I spent nine months in Mexico City gathering qualitative data for my doctoral dissertation, which investigates film curatorship in two important arts organizations. I wanted to understand how curatorial decisions are made, because they impact the film culture that millions of people have access to. My first case was the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the second was Cineteca Nacional (The National Film Center) in Mexico City.

 

Caption: Tania Aparicio on her Fulbright, posing in front of her host institution, Cineteca Nacional in Mexico City, Mexico.

 

As a Fulbrighter, I conducted participant observation as a member of the Programming Department with Cineteca Nacional. I spent most of my time with the head curators, who decide what films 1.3 million annual visitors will watch in the film center. I was lucky to attend private film screenings and observed their firsthand reactions to the films they were judging, how they classified them, and the type of evaluation processes they engaged in. I also shadowed each member of the department, including theater managers, shipping employees, film rights managers, assistants, and interns. During the last three months of my stay, I conducted in-depth interviews with film curators who worked for other organizations, as well as other important industry members, in order to get a fuller idea of the field and of how Cineteca Nacional fit in the larger cultural landscape in Mexico. I also conducted workshops for local graduate students on how to conduct qualitative research when studying forms of cultural production, such as cinema.

Abraham: My Fulbright allowed me to pursue a Master of Public Administration degree (MPA) through the SDA Bocconi School of Management in Milan, Italy. I primarily attended classes as a graduate student and my typical day really varied. My first semester focused on courses and content, while during the second semester, I worked with classmates on a research project focused on public-private partnerships and social impact bonds for refugees in Europe. After completing the research project towards the end of the semester, I completed coursework while interning with a consulting company.

In addition, I volunteered in the local community and went hiking out of the city during the weekend. It’s hard to describe a typical day, since it really changed depending on the month and where I stood in my program.

Maren: My research topic looked at women’s health in rural Sierra Leone from a social and cultural perspective. A typical day for me was walking around the rural town where I was staying, or visiting one of the many surrounding villages, and talking with individuals about their health and their experiences with the health system.

 

Abraham De La Rosa at the United Nations Office at Geneva during a multi-day excursion in Switzerland, as part of his master’s degree program.

 

3. How did your identity play a role in your Fulbright experience?

Tania: I often had conversations about how, as an immigrant from Peru, I am from “here and there,” to borrow a phrase from Alexandra Delano, the Co-Chair and Associate Professor of Global Studies at The New School, who has written about diaspora policies, integration, and social rights beyond borders. In my experience, I received pushback from people who wanted to label me exclusively as Peruvian, rather than Peruvian-American. Nevertheless, I do not think of myself only as Peruvian anymore, and I haven’t for a long time, even though I moved to the United States as an adult and without my family. I am grateful for the opportunity I had to reflect and discuss my identity as an immigrant with my peers in Mexico. I came to realize how formative my immigration trajectory has been, and how I could never be who I’ve become anywhere else but in the United States.

Abraham: My identity played a big role in my Fulbright experience, since my courses were discussion-based. One of the topics we kept going back to was how governments and the private sector can better serve their communities. During these discussions, I was able to share with my classmates my Mexican and American experience in the United States. For most of them, it was their first time interacting with an immigrant and first-generation college student. Being able to have these deep conversations with my classmates and members of the community allowed me to share a side of the United States not normally shown in mainstream media.

Maren: Being light-skinned in Sierra Leone and West Africa categorizes you as “apotho” (white/foreigner), and with that comes privilege and certain expectations, especially in rural areas. Residents’ experiences with foreigners is commonly through foreign aid: when I approached people to talk about their health, I was assumed to be a doctor, and very often get asked for medical advice and medicine. This was also part of my research on the health system: considering the impact of international aid. A few distrusted my intentions, so a lot of my work was also building trust.

Additionally, being American, there were often assumptions of wealth—I did want individuals to understand that there is also poverty, racism, and inequality in the United States. As a first-generation Mexican-American, it felt important to me to share my experiences, but navigating those conversations could be difficult given the disparities and differences in access, and given that poverty in the United States looks very different from poverty in rural Sierra Leone.

 

Abraham De La Rosa participating at the Seeds&Chips Summit through his internship in Milan, Italy.

