All Posts By

William Westerman

U.S. Fulbright

Celebrating the ADA’s 30th Anniversary: Q&A with Alumni Ambassador Alyssa Meyer

February 20, 2020

Thirty years ago, the United States became the first country in the world to adopt national civil rights legislation banning discrimination against disabled people. Since that time, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has had a profound impact both at home and abroad.

Last month, we launched our yearlong celebration of the ADA’s 30th anniversary, which will include profiles of Fulbright alumni with disabilities. This dynamic group of Fulbrighters will tell stories from their experiences abroad, offer advice to future applicants, and discuss Fulbright’s impact on their careers.

Today’s story comes from Fulbright alumna Alyssa Meyer, a 2012-2013 U.S. Student Researcher in Energy to the Kyrgyz Republic. Meyer spoke with Fulbright on her path to the program, her research, and navigating home and abroad with a disability.

Q&A with Alyssa Meyer

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

The prospect of an opportunity like Fulbright had been on my mind for several years before I applied–largely because I wanted to seek out opportunities to use my language skills in native settings. My first exposure to Fulbright was through Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistants, who had come to the States to teach their native languages (Uzbek and Russian) at Michigan State University. My second encounter with Fulbright came the summer after my sophomore year, when I visited Berlin on my way home from a study abroad program in Turkey; there, while watching a soccer match, I met a Fulbrighter who had lost track of whether the announcer was speaking English or German. All I could think was, “Wow, I wish my language proficiency was that strong!”

The next summer, my resident adviser for a study abroad program in Tajikistan was yet another a Fulbrighter, and I was in awe of her ability to communicate in and navigate her host country. Given that I grew up in rural Northern Michigan, I can’t claim to have grown up with examples such as these, but I knew that I wanted to emulate them.

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

As a research grantee in energy to the Kyrgyz Republic, my project was focused on energy insecurity, and whether small-scale renewables could help bridge gaps in access to heat, electricity, and gas provision. My initial intent was to conduct a benefit-cost analysis in partnership with locals interested in community-level solutions to the country’s energy crisis.

I don’t think I had a typical day; I lived by a mantra to take in everything I could and talk to everyone I could–because I didn’t know whether ever get the same chances a second time. I spent five hours a week with a Russian tutor and interviewed researchers, policymakers, international organizations, and academics doing similar work. I also shared a two-bedroom apartment with a native Russian speaker from Turkmenistan, who remains one of my closest friends and travel partners to this day.

3. What advice would you give to current Fulbrighters in the field about how to get the most out of their Fulbright experience?

Be open to letting your work and your expectations of what you think you’ll accomplish evolve. For me, this happened in the most unexpected of ways: I became quite ill in the middle of my grant, and during a hospital stay, I began to see my own research from a new perspective. I don’t relay this story to wish that experience on anyone, but rather, to say that living in the very conditions I was researching taught me far more than working within a library ever could have.

Even before I got sick, I was vividly aware that my aforementioned benefit-cost analysis was far more complex than I had initially foreseen it to be. It wasn’t overly difficult for me to gain a picture of how many houses lost power in a given outage, but data as to how those outages impacted quality of life was much more complex to come by. And while I was by no means unaware of this, I was unwittingly smacked in the face with it when I experienced a power outage during a hospital visit. Even after I made a full recovery, I continued to be haunted by questions of what would have happened had I been on the operating table or on a ventilator during an outage. Eventually, this new question–the impacts of energy insecurity on quality of life–became not only the topic of my master’s thesis, but of a second grant application to return to the Kyrgyz Republic two years later.

Two years later, as a Boren fellow, the research became even more complex when I realized that what my household data was showing didn’t match the narrative being reported on the news and in political speeches. My point is: setting goals for what you’ll achieve during your Fulbright is an important piece of showing selection committees that you know what you’ll be doing when you land in your host country–but sometimes, it’s the detours you never anticipated that teach you the most.

