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Fulbright for Posterity: The Ripple Effects of Fulbright on Rural America

February 13, 2019
By Niecea Freeman, Fulbright ETA to Czech Republic 2018-2019

“How about: It’s quality, not quantity?” my dad proposed, wearing a grin. We were brainstorming city slogans for Loyalton, California, my hometown of 800 people nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountains—now named “the Loneliest Town in America.”  We all laughed. On the surface, country living seems like paradise, but in reality a myriad of issues affect rural communities across the nation. Employment opportunities are sparse, lower income leads to higher instances of poverty, and—consequently—there is a clear demand and absolute need for higher quality education.

Megan Meschery and her family in Spain, 2008 Fulbright program.

When the town’s sawmill closed in 2001, followed by a mass population exodus, Loyalton’s tax revenues declined rapidly and ancillary school programming disappeared with them. First, we lost music and art specials. Later, our middle school was condemned, and students were moved from portable buildings into the high school, losing their separate facilities entirely. In truth, it has only been through the extraordinary efforts of dedicated teachers and community members that our school district has been kept afloat: teachers like my high school Spanish instructor, Megan Meschery, who are determined to redefine our local community without much funding from state or federal agencies.

In 2008, Megan left for a Fulbright grant in Granada, Spain, where she examined how rural economic development funding provided by the European Union reduced inequalities in public schools regardless of geographic location. She sought to find parallels and lessons applicable to rural education in America and to develop ways to promote cultural awareness and growth in Loyalton. While Megan’s experiences rather highlighted the differences between U.S. and EU development models, Megan also returned from her two-year Fulbright burgeoning with ideas tailored to Loyalton’s situation, and immediately found ways to introduce positive change, starting with school electives.

The Sierra Schools Foundation sponsors hands-on learning opportunities like harvesting chamomile tea flowers in the Loyalton Learning Garden.

My favorite memories from high school are from the culture club she initiated, through which I saw my first Broadway play, Wicked, and visited my first classical art exhibit, featuring masterpieces from Rembrandt and Raphael. These experiences opened my eyes to the world beyond our tiny valley, and change did not stop there.

The following year, Megan founded a non-profit organization called The Sierra Schools Foundation (SSF – sierraschoolsfoundation.org) to combat inequality in the school district by providing grants for resources and programs such as the STEM Learning Garden, Local-Artists-in-the-School, Advancing to College SAT prep, and others. I volunteered with SSF throughout college, running fundraisers, where I witnessed firsthand how, with dedication and perseverance, local organizations genuinely have power to initiate positive change.

Niecea (right) and her mentor, Martina (left) in Lanškroun’s city square, Czech Republic, 2018 Fulbright program.

These formative experiences propelled me to apply for a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in the Czech Republic for the 2018-2019 academic year, where I will be living in a rural community not unlike Loyalton, teaching English to secondary students enrolled in veterinary and agricultural programs. As an undergrad, I pursued a B.S. in Integrated Elementary Education with an emphasis in English as a Second Language with the primary goal of becoming an elementary school teacher in a high-needs, rural community in the United States. Now, I  am ready to go forward and learn from the students and families of my host country to explore new perspectives and pedagogies that will reshape the way I view myself and my role as an educator. The quantity of programs in Loyalton’s schools has stagnated, but the quality of our education can continue to blossom

Niecea with the calves at the Lanškroun Veterinary & Agriculture School dairy
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There’s No Place Like Brussels

August 3, 2018

Presenting a poster for Ph.D. Day at the de Duve Institute.

I had no idea what to expect from Brussels as I prepared to make the de Duve Institute my new lab home for the year. As a black woman and first-generation Nigerian-American, I did not know if I would see myself represented in professional or social settings in Europe. What I did know was that I would be in a supportive lab environment working with the best microbiologists in the world to combat the global threat of antibiotic resistance.

In hindsight, Belgium was the perfect fit for me academically, professionally, and socially. I established relationships with European research institutions, further prepared myself for my Ph.D. Program in the Biomedical Sciences at the University of Michigan through my research project, and made friends across the world.

One of the most rewarding experiences I had as a scientist was at our lab retreat in Cadiz, Spain, where several labs across Europe met to present our research. During a career panel discussion, I looked around the room and saw 40+ scientists but no people of color. I raised my hand and asked, “Where are the women and people of color in leadership positions? The majority of people at this retreat are women, yet all of the people in charge of these labs are white men.