 

4. What is your biggest takeaway from your Fulbright?

Tania: Where, what, and how a new place becomes home is always unexpected. Also, every Fulbrighter I’ve met since my grant started are members of this amazing community of kind and insightful human beings.

 

Caption: Tania Aparicio visiting Palenque archeological site in Mexico.

 

Abraham: One of the biggest takeaways from my Fulbright is realizing that we have a lot in common with others around the world. My master’s program was composed of people from 16 different countries, and I was surprised constantly by how our countries worked similarly to try to help our communities. I found myself sometimes realizing that what I understood about a country or situation from a U.S-based perspective was not the full story. Through trying to learn mutually from others, I was able to also see a different reality about their countries and societies. These are skills that I found extremely helpful, and that I continue to use even upon my return to the United States.

Maren: Being a first-generation college graduate, I’m still amazed that programs like Fulbright exist. The fact that I was given the opportunity and funding to pursue my own research is still unbelievable to me. This has set me up for a PhD. While I will need to continue to pursue funding for my research, I do feel a sense of confidence now in seeing that my work has value, and that someone was willing to fund it.

 

5. What impact did your research or studies make in your career and local communities?

Tania: I could not have completed my dissertation research without Fulbright. Due to this research, I have presented in conferences in both Mexico and the United States, prepared articles for publication in peer-reviewed journals, and I’m currently writing my PhD dissertation. My work is a comparative study of film curatorship in a U.S.-based non-profit and a Mexico-based public organization—this comparative approach is yielding new knowledge for cultural managers and practitioners.

Abraham: My Fulbright allowed me to continue to advance professionally. Since my return to the United States, I have been working with a non-profit organization, The Forum on Education Abroad, applying a lot of my acquired knowledge. The organization works directly with universities and study abroad providers to ensure best practices in the field of education abroad.

Maren: My research focused on the use of participatory practices: how to engage with community while conducting research, and considering the impact of that research on them. I currently facilitate a community health plan with a variety of health service providers and engage with stakeholders to maximize impact. I’ve been able to re-focus the work to community impact and implement strategies for engaging with residents, folding health equity into the action plan.

 

Abraham De La Rosa with two classmates at La Scala Opera House in Milan, Italy.

 

6. What does equity and inclusion look like in international education/study abroad?

Tania: It looks like networks of people helping each other move up and forward together. For example, it looks like first-generation college students learning about programs like Fulbright and getting the mentorship and support to navigate the application process.

 

Tania Aparicio touring Mexico City with fellow Fulbrighter.

 

Abraham: This is a very complex question and I think many in the field of international education are trying to answer this. Equity, diversity, and inclusion are guiding principles that should be embedded in every aspect of international education, and considered prior to a program even beginning. When a program or an opportunity abroad is being designed, underserved and unrepresented populations should be kept in mind throughout the entire design process. This includes, but is not limited to, the mission and goals of the program; the populations for whom the program is intended; the application process; financial assistance; and the support that will be provided to each participant before, during, and after their experience abroad. If underserved and unrepresented participants are not kept in mind from the very beginning, trying to ensure equity and inclusion at the end of the process will be much more difficult and perhaps ineffective.

In a broader sense, we hope that everyone can participate in international education, and that each participating cohort is representative of the vast diversity of the United States. The goal is an opportunity where everyone feels welcomed and equally served, regardless of gender, race, identity, or background, and where you can feel safe sharing who you are and learn from others. I think the field of international education continues to improve and grow, but we can all continue to learn and share with one another to continue to grow.

Maren: I think when discussing equity and inclusion for study abroad, we want to look at the students who have historically been disenfranchised or wouldn’t have access otherwise. Recently, someone mentioned that study abroad demographics mirrored higher education numbers. If you consider all the barriers to education for low-income, minority, disabled students, and others, we have to ask: are we maximizing equity, or maintaining a status quo where only the elites and outliers have access to study abroad and international education? I got lucky learning about Fulbright and was given the opportunity of a lifetime, but I know in that respect, I’m still an outlier.

 

Abraham De La Rosa hiking in Lecco, Italy, located 30 km outside of Milan.