4. What advice would you give future Fulbrighters on the application process?

Show a desire to engage with your local community. Fulbright isn’t looking for academics who never leave the ivory tower, they’re seeking applicants truly intent on promoting mutual understanding between their home and host countries. That means a willingness to engage with and challenge local stereotypes about you/your home country whenever possible, and to share those experiences when you return home.

5. What might an American/someone from your home country be surprised to hear about your host country/institution/state/etc.?

People often remark that I’ve become much more assertive after several years in the Kyrgyz Republic, but what they don’t understand is why that happened. Want to get off a bus in the Kyrgyz Republic? You’ll need to physically ask the driver to stop. Want to buy nearly anything? You’ll need to ask a seller to retrieve it for you from behind a counter or the inside of a glass case. Want to order or pay a bill in a restaurant? You’ll need to call to your waiter across a crowded restaurant. Want to receive standard medical care? You’ll need to go to a pharmacy and ask for the medicines and supplies you’ll need to purchase/bring with you, and if you can’t find something, you’ll also need to call the doctor to ask about acceptable substitutes.

My oddest “things I would have previously been terrified to do in my native language” story? Calling my veterinarian on her cell phone in the middle of the night to explain that my cat (also a Fulbright alumnus) had been vomiting and had pooped out a needle I wasn’t aware he’d swallowed. (He’s thankfully fine.)

6. What is your biggest takeaway from your Fulbright?

Few things make a person more self-aware than moving abroad alone. And for me, one of the things I’ve become most aware of by moving abroad is how often I’ve taken the Americans with Disabilities Act for granted in the United States. I have mild cerebral palsy, and–after five corrective surgeries–other than a small limp, it doesn’t drastically impact my quality of life…in the United States. I make this qualification because, while I do have worse-than-average balance going down stairs, I don’t often have to think about it in the U.S.–because of ADA requirements for railings on staircases.

Moving to Central Asia alone meant that I very quickly came to terms with the fact that I might fall going down stairs or a sidewalk in the winter (because ice isn’t cleared as readily as it is in the States). Indeed, my own struggles with uneven paths and railing-less staircases in Central Asia has shown me that I was to everything–from ATMs to pharmacies–being accessible via stairs. The years I spent in Central Asia have also shown me that people with disabilities are largely not visible within society–not because they are unable to participate, but rather, because life is just not structured in a means that is accessible for many of them.

This is a realization I do not take lightly. My life is not without its challenges and instances of outright ableism–including those who still challenge my ability to move abroad independently despite a track record of more than four years of working and researching independently in Central Asia. Nevertheless, had I not been born in the United States, it is not lost on me that I may not have been afforded the very opportunities for self-enrichment that have made me the public servant I am today.

FLTA Foreign Fulbright

Reflections From a Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant: Mid-Year Conference

February 14, 2020

By Léandre Larouche, French Foreign Language Teaching Assistant, Canada 
I did not expect the end of the Fulbright FLTA mid-year conference to feel so weird. The conference, organized by Fulbright, gathered all 400+ Foreign Language Teaching Assistants dispatched across the United States in the Marriott Marquis in Washington, DC. The goal of the mid-year conference was to get all FLTAs together to reflect upon their experience, learn together, and share what they have learned. While the conference’s primary goal may have been intellectual, it was also emotional and personal on many levels. Our learning experience goes beyond our roles as FLTAs; it also teaches about ourselves, about other people, and about all the different countries, languages, and cultures represented in the Program. I am experiencing this personal aspect first-hand as I find myself seized by a sense of emptiness at the dusk of the conference. Still in Washington, DC for one more night, I’ve said goodbye to most of my fellow Fulbrighters and wish this conference lasted just a little longer — or at least that I could spend more time getting to know its participants.

