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U.S. Fulbright

So Much Change: Telling Inclusive Stories Through Fulbright

September 6, 2019
Giraffe Drinking Water

Giraffe Drinking Water

Many Fulbrighters return home with fresh ideas for research projects and international collaborations. For Change Kwesele, it was no different. Her goal? Create a children’s book that would depict the beauty and culture of Sub-Saharan Africa for the world! Change leveraged her Zambian roots and the new connections she gained during her 2011 Fulbright Study/Research Award to Zambia for the project, and even learned something about herself in the process.

Born in Zambia and raised in Seattle, Washington, Change has always celebrated the languages and culture of her family. Currently a Ph.D. candidate in Social Work and Developmental Psychology at the University of Michigan, she spent her Fulbright in Zambia working to improve gender equality in education through community outreach and workshops. While working with students, Change was taken aback by the absence of diverse voices and subjects in children’s literature.

“I spent a lot of time around younger children and time in bookstores. I noticed that many of the books available focus on the Western world and lack local references. My Fulbright experience with the Forum of African Women Educationalists of Zambia (FAWEZA) organization empowered me to work on gaps and limitations that I see in communities that I care about,” Kwesele explained.

Part of that gap includes children’s literature. Z is for Zambia: An Alphabet Book introduces the sights and sounds of Zambia to children of all nationalities. The multilingual book is written in three languages commonly used in Zambia (English, Bemba, and Nyanja), and includes visuals and words relevant to Zambia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Instead of apples, bananas, and cats, kids will learn about Africa-related products and places, such as chitenge, a kind of African fabric, nsima, a Zambian staple food, and Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.

The book is a uniquely international collaboration with two Zambian colleagues and friends: Bellah Zulu, a 2010 Fulbright Foreign Student, and Zanji Sinkala, an alumna of another U.S. Department of State-sponsored exchange program, the Study of the U.S. Institutes Women’s Leadership Program (SUSI-WL). Connecting through Zambia-based organizations and Instagram, the three international exchange alumni decided to use their love of Zambia to increase understanding of the country, even donating the book to Zambian organizations and schools.

Z is for Zambia “will offer children knowledge on other cultures and help [children] appreciate diversity. It will teach them to respect other traditions and ways of life that are very different from their own,” said Zanji, one of Change’s collaborators, speaking about the group’s hope for the book.

Bellah, who studied photography at the New York Film Academy during his Fulbright, provided photographs of Zambian vistas, animals, and clothing to the project. “I appreciate the fact that the Fulbright experience is all about cultural understanding and exchange. For me, collaborating with someone with Zambian roots yet fully American meant that we had an opportunity to influence and continue projecting a positive image of Zambia from inside,” he said.

What does an American-Zambian Fulbright team add up to? “So much change!” Change responded. The book, the collaboration, and her career post-Fulbright all go back to a question she first contemplated on grant: “Why not me?” In Zambia, the United States, or the world of children’s literature, Change will continue to pursue projects and initiatives that she wants to see in the world.


Z is For Zambia Cover

Enrichment Foreign Fulbright Fulbright-Millennial Trains Project

Fulbright-Millennial Trains Project Participants

July 30, 2014

The U.S. Department of State selected the following five Fulbright Foreign Students to participate in the second Millennial Trains Project (MTP) voyage across the United States — leaving from Portland, Oregon on August 7 and ending in New York, New York on August 17 — as an enrichment component of the Fulbright Foreign Student program. The five Fulbrighters will join 20 other riders on the MTP journey to gain an in-depth understanding of life in the United States and to strengthen their skills in leadership, social entrepreneurship, and communication.

Meet the five Fulbright participants:

Alyas_WiditaAlyas Abibawa Widita is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Iowa. Graduated with Bachelor of Engineering in Architecture from Indonesia’s Gadjah Mada University, as well as attended a one year academic exchange during his senior year at Escuela Tecnica Superior Arquitectura y Geodesia, Universidad de Alcala, Spain. Widita’s research interests focus on the dynamic transformation of built environment and its influence on the way people live, move and behave both in domestic and international settings.

Born and raised in Yogyakarta, a medium-sized city in the center of Java — the most populous island in Indonesia where train is popular choice for intercity passenger transport. Widita has fond memories of railway transport as he used this mode quite regularly during his childhood and looks forward to the MTP journey. Widita’s MTP project, “Millennials and the Future Cities,” is inspired by United Nations research stating that in 2050 70 percent of the world’s population will be city dwellers. Widita believes Millennials cannot be overlooked in the process of urban development as they will inevitably inherit the world’s urban landscape and assume leadership. His project aims to study Millennials’ current engagement in this process and to garner Millennials’ ideas (and concerns) about the future cities. He plans to share his results at the 2015 American Planning Association annual meeting in Seattle.

Katie_NikolaevaKatie Nikolaeva is a Fulbright Student from Russia and studies international economics at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. She is trilingual and fluently speaks Russian, French and English. She also speaks German and is currently studying Chinese.