U.S. Fulbright

How to Build a Fulbright Top-Producing Institution: Northwestern University

September 3, 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What makes a “Fulbright Top-Producing Institution“? A variety of institutions discuss their efforts to recruit, mentor, and encourage students and scholars to apply for the Fulbright U.S. Student and U.S. Scholar Programs. We hope these conversations pull back the curtain on the advising process, and provide potential applicants and university staff with the tools they need to start their Fulbright journey.

“At Northwestern University, we believe that relationships fuel knowledge. Collaborations among individuals and institutions, globally and locally, drive new discovery and innovation. Fulbright offers a platform to build new relationships and deepen existing partnerships in order to work together to identify new solutions to address the world’s most critical challenges.”

By Northwestern University Staff

Question: Your outstanding faculty/students are one of many factors that led to this achievement. What makes your faculty/students such exceptional candidates for the Fulbright Program?

Our campus is both international- and service-oriented. Northwestern students work, live, and study with students from around the globe. Similarly, our faculty as a whole is deeply international in their background and their outlook. Our students confront and embrace the concept of “difference” daily and are comfortable asking questions that do not have easy answers. We have robust connections with our language faculty who participate on panels and promote the Fulbright Program to their students. Further, a spirit of service pervades this campus. It is rare to find a student who is not actively engaged in socially focused extracurricular activities. Add in the rigorous intellectual climate at Northwestern, and the result is that students are engaged with the world, have empathy for and curiosity about all people, and possess an inquisitive disposition—which, essentially, makes them great Fulbright applicants.

Northwestern’s many strengths are amplified by our culture of collaboration; our research and learning culture is deeply multidisciplinary. In a world where the greatest innovations are produced by teams, not individuals, Northwestern faculty and students are prepared to engage across disciplines and with international partners. This makes them excellent candidates for Fulbright awards because they approach the opportunity already coming from a culture of collaboration across boundaries of all kinds.

 

What steps have you taken to promote a Fulbright culture on your campus?

We work to keep Fulbright in front of students year-round. We joke that it is “always Fulbright season,” but this is more than a little true. Beginning with the national deadline, we communicate directly with last cycle’s non-recommended applicants and those who began, but did not finish, the application. We see both cohorts as likely candidates for the next cycle. Further, those students who go through our application process are our best advertisement! Our process really gets underway in January with a series of informational meetings which then morph into application workshops in May and June (Northwestern operates on a quarter schedule). In addition to specific Fulbright-focused events, nearly every conversation with students or presentation about fellowships uses Fulbright as an example. During the summer, students work closely with a Fulbright Program Adviser, whom we assign. This close relationship is in addition to their departmental mentors and cements their engagement with our office and the Fulbright application process.

 

How has your institution benefited from increased engagement with the Fulbright Program?

Northwestern University has been a consistent Fulbright Top Producing Institution for over a decade. Thanks to this record, most students and their faculty mentors see Fulbright as an excellent opportunity to further their interests. We are blessed with a good word-of-mouth network, which encourages students to develop an international outlook early in their education. Fulbright is a well-established aspirational goal for our students, and they see that their chances of receiving an award is within their grasp. They begin on-campus research experiences and language study knowing that developing these skills will help them to extend their local goals onto a global stage.

 

How does your institution support faculty and administrators who apply to the Fulbright Program?

For administrators who wish to apply to the Fulbright Program, Northwestern’s Office of International Relations promotes the opportunity and provides editorial feedback to staff on their applications.

For faculty, we connect prospective applicants with colleagues who have had Fulbright awards or who have hosted Fulbright representatives on campus and facilitate faculty members’ efforts to bring colleagues with Fulbright grants to campus when possible.

Find out more information about the ways that Northwestern connects with the Fulbright Program here.

 

What advice do you have for other universities and colleges that want to increase the number of Fulbrighters produced by their institution?

Success with the Fulbright Program starts with an internationally focused institution and strong faculty support. While individuals working with Fulbright applicants might not be able to single-handedly internationalize their campus, they can help faculty see the value in this program and in global opportunities as a whole. Through advertising, individual meetings, group meetings, and conclaves with appropriate faculty, an adviser can facilitate that moment when a faculty member taps a student on the shoulder and says, “You know, you should apply for a Fulbright.”