The French from the Old World

I’ve been fortunate enough to be a Fulbright Program participant twice — as well as an exchange student. These experiences allowed me to attend several events where I’ve met people from across the world and got to know them for very short periods of time. Yet this time — and perhaps more than any other time before — I feel sad, almost heartbroken, that this conference came to an end. The past week spent in Washington, DC, was possibly the most enriching and fun time in my life. The people I’ve met there where some of the funniest, smartest, and most accomplished people I’ve met. Perhaps most importantly, too, I got to know more of my fellow French FLTAs — who are all from France, as I’m the only French-Canadian in the Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Program. They managed to make me love their country more and spurred my desire to further discover it. They also strengthened my love for the language we share and increased my awareness of its diversity.

French, indeed, is a colourful language, a language full of metaphors, images, and wonderful, sometimes ridiculous expressions. The best part of it is that it changes from one corner of the world, even one part of a country, to the other. I taught my expressions to the French FLTAs; they taught me theirs — and we’ve laughed to tears in the process. The relationship between Québec and France can be a tricky one; I haven’t always felt like people from France treat people from Québec and their language as equals. But these French people, as good representatives of their country as they are, made me forget these sometimes bitter feelings. Few are the times in my life where I’ve had as much fun and learned so much about a nation. If I were to take just one thing away from this conference, it would be that individuals have the power to influence countries’ relations. Who knows where we all will be ten, twenty, and thirty years down the road? Who knows what kind of impact we will be able to make?

The Fulbright Program’s goal is to help the U.S. State Department achieve diplomatic objectives by facilitating exchange programs between the United States and the rest of the world. Not only is it succeeding at this objective, but it is also succeeding at doing so for other countries. When I go back home to Canada, I’ll remember not only the interactions with Americans, but also those with the French people and the 40 other nations represented at the conference. My mind was opened wider more times than I can count. For example, I met the first Fulbrighter from the United Arab Emirates, who opened my mind to a country I knew next to nothing about. The fact that a Fulbright Commission was launched in that country a few years back has already had a tremendous impact — on my life, just as on that of many other people. The results may be invisible for now, but their effects will be made visible sooner or later.

Of Emptiness and Confusion

The time spent with the French people and other Fulbrighters from across the world, as we exchanged ideas in conference rooms, ate in restaurants, drank in bars and hotel rooms, I regard as rare and precious. I think I’m going to miss it seriously. I’m lucky to be living an extraordinary life as a Fulbright FLTA in Williamsport, PA — a life I would never take for granted. Nonetheless, it’s hard to think of going back to the routine next semester after living such an intense weekend. I’m going to be travelling around the United States throughout the Christmas break, and I’m going to see some of the people I’ve met here as I do so. Still, the feeling of being surrounded with more than 400 other people like you who love languages, love people, love the world, and wish for a better, more tolerant future is priceless and, frankly, difficult to get over. As I write these lines, I feel as though there is a hole in my heart. I feel as though I’ve lost something I’ll never get back, no matter how bright the future might be.

I know, however, that Fulbright is forever and that the friendships it creates are made to last. In many cases, we said goodbye but not farewell—and I know full well that this is only the beginning of a life filled with such experiences. While in Washington, DC, before the conference began, I hung out with a friend I’d met during the 2017 Youth Institute for Canada in the World, another Fulbright event. It felt like nothing had changed. And some of the people I’ve met this weekend, I was already acquainted with from our summer orientation in Fayetteville, AK. Nothing had changed with them, either. We picked up our conversations as if we’d never been apart. When people are bound together by an organization like Fulbright — meaning they share a similar vision of the world and certain fundamental values — they can feel as though they’ve known each other forever, and the connections they share are as strong as they can be. As a result, it feels bittersweet when the time comes to say goodbye — sometimes even lonely. But such a sense of emptiness is simply the price to pay for these extraordinary experiences. Nothing meaningful comes without a sense of loss when it ends; people keep moving forward and use what they have learned as they do so. They try as they might not to compare the present to the past and compartmentalize these events. Such is the beauty of programs like those of Fulbright: they teach how to handle the extraordinary, all these exceptional encounters with people all special in their own ways — and to move on with our lives once it’s over.

