Fulbright Student Program Blog

Category Archives: Foreign Fulbright

Discovering the Unexpected in West Virginia

By Oyundari Ganbaatar, Foreign Fulbright Student, Mongolia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons from Williamson

Karen Jimeno

By Karen Jimeno, Fulbright Foreign Student, the Philippines

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

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

Purpose & Passion

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

Love & Family

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

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

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

Heritage & Identity

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

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

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

Choices & Change

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

Community

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

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

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

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

2018 Fulbright Year in Review

Last year, Fulbright Program Participants made strides in education, art, and science across the globe. Take a look back on the year in the 2018 Fulbright Year in Review.

The Power of the Fulbright Network

My journey began after I left the Japanese Ministry of Defense, where I’d worked for nine years, to become a Masters student at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, on a Fulbright fellowship from 2009 to 2011. I chose SAIS to study international security and to expand my network with security experts in DC, which is the center of politics. This experience opened doors for me to meet esteemed professionals and continues to influence my career.

Mihoko at her commencement from Johns Hopkins University

I have always been interested in international security and wanted to study it in a global environment, in a second language, to learn from a different perspective. Since I didn’t know when I’d ever get to live outside my own country again, I wanted to take advantage of my time in D.C. to get to know many people and their cultures. When I was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, I made two goals. The first was to make international friends. The second was to publish at least one article in English before graduation.

An American classmate and Fulbright alum had me over to her parents’ home in Chicago for Christmas in 2009 and 2010. Another American classmate (also a Fulbrighter alum) invited me to her parents’ home in upstate New York to celebrate Thanksgiving in 2010. This was my first traditional American Thanksgiving dinner. Their hearty welcome and friendship definitely made my time in the United States memorable and special.

Cybersecurity began to attract attention in the United States when I was a student. One of my classmates, an editor for a policy journal, was looking for a contributor to write an article about Asian cybersecurity, and asked me if I knew anyone who could write about the topic. I told her that I could, and this marked a turning point in my career. She helped me publish a blog which became my first English piece on cybersecurity.

After graduation from SAIS, I had one more year to stay in the United States on my Fulbright visa to do academic training. Since I wanted to earn more professional and academic experience, I did two fellowships at Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies (now Pacific Forum), a think tank based in Honolulu, to research Japan-US cybersecurity collaboration.

A SAIS colleague who graduated one year ahead of me joined a cybersecurity firm and introduced me to his colleagues who does research on Asia. My publications were helpful to prove my interest in cybersecurity. Since most Japanese news articles about cybersecurity are never translated into English, I started to share English summaries with my colleagues when I was with Pacific Forum.

Right before my second fellowship at Pacific Forum ended, I went to see a friend, an American Fulbrighter alum, to say goodbye. At the time I was thinking about being jobless soon, and I was quite scared. He shared his experience after earning his PhD and encouraged me to aim high and stay positive, even in challenging circumstances. I was reminded of the power of the Fulbright network and was encouraged to persevere not just to find the right job for me, but also to help others through our international network.

It has been almost seven years since the end of my Fulbright fellowship at SAIS. I am still involved in global cybersecurity policy, and write and speak about it all the time. While my career path has turned out to be different than the traditional Japanese path of staying in one organization, it also enabled me to be adventurous, travel all over the world, meet people, and make so many international friends.

A few years ago, I bumped into a woman who helped me with my Fulbright visa process at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo in 2009. She was doing her PhD then and her research focus now includes cybersecurity. This is the beauty of Fulbright: getting to know a diverse group of passionate people and learning from each other.

To those who are interested in the Fulbright Program but are hesitant for any reason, I cannot emphasize this enough: Go for it! Don’t be afraid to be different. Your journey will be full of adventures, Fulbright passion, and friends.

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