U.S. Fulbright

Food and Spirit(s): Communicating in Switzerland

August 13, 2020

By Anna O. Giarratana, Fulbright U.S. Student to Switzerland

“Food is a universally vital part of our lives, representing history, traditions, and culture. Each of us relies on food not only to survive, but to comfort ourselves, communicate with others, and connect us to our forebears.”

—Sam Chapple-Sokol

When I started my Fulbright at the Zurich Center for Neuroeconomics in Switzerland, I was largely excited about the professional opportunity before me; I had just finished the PhD portion of my joint MD-PhD program, and I was joining a research lab on the forefront of conducting experiments in the nascent field of neuroeconomics. The field, studying how people make decisions, brings neuroscientists like me together with economists, computer scientists, and psychiatrists. In addition to my research, I was also eager to spend my weekends exploring my hobby interest, traditional food—in particular, traditional cured meat products. What I didn’t anticipate when I started my Fulbright was how important those culinary trips would be in giving me a sense of community within the country.

 

Enjoying saucisse aux choux in Orbe.

 

In my first few weeks, I researched online to identify fall festivals highlighting traditional Swiss cured meats. The last weekend in September, armed with Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) Transit and Google Maps, I set off to find the Fête de la Saucisse aux Choux à Orbe. After two hours of rail travel and walking, I found myself in the small hilltop town of Orbe, transported back centuries as I watched local artisans make the famous saucisse aux choux, a local sausage made with cabbage. My efforts to engage the local artisans in discussion about their process suffered an initial set-back when I tried speaking German, which I had studied in preparation for my move to Zurich. I was now in French Switzerland. Uh oh.

What are the French words for “What is this?” again? Luckily, in response to my blank stare, the artisans switched to German and then to Italian, and I was able to muddle through the exchange. I learned that day that the Swiss tend to be fluent in at least two of the national languages, in addition to English, inspiring me to dedicate myself more diligently to my language studies.

 

Learning to make kalbsbratwurst at Olma Messen.

 

In the following months, I explored Switzerland, a small country but one brimming with unique culinary traditions. I joined a wild food foraging group in Zurich, traveled to St. Gallen for the Olma Messen agricultural trade show; to Porrentruy for the “Feast and Market,” Fête et Marché de la St-Martin; to Chur for the fall exhibit, Guarda Herbstmesse;, to Bonvillars for the Marché aux Truffes; to Gruyères to the La Maison du Gruyère; to Lucerne for Käsefest; and to Ticino for its Stranociada carnival. And, along the way, I gained a greater understanding—through food—of Swiss history. I learned about the different cantons (member states) that make up Switzerland, the languages they speak, the traditions they practice, the products they create, and the values they hold.

 

View of Gruyères.

Vineyards at the Truffle Market in Bonvillars.

 

Most importantly, it was through these travels and my bumbling German/French/Italian questions that I made my best friends, both Swiss locals and other internationals like myself, over our shared love for food. We sustained these cross-cultural friendships by creating a rotating dinner group, where we took turns hosting and making our native food or traditional Swiss foods. I learned to make capuns and härdöpfel pizokel from the Graubünden region of Switzerland, enjoyed moqueca from Brazil, and taught others how to make my favorite Italian-American family recipe, potato gnocchi. We shared food, wine, and anecdotes from our time and travels, domestically and internationally. I heard firsthand about the importance of the direct democracy system in Switzerland, which results in voting on quarterly referendums. I learned more about life in India—its different regions, the way the university system works, and how highly valued a government job is. In China, the bestselling books placed in the entry display of bookstores are not works of fiction, but nonfiction books highlighting the value of self-improvement. I shared my experiences with healthcare in the United States: as a medical student, I have a vested interest in improving the U.S. healthcare system. I solicited opinions on what works and what doesn’t work, internationally. Beyond interacting with my local community, I have connected to a global audience by describing my Swiss food explorations on my personal blog and Instagram account “The Gastrochemist.” I have heard from homesick Swiss expats, as well as interested people around the world.