Nikolaeva is passionate about economics, the only discipline that she believes connects exact science with human behavior. During the MTP journey she will explore small businesses and social innovation across industrial cities in northern American states. Exploring those cities and their small businesses, she will collect and share the best innovative ideas, thus contributing to the development of small business through talking about breakthrough ideas and creative approach to startups. She plans to keep a videoblog of the experience.

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U.S. Fulbright

Meet the 2011 Fulbright Alumni Ambassadors!

January 27, 2011

Alumni AmbassadorsThis week, the newly selected 2011 Fulbright U.S. Student Program Alumni Ambassadors will meet in Washington, DC to receive training and tips on how they can help promote and recruit for the Fulbright U.S. Student Program.  Staff members from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the Institute of International Education (IIE), along with Fulbright Alumni Ambassadors from the 2010 cohort, will share the basics on what to include in a Fulbright presentation and emphasize the unique, important role that they will play this year in inspiring American students, Fulbright Program Advisers, college administrators – and anyone interested in the program – to learn more about it and the power of cultural exchange.

The Fulbright U.S. Student Alumni Ambassador Program was established in 2008 to identify, train and engage a select group of approximately 15 Fulbright U.S. Student Program alumni to serve as representatives, recruiters, and spokespeople for the Fulbright Program.  They are selected annually through recommendations from Fulbright Commissions and U.S. Embassy staff, area managers, the Fulbright Student Program Outreach Division, and approved by the sponsor of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.  Fulbright Alumni Ambassadors come from an array of different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, states, fields of study, institutions and have participated in the Fulbright U.S. Student Program in all world areas.

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Making Recycling Their Bag: China’s War on Plastic Bags, By Mary O’Loughlin, 2009-2010, China

January 26, 2011

On September 2, 2009, I arrived in Wuhan, China to begin my Fulbright research on Chinese environmental public policy.  Arguably the biggest city in the world that few have ever heard of, Wuhan is a 10-million person metropolis located in central China on the Yangtze River.  As the only city occupying both banks of China’s longest river, its location on the Yangtze has long ensured its importance as a production and transit point connecting the eastern and western portions of the country. In recent decades, Wuhan has become particularly well-known as a steel and manufacturing center as well as an educational hub.

While in Wuhan, I studied China’s environmental policy through the lens of its policy on plastic bags.  The inspiration for this seemingly obscure research topic was that on June 1, 2008, the Chinese government introduced a nationwide ban on the free distribution of plastic bags in retail outlets.  According to this ban, any Chinese store that wanted to offer its customers a plastic bag would have to charge them for it.  This policy’s introduction represented an important effort to reduce plastic waste in China and a means to promote environmental awareness.  A “price tag” was literally going to be associated with material consumption involving plastic bags.  My Fulbright research sought to evaluate the implementation, enforcement, and effects of this policy.

Thanks to the Fulbright Program, I had the opportunity to explore China’s application of this new environmental regulation firsthand.  My research involved interviewing local shopkeepers and customers about their initial reactions to the bag policy, meeting with Chinese environmental experts (and discussing plastic bag usage in China with them), and collecting quantitative data and observational research about Chinese plastic bag consumption.  By having a unique opportunity to be on the ground and “in-country,” I was able to witness firsthand how the government implemented its policy and the population’s response.  Through my study, I have come to better understand and appreciate the practical implementation and enforcement limits associated with even the most well-intentioned Chinese environmental law.

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U.S. Fulbright

A Much-Appreciated Change of Pace, By Thomael M. Joannidis, 2009-2010, Cyprus

September 7, 2010

My Fulbright year in Cyprus was characterized by adaptability. Initially, I planned to “hit the ground running” and begin immediately gathering quantifiable research results for my proposed project. During my first days, however, I realized the value of taking things slowly and devoting some time to getting to know the people and culture, while also finding ways to connect with the community. At first, my New York upbringing felt quite at odds with accepting that things do not always work on a fast-paced schedule and that, in the meantime, I should sit with locals, enjoy the lovely weather and a Cypriot coffee. Yet, it was often in these moments – without a voice recorder or a list of questions – that my research began and people became comfortable enough to share their lives. Changing my project’s pace allowed me to begin understanding the soul of Cyprus, what matters to the people and the rhythm of their lives.

Volunteering with two non-governmental organizations which also served as my affiliations was essential to getting acclimated. The work I did with Hands Across the Divide, a grassroots, bicommunal women’s peace group (meaning that there were both Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot members), and Future Worlds Center, a large organization working in a number of areas including the promotion of civil society and peace, was not usually related to my research. I appreciated their time and willingness to assist me with my research and felt that the best way to thank them was to volunteer my time. On Fulbright, everything becomes a learning experience and an opportunity for personal growth. I supported staff by helping to facilitate and prepare for events on a range of topics including development education, youth activism and annual organizational meetings. Sometimes, my tasks were more administrative in nature, such as preparing agendas or taking minutes. At other times, I had an opportunity to present and actually participate in the programming. One of my best memories occurred when I volunteered to help at a bicommunal youth activism retreat which involved camping on a natural, undeveloped beach, surrounded by the sea on one side, and rocky terrain on the other.