Even though I’m well aware that the sadness won’t last — I know that in a day or two, it will turn into something more pleasant — I still embrace this uncomfortable feeling. Because I know it is the right thing to feel after a life-changing experience. There is nothing abnormal with feeling this way; this is how things should be. And I can only hope that all the other FLTAs feel more or less the way I do, that they too had an extraordinary few days in the United States capital city. And I can only hope, too, that more people feel this at one point in their lives, that they experience extraordinary events and programs, like those of Fulbright. International education and professional opportunities are blessings one should strive to get at least once in their lifetime. There’ll be moments of emptiness and confusion, but this is how we know that we’re doing something right.

Foreign Fulbright

One Connection at a Time: The Wisdom of the Universe in my Fulbright Experience

January 22, 2020

By Gloriana Amador Agüero, 2018 Fulbright Foreign Student, Costa Rica

At the Minnesota Historical Society. 2019.

For my first internship in the United States, I spent two months in green, friendly, Minneapolis, Minnesota. I’m a Fulbrighter from Costa Rica, studying for an MS in Museums and Digital Culture (MDC) at Pratt Institute in New York City. Why would I want to go to the Midwest? The answer, it turns out, is slightly complicated.

Before Fulbright, I met the love of my life in Costa Rica: Alberto, who had moved from Costa Rica to the Twin Cities years before. During my first visits to Minnesota, we spent time visiting the lakes, parks, and great museums in the area, including the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA). MIA is an audience-centered institution that uses innovative digital strategies and includes 90,000 pieces from around the world. During my Spring semester at Pratt, one of my assignments for my Museum Digital Strategy class was to interview a museum professional. I decided to reach out to none other than Douglas Hegley, Chief Digital Officer at MIA! During the phone interview, Douglas and I talked about our motivations, and I was amazed by his fascinating journey into the museum world and the interactive media programs and digital initiatives at MIA. The MDC Blog published the interview on Medium.

3rd Avenue Entrance Façade of the Minneapolis Institute of Art building. 2016.

Douglas Hegley presenting with Susan Wamsley, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, at the Digital Assets Management (DAM) 2019 DAMs and Cultural Heritage – A Professional Dialog, Photo: Gloriana Amador.

Following our conversation, Douglas presented at the Digital Asset Management (DAM) Conference in New York, where I was able to meet him in person. Over a cup of coffee, I discovered not just how outstanding he is as a museum professional, but how kind and generous, too. He shared his ideas and advice to develop my career. After this meeting, I thought, “This is the kind of professional I want to become.” Douglas’ kindness and helpfulness inspired me to also help others through professionalism, kindness, and generosity.

Shortly after our meeting, I received an e-mail with the subject line: “A connection.” To my surprise, Douglas connected me with Frances Lloyd-Baynes, Head of Collections Information Management at MIA, and a leading expert in the field. We connected and talked about MIA’s ongoing projects, and before I knew it, I found myself with an internship at an American art museum!

Frances Lloyd-Baynes, Head of Collections Information Management, and Gloriana Amador at the Media and Technology Division. 2019.

At MIA, I worked on information management in museums, using a database. The database is used to collect important information related to the artwork, artists, and exhibitions located at the museum, which can be shared with the public. One way museums can share this information is by connecting the internal database with their website, through an Application Programming Interface (API), which helps to deliver content to the Web. I researched and designed the integration of the museum’s collections database and the website through the MIA’s Application Programming Interface (API).

In order to accomplish this, I first trained in The Museum System (TMS), which is MIA’s internal database. Second, I studied the content of four exhibitions, their didactic panels, and related artwork. Third, our team created a model of links and relations within TMS, almost like building a search engine. And finally, with input from MIA’s Software Developer, we designed a road map of links and sequences to find an easy way to pull data for each exhibition in TMS. These types of projects are especially important in the museum world, as thanks to the integration of databases and websites through the API, people can interact with information and learn more about art.