 

Homemade Swiss Capuns

 

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, this idea of a global community created and sustained through food has become even more vital. Serious conversations with my roommates about past crises they have lived through occurred over shared homemade wiener schnitzel. While I have been practicing social distancing, the internet has allowed me to learn about the comfort foods others are making in countries such as Italy, Singapore, and Australia. Meanwhile, I’m sharing some of my comfort food projects, most recently making homemade pasta with a rabbit sauce called tajarin al ragù di coniglio. I never could have predicted where I would be six months into my Fulbright: alone in a room with the internet, cooking just for myself, but sharing with the world. If this year has taught me anything, it’s that we’ll get through this together, with a little food and a lot of human spirit.

 

Anna O. Giarratana is an MD-PhD student at Rutgers University – Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. Originally from Franklin Lakes, NJ, she attended Bryn Mawr College where she majored in Chemistry and cultivated her love for global learning. She is passionate about interdisciplinary, multinational work – believing it to be the best way to tackle difficult problems. As a neuroscientist, she has contributed to the field with multiple publications in peer-reviewed journals and presentations at international conferences. For her Fulbright, she worked at the Zurich Center for Neuroeconomics, an innovative interdisciplinary center dedicated to understanding the cognitive process of decision-making.

U.S. Fulbright

Creating Home Abroad and Breaking the Tourist Barrier

July 17, 2020

By Sarah McLewin, 2018 Fulbright ETA to Morocco

 

 

After accepting a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to Morocco, I began to imagine exploring all Morocco has to offer—mountains, desert, beaches, and cities, each with a unique history and culture.

But once I arrived in my host city, Rabat, I found myself feeling hesitant to spend my weekends traveling. Instead, during my first few months there, I focused on creating a home in my neighborhood.

 

 

Creating My Rabat Home

As I settled in, I learned how to manage my teaching responsibilities and work towards my language goals. But there was also a long list of other things to figure out: Where would I copy materials for class? Or pick up a taxi? Make friends? Get a haircut?

 

 

Figuring out all of these things was a trial-and-error process. Eventually, I developed rhythms that were comforting and familiar. I got to know the vendors at the vegetable market by my house so that when I walked through the neighborhood, I felt like a member of the community. I found a perfect café where I could grade papers and practice Arabic with the waitstaff. I became a regular at a hair salon where I had interesting conversations about gender roles in Moroccan society. These daily rituals took me beyond tourist experiences and towards creating a community abroad.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy touring Morocco; I will always cherish the memories of drinking fresh orange juice while sitting in the cascades of a waterfall in Akchour, or walking through filming locations for Game of Thrones in Essaouira. However, I especially cherish Rabat because it was my Moroccan home.

 

How to Create Home Abroad

Creating home abroad can show you that new places do not have to feel foreign. The home you create in your new host country lays the foundation for a unique and authentic experience. Wherever Fulbright might take you, here are some practical tips on making it “home.”

  1. Talk to people – Whether with store clerks, neighbors, or fellow commuters, look for opportunities to create connections with people you pass regularly. The more connections you make, the more you will start to feel a sense that you belong.
  2. Build local roots – There’s something special about your first few weeks in your city. Delay regional trips so that you set up a strong routine in your new stomping grounds.
  3. Try familiar things in a new context – Participate in familiar activities far from home. As an avid salsa dancer in the U.S., I was pleasantly surprised to find a vibrant Latin dance community in Rabat. By joining a salsa studio, I made friends from Morocco, Spain, and France, making my Fulbright a truly global experience.
  4. Try new things – Use your Fulbright as an opportunity to embrace a new hobby, new ways of cooking, and new types of friends. While in Morocco, I found a small gym in my neighborhood that offered Tae Bo for women. I had never tried Tae Bo, but it became a great way for me to meet other women and get to know neighbors.
  5. Become a regular – Whether it’s a café, restaurant, salon, or market, find a place where you enjoy spending time and can visit regularly. By frequenting the same places, you’re more likely to meet people and establish lasting friendships.

 

 

Creating home abroad is a unique process for each person. Whatever it looks like for you, embracing your host country and the home you create will create memories more precious than any tourist excursion can offer.