Although extremely nervous, I felt obligated to be a voice for underrepresented (UR) minorities. As the only black voice, the only American voice, I could not allow the fear of asking a controversial question overshadow the opportunity to spark cross-cultural dialogue about the need for diversity in the sciences.

Spending the day at Grand Place with friends visiting from the U.S.

There was a pause followed by empathetic sighs and laughter. It was clear that they understood the gravity of my question and the paradox of discussing the need for diversity with a non-diverse panel. One of the panelists, the head of a major research institute in France, stated that they were deeply committed to diversifying STEM fields and had created task forces to increase the number of women in leadership positions. The other panelists echoed similar sentiments which prompted a passionate discussion about gender discrimination and implicit biases in STEM. Some made the point that increasing paternity leave would discourage employers from assuming that women would need more time off from their jobs than men. Others shared feelings of discouragement from seeing a room filled with female scientists only to see leadership roles filled by men. After the panel discussion, a few women expressed their gratitude for my question and I felt extremely proud for having the courage to embody the heart of the Fulbright Program.

Although my question was well-received, as the panelists and audience focused on gender, my point about race was lost. I was not surprised that this happened. Being the only person of color in the room, I recognized that people tend to focus on issues that they identify with. This further highlights the need for representation in these spaces so that UR groups will be supported and their needs addressed. Regardless, I am happy that I brought the issue to people’s attention. I hope that they will be sensitive to the challenges with representation of people of color in STEM moving forward.

Day trip to the Cliffs of Moher, Ireland with Fulbright grantees.

Related to my passion for advocating for UR groups, I created the @fulbrightnoir Instagram account to share the stories of black Fulbrighters. After meeting the first black Fulbrighters that I knew through Instagram, I wanted to encourage prospective UR applicants and UR groups within Fulbright by showcasing the diversity that exists within the program.

In addition to the @fulbrightnoir community, I connected with a Belgian woman through Instagram who introduced me to Matonge, an area central to the Congolese community in Belgium. This was the first time I was surrounded by people that looked like me and I felt right at home.

My advice to future Fulbrighters is to be open to meeting people through various platforms. Be creative, committed, and unyielding while creating your new home abroad. Social media was instrumental in building my social networks and finding social scenes that I missed direly in the U.S. Instagram connected me with a new side of Brussels that transformed my experience from great to perfect.

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Program Update: New Honduras Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship Program!

June 24, 2016

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Ryan Alaniz, 2009-2010, Honduras, with his son Santiago outside their Fulbright home in Ciudad Divina Providencia heading out for a walk to the river.

 

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program is now offering one English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) Award to Honduras!

The ETA will be assigned as an English language-learning assistant in Tegucigalpa at a Binational Center (BNC) affiliated with the U.S. Embassy and a teacher training college. To learn more about this new opportunity, please visit the Honduras country summary on our website.

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World Refugee Day 2016: Revisiting Sharief El-Gabri’s Story and Community Engagement

June 20, 2016

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Sharief El-Gabri, 2010-2011, Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to Jordan, with Ahmed, one of the refugee high school students who helped run the sports facility in the Gaza Refugee Camp

In honor of World Refugee Day, we are re-posting Fulbright Alumni Ambassador and alumnus Sharief El-Gabri’s article describing his Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship responsibilities in Jordan as well as his involvement with the Gaza Refugee Camp. 

Are you a current Fulbrighter who has worked with or is currently working with refugees? Want to share your story? We’d love to hear from you! Contact us here.

If you are thinking about applying for a Fulbright grant, you need to consider how you plan to interact with your host community. After all, Fulbright’s core tenet is cultural exchange. Of course, show off your impressive research proposal or your comprehensive English teaching playbook, but your time as a Fulbrighter will likely be memorialized by serendipitous interactions with your community. Embrace those opportunities because you are prepared and have considered how you would like to carve out your Fulbright experience.

Looking back on my Fulbright experience in Amman, Jordan in 2010-2011, I really cherish my time outside of my primary English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) responsibilities. I had sufficient free time to engage in a substantive community engagement project. Outside of my ETA obligations and studying Arabic, I helped build a sports facility in the Gaza Refugee Camp.

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