This hands-on experience complemented my coursework and expanded my professional network in the art world. My experience illustrates some of the Fulbright Program’s core values: contributing to my field’s development, and encouraging me to build global networks and friendships. MIA, and the Midwest, opened its doors to me.

Installation views of the exhibition “Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists.” Curated by Jill Ahlberg Yohe. Organized by Minneapolis Institute of Art. Presented by Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community.

“The Wisdom of the Universe,” a wonderful painting by Christi Belcourt, exhibited in “Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists” at the MIA, reminds me of the importance of those connections. My journey started with a love story that allowed me to meet generous professionals along the way. The wisdom of the universe brought me to the Midwest with my boyfriend, then connected me to Douglas, and finally to Frances.

My advice for future Fulbrighters is to be open to expanding your connections with professionalism, kindness, and generosity. Don’t forget those relationships that have meant so much in your career. I am living one of Fulbright’s core values, “one connection at a time.”

Reach the World U.S. Fulbright

The Unexpected Mission

December 10, 2019

By Jeffrey Thiele, Fulbright U.S. Student Open Study/Research Grantee to El Salvador

As I reflect on my time as a 2018 Fulbright grantee to El Salvador, it might be easy to say that I accomplished my mission. I wanted to use my master’s degree in philosophy and health to solve a real-world problem: increasing healthcare access for Salvadorans displaced by violence by working with Cristosal, a local NGO. My grant year did give me plenty of opportunities to put theory into practice, but what I didn’t see coming, however, was the role that music would play in that journey.

When I arrived in San Salvador, I knew very little about the local political, economic, and social situation. I quickly realized that there are no quick fixes to the problems that El Salvador faces, and that I wouldn’t be able to make the sweeping changes I had anticipated going into my Fulbright. While I plugged away with the newfound perspective that I would be doing more learning than doing, another project began to occupy my nights. 

This is where Saxo Sue, my loyal, traveling saxophone, appears. Having recently fallen back in love with music during my master’s program, Saxo Sue had made the voyage with me to San Salvador, though I had little hope of finding much music there. The first month of my time with Saxo Sue incountry was spent going over old classical repertoire in the light of the evening sun. While I was making occasional improvisations and recording them, I wasn’t really moving forward musically. 

Two months in, one of my friends invited me to a gig where her friend’s boyfriend, a local trumpeter, would be playing with his group called The Zamora Brothers. I was so excited to learn that jazz was happening in the capital, and that there was such a vibrant music scene in a land where many people are still fighting for fundamental human rights. The concert got me thinking about the resilience of the arts and its unique ability to exemplify and push forward necessary human and social rights. 

In the following weeks, Pipe (pronounced “pee-peh”), the trumpet player for the Zamora Brothers, invited me to a jam session at his house with another local band, Camelo. I connected with Camelo’s leader Jorge Gómez, who said Saxo Sue and I brought the final “oomph” and tonal character that the band was seeking. I was in. 

Apart from joining Camelo as their seventh member, I became involved in about eight other music projects in and around San Salvador, including establishing my own jazz project, called Buxo Don Luis. Both Camelo and Buxo Don Luis have been getting national, and even international, recognition, and will be touring outside of El Salvador in the coming year.

My involvement and (unexpected) fame in the Salvadoran music scene has given me a wider-reaching platform from which I can share my thoughts and work on human rights and social justice. More broadly, music has been a means to not only express myself, but to advance a broader rights movement inside and outside the country. I participated in a Reach the World virtual exchange with a New Jersey elementary school classroom, where I balanced our conversations about heavy Salvadoran social issues with some improvisations with Saxo Sue. With music as the bridge, we accomplished a key Fulbright goal of building mutual understanding between cultures. 

I came to El Salvador for research, and have come away pursuing my dream of becoming a bona fide musician. Music has helped me integrate into the community in San Salvador, empowered me to meet new people, and become an authentic participant in this beautiful culture. As I grow personally and professionally, I can share the joy of music and express the urgency of the situation in El Salvador.