FLTA

Creating Diverse & Dynamic Networks: Building a Bridge at MSU

June 30, 2020

By Jou-Chun Lai, Chinese FLTA at Michigan State University (MSU)

“我覺得我好像跟沒有出國一樣。”

I feel that I didn’t even go abroad.

A Chinese girl I met on campus uttered this phrase after I’d been at Michigan State University (MSU) as a Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA) for a month. It’s not hard to imagine why this student made this statement: my host institute, MSU, has a large number of students from China.

The Chinese community at MSU is very close. You can join or get information from Chinese student organizations, easily find Chinese roommates, and even work in research laboratories where everyone else is Chinese. Because of this far-reaching comfort zone, even if someone in the Chinese student community wanted to practice English, it’s hard to find a way to do so.

However, I noticed that MSU also has between 130-150 students learning Chinese as a foreign language. These students might be American, Chinese-American, or from other countries. Surprisingly, only a few of them have friends who are Chinese students.

Then, an idea came to my mind: Why not build a bridge between these two groups?

This is how everything started.

First, I worked with a student club with only one member, “ForeignersLearnChinese.” We redefined the club’s goal and started to recruit a new executive board mid-semester. During recruitment, the idea of a “Chinese Language Mingle” event came together, and we began planning. The main idea of the event came from the concept of having a language exchange partner, so we invited native Chinese students to be our table leader volunteers. Each table had a conversation topic based on different Chinese speaking levels (Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced). Participants practiced their Chinese through conversations about their family, hobbies, and other common themes. We also had some interesting conversations about the difference in dating culture between China and the United States. However, the most popular table was “Chinese Internet Slang and Abbreviations.” This is something you never learn in the classroom, but can be very practical in your daily life. If you learn some slang to use with native speakers, you’ll seem very knowledgeable and even cool.

At the end of the event was our first language partner meeting. Using a pre-survey from students learning Chinese and native Chinese speakers, we matched language pairs based on mutual majors or hobbies. After the first meeting at our event, they could hang out by themselves, choosing to practice more Chinese or English.

It was amazing to see them find their partners, start to talk in Chinese, and maybe begin new friendships. I started to imagine that as my students began to communicate with each other more, they would come to not only know more authentic Chinese, but also understand the diversity of the Chinese language. I also imagined that the native Chinese students would gain deeper insights into American culture and student life.

As a FLTA, I know that I’m just a passerby, and leaving soon. These students might forget everything I practiced with them in the textbook, but I believe having a local friend who is a native speaker is the best way to keep your motivation up and practice a foreign language. Language is not just a subject, but a medium to connect with others. Having a chance to build a bridge for my students is the most meaningful thing I’ve done during this journey.

In the beginning, I always felt disheartened reading about other Fulbrighters who always seemed brilliant and successful. It seemed like I was the only one who was lost and couldn’t find meaning and value. If you also feel the same way sometimes, just remind yourself that it’s normal. Be patient with yourself, take a breath, observe your surroundings, and open your mind and imagination to new solutions. Everything happens for a reason and I hope hearing my story will help you find your own way.

Fulbright-National Geographic U.S. Fulbright

Exploring the Extraordinary in Your Ordinary

May 29, 2020

By Emi Koch, Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellow to Vietnam, 2019-2020

My dad almost spit out his morning coffee. Puzzled, he cleared his throat.

“Em, are you… sure?”

It was June of last year and I was only thinking to apply for a Fulbright.

“It’s just a thought! I’m just looking into it.”

My words rushed together, the way they do when I get overly excited — which happens a lot. I have ADHD.

He cautiously took a second sip of coffee.

“I mean — isn’t a Fulbright really competitive? Like for people who… you know?“

I knew who he meant. The smart people. Valedictorians. Meredith, who took AP Physics in high school.

Acknowledging his question, I glanced back at my laptop with the “Getting Started” page on the Fulbright Student Program website staring brightly back at me. The thought that the U.S. State Department would pay me — me! — to travel to a foreign country and devote nine months of my life to collaborating with local residents with a shared curiosity for actionable, positive change seemed beyond my wildest dreams. But the only thing that seemed more impossible than me winning a Fulbright, was me not applying.

