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Fulbright-National Geographic

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.

FLTA Foreign Fulbright Fulbright-National Geographic U.S. Fulbright

Looking Forward

April 30, 2020

“Working as a team to try to find a solution to this problem” – 2015 Fulbright U.S.-France Fulbright-Tocqueville Distinguished Chair and U.S. Scholar alumnus Dr. Benjamin J. tenOever continues to collaborate internationally with Marco Vignuzzi’s laboratory at the Institut Pasteur to test FDA-approved drugs in order to treat COVID-19 symptoms.

For more than 70 years, the Fulbright model of living and learning together with people of different cultures has helped forge lasting connections worldwide and has brought people and nations together to work toward common goals. This mission is more vital today than ever, and we thank the Fulbright community—participants, alumni, advisers, university and host partners, and staff at Fulbright commissions, embassies, implementing partners, and more—for coming together to take on today’s unprecedented challenges.

Malaysia ETA alumna Rachel Jacoby stays connected with her cohort, which supports their local communities across the United States through Feeding the Frontline, an organization that raises money and delivers meals to medical staff and workers fighting COVID-19.

Looking for innovative ways to create medical supplies, Fulbright Visiting Scholar Dr. Aulia Nasution, with students and colleagues of Sepuluh Nopember Institute of Technology (ITS) Department of Engineering Physics, made a prototype of a low-cost ventilator using an open-sourced Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) design.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We express our gratitude to Fulbright participants and alumni engaged in the fight against the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19). Fulbrighters are healthcare workers, scientists, inventors, policy makers, journalists, academics, entrepreneurs, teachers, and professionals of all backgrounds. Fulbrighters are leaders, innovators, experts, and trailblazers. Fulbrighters are creative, compassionate, resilient, and generous. Fulbrighters are simply extraordinary, and we are so proud of the many ways they are taking action.

As Pakistan combats the COVID-19 pandemic, alumni Dr. Muhammad Moiz and Rana Muhammad Umer helped establish the country’s first drive-through testing facility in Karachi.

As we look forward to the future, we will begin posting stories from our Fulbright alumni, written prior to COVID-19. We hope they will continue to inspire and educate as we navigate the future together.

Fulbright-National Geographic U.S. Fulbright

Bringing Seabirds to the Mountains: Environmental Storytelling Through Fulbright

July 10, 2019

Fulbright-National Geographic program alumni Kevin McLean & Abby McBride recently attended the Mountainfilm Festival in Telluride, CO to speak about their work as fellows—offering a glimpse into some of the most groundbreaking storytelling of the modern age.

Held every Memorial Day weekend, Mountainfilm is a documentary film festival featuring nonfiction stories about environmental, cultural, political, and social justice issues. Along with exceptional documentaries, the festival goes beyond the medium of film by bringing together change makers and visionary artists like Kevin and Abby for interactive talks, gallery walks, and presentations.

At the festival, Kevin and Abby took the stage to share stories from their Fulbright experiences during the “Emerging Storytellers Presentation.” Abby also exhibited some of her nature illustrations during the festival’s gallery walk. From Northern Harriers in flight to gulls alighting on rocks and horseshoe crabs crawling on the beach, the art she presented displayed the remarkable and magical qualities of nature and science.

Abby explores nature and science through an artform she dubs “sketchbiologizing.” She travels globally to sketch wildlife and write stories about science and conservation. As a Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellow, she spent National Geographic’s “Year of the Bird” in New Zealand, home to the world’s most diverse and endangered seabirds. While there, she reported on efforts to reverse centuries of harm toward birds that make their living from the ocean: penguins, prions, storm-petrels, shearwaters, shags, gulls, gannets, mollymawks, and others. Her nine-month adventure involved roaming New Zealand’s coasts in an old station wagon named “Indy,” living out of a coffin-sized tent, rappelling down sea cliffs, following conservation dogs in search of nest burrows, hitching rides on sailing ships, being chased by sea lions on remote subantarctic islands, and helping with remarkable seabird conservation efforts around the country. All the while, she sketched copiously and recorded vertigo-inducing GoPro footage to illustrate her stories for the National Geographic Explorers blog.

“Fulbright gave me the opportunity to spend a year in the seabird capital of the world, writing and illustrating stories about these endangered species that are the coal-mine-canaries for the ocean,” said McBride. “Through this festival I was able to bring those seabird stories to the mountains. It feels like a fitting metaphor for how interconnected these global systems really are.”

Kevin McLean, a graduate student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, is particularly interested in expanding human knowledge of hard-to-reach species and ecosystems, as well as making science communication more palatable to public audiences. As a Fulbright-National Geographic storyteller, he traveled to Malaysian Borneo and the Ecuadorian Amazon to survey canopy wildlife in two of the most biodiverse areas of the world. As he collected his scientific data, he used writing, photos, and videos to provide a view of some of the least-known species in the forest for the National Geographic Explorers blog.

“Fulbright gave me the opportunity to study species that are rarely seen, even in the most biodiverse places on the planet. Spending time immersed in these places allowed me to make lasting connections with students and researchers in my host countries, and the platform I had as a digital storytelling fellow allowed me to share the species I was studying with a global audience,” McLean said. “The spirit of curiosity, adventure, and environmental justice at Mountainfilm creates a really engaged audience, and the conversations I had with fellow adventurers and storytellers gave me great ideas and inspiration for where to take my work next.”

The Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellowship supports young and promising scientists, adventurers and journalists as they venture across the globe to document and share some of today’s most pressing stories through multimedia platforms. Learn more about the fellowship on the Fulbright U.S. Student Program website.