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U.S. Fulbright

Guatemala: Great Differences, Great Faith, By Elizabeth R. Bell, 2009-2010, Guatemala

August 24, 2010

One of the advantages of being a Fulbright student is the opportunity to collaborate with other Fulbrighters. Through the exchange of ideas and sharing of diverse talents, Fulbrighters can accomplish great things together. When I teamed up with Kara Andrade, a fellow Fulbright student in Guatemala, we organized a symposium that brought leaders of historically conflicting religions together to foster an open dialogue promoting positive exchange, respect, and understanding.

Guatemala is a country built on differences. While many nations make a claim to homogeneity for the sake of unification, Guatemala has always been a country of plurality. Home to a large Mestizo or Ladino community, there is an even larger Mayan contingent – around 60 percent of the total population. And within the Mayan population, there are 21 different ethno-linguistic groups.

The face of religion is changing in Guatemala. Historically, one of the most Catholic countries in Latin America, it is well on its way to becoming the region’s first evangelical country and is currently second after Brazil (according to a report by Ayuda a la Iglesia Necesitada (ACN) in 2009). Now, 50 percent of inhabitants are evangelical, or “non-Catholic Christians,” who attend dozens of Protestant denomination churches. Mayan spirituality, on the other hand, is more difficult to measure because while the majority of Mayans practice some form, they also often practice another religion.

It is precisely this environment of religious, ethnic and linguistic plurality that our symposium attempted to mediate. On July 17, 2010, fellow Fulbrighter Kara Andrade and I held a symposium entitled, “El Día y El Destino: Desde los Derechos Hasta el 2012,” (“Day and Destiny: From Rights to 2012”) in which we heard from a panel of six religious leaders: three Mayan Daykeepers (leaders of Mayan community spiritual practices), an Evangelical pastor, a director of a Christian community organization, and a Catholic priest. We brought together leaders of these often opposing groups to speak about what role religion might play in Guatemala’s future. Will religion continue to divide the population? Will Mayan spiritual practices only be recognized through tourism? Or, will these leaders, with all of their differences, be a source of positive guidance and unification for future generations?

A Mayan Daykeeper once told me that Guatemala is a country of great faith. As a country that has been battered by a recent four-decade civil war and that is still plagued by ongoing violence, many people look to ritual practices of faith for answers. These leaders, both Mayan and Ladino, were given space to speak publicly about what role they and their practices might have in leading the way to Guatemala’s future. While discrete answers are rarely arrived at easily, the symposium revealed that religious groups are not insulated according to ethnic groups. A Mayan may be Catholic or another Christian denomination, or practice traditional, spiritual beliefs while remaining proud of their Mayan heritage.

Regardless of ethnic or religious background, all Guatemalans share a desire for mutual respect and partnership.

As Fulbrighters, this symposium put us in contact with members of the Guatemalan religious community with whom we would not have otherwise interacted, making the overall experience much richer. More importantly, it became a tangible way to give back to the community that had shared so much with us. The connections afforded to us through the U.S. Embassy made it possible to find a venue for our event and identify leaders to serve on the panel. While the symposium was a venture outside of our original Fulbright projects – mine involves studying Mayan spiritual practices and Kara’s research is on fostering community journalism – the effects were far-reaching. By using the resources available to us through Fulbright, we were able to serve the community in which we have been living: we provided a means for them to take steps toward collaboration, agreement, and understanding.

The symposium’s recorded webcast (in Spanish) can be found on the HablaGuate website.

A few tips for applicants:

1. Take advantage of the many available resources in your host country or find a way to build connections before you apply. Does your host country have a language program you can enroll in? A project you can volunteer for through an NGO? Once you have your project in mind and know the community in which you will be working, it’s important to show that you have their support in your Fulbright application. This is mainly accomplished through your letter(s) of affiliation. Additionally, the connections you build early on will help you to be much more productive once you arrive.

2. Make sure you are very clear in describing how your project is unique. Will you be doing something that is needed greatly, offering a new perspective on an issue or working in a neglected area?

3. Have a clear plan as to how cultural exchange will regularly take place. What will you be giving back to the community, and how?

4. Don’t give up. If you don’t make the cut one year, visit the host country if possible, build connections, and revise your project for next year’s Fulbright U.S. Student Program competition. Often, new experiences will give you fresh ideas that are even better than your original ones.

Top photo: Elizabeth R. Bell, 2009-2010, Guatemala (center), participates in a Mayan ceremony at the Iximche’ ruins, a sacred space in part of the pre-Columbian Kaqchikel-Maya capital city, that is still used today.

Bottom photo: Elizabeth R. Bell, 2009-2010, Guatemala, and her infant son admire the colorful sawdust alfombras (carpets) before watching the Catholic processions in La Antigua, Guatemala, held during Lent.