I knew my dad’s apprehension was well-informed by my past struggles and letdowns involving my grades, where I had to prove to others that I was capable and yes, even smart…just not in the conventional way.

A few years ago, I was diagnosed with Dyslexia (a learning disability in reading), Dyscalculia (a learning disability in math), and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) that comes with a mean stutter  when public speaking. I was a sophomore in college, and up until that point in my life, I had simply believed that I was slow.

The first time I noticed it, I was five. While I was surrounded by my classmates stretching their hands high up in the air and shouting, “Me! ME!” so that the teacher might call on them first to reveal the coveted, correct answer to the subtraction problem, my hands were clenched tightly around the desk as if we were all about to blast off into the deep, dark unknown forever. I had no idea what was going on… only that so much was going on. Contrary to popular belief, people with ADHD don’t have trouble concentrating. We simply concentrate on everything all at once. The math problem, the other students, the staple shining on the floor and that weird pencil mark on the desk that looks like an acorn are all equally begging for our attention.

In school, this restlessness and attention to peripheral details presented a huge challenge that often resulted in poor grades, dismal SAT scores, and low self-esteem. Surfing was my escape. Sliding down the face of a wave, I knew exactly where I was — physically, mentally, and yes, even spiritually. Unlike the classroom, the ocean was this dynamic force that required my absolute, divided attention — to everything all at once. For the first time, my disabilities were capabilities; misfits that found themselves useful. Mystifying still, the ocean was what ultimately ushered me back into the classroom. I’m a social-ecologist, meaning I study the relationships people have with our built and natural environment. My focus is on the world’s millions of miles of coastlines and the many isolated, marginalized fishing communities that depend on ever-depleting marine resources. I’ve come to realize that my disabilities are like superpowers — if harnessed properly, they enable me to explore nuances — whether of a physical space, a word in a foreign language, or a feedback loop in a marine social-ecological system. These overlooked subtleties are where the problems hide… those details researchers seek in order to solve problems. In that ability to spot those details lies the ability to find the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Almost one year after being awarded a Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellowship to Vietnam, I’m still pinching myself that it really happened. My dad spit out his coffee for a second time when I told him the remarkable news.

Before I arrived, people described Vietnam to me as overwhelming. If by that they meant overwhelmingly beautiful, industrialized, and karaoke-curious, I understand. During my time there, I immersed myself in a small-scale fishing community with a rapidly-developing tourism scene and rising sea level just north of Ho Chi Minh City. I lived in the back of a water sports center called MANTA. MANTA trains fishermen to become certified sailing instructors so that they can teach tourists how to sail, and how to use the power of wind energy as an alternative to fossil fuels. MANTA also provides fishermen with an alternative source of income, though this doesn’t mean that the fishermen stop fishing – that’s in their blood.

Since I lived inside a water sports center, I was fortunate to have stand-up paddle boards at my disposal. They were my go-to mode of transportation and earned me credibility among the fishermen for maneuvering my own water craft. I paddled out to sea and met them at their boats for interviews. Sometimes, they invited me on board for breakfast, and we would help ourselves to buckets of freshly-caught soft shell blue crabs, cracking open the not-so-soft shells with our teeth and slurping up the honeyed insides.

In my research, I listened to fishermen’s stories and explored the social and ecological impacts of low fish availability on the human security of ocean-dependent villages along the East Sea. Back on land, my colleagues included several children, ages four to sixteen — the sons and daughters of local fishing families. These kids accompanied me with waterproof cameras to document their lives. Despite the innumerable dissimilarities between my childhood and their own, I can’t help but identify with some aspects. These kids are smart. They are resourceful. I think they’re incredible. But many of them have been told they are not something enough to be successful, or they are too something to have real authority.

I wanted to wash all that social conditioning from their minds and tell them they are powerful. You, kid, are the superhero of your own life story. Our disadvantages, disabilities, discriminations, and disappointments do not define us, because we have the human right to make up our own definitions.

My research team and I explored the extraordinary in the ordinary. They helped me capture nuances in their images that are often unaccounted for in academic papers and news stories. As one fisherman said, the projects we did together were an opportunity for everyone to “big themselves up”… and that’s what Fulbright has meant for me.