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There’s No Place Like Brussels

By Chiamaka Ukachukwu, 2017-2018, Fulbright US Student to Belgium

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!

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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

Engaging with Your Host Community During Fulbright, By Sharief El-Gabri, 2010-2011, Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to Jordan

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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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Culture and Contrast in Fortaleza

By Missy Reif, 2013-2015, Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to Brazil

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Missy Reif, 2013-2015, Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to Brazil (center), performing with members of Oré Anacã

During my time as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in Fortaleza, Brazil, it was apparent that my students at the Federal University of Ceará (UFC) had widespread access to American culture. They watched American TV shows and movies, listened to American music. Yet, despite living in the fifth largest city in the country, most of my students had never met an American before I arrived on campus. While this idea made me a little nervous at first, it was an amazing opportunity to show my students that life in the United States is more than American Pie.

ETAs in Brazil fill a number of roles on their university campuses. At UFC, my time was split between giving guest lectures and running my own extracurricular activities on campus. In two years, I led many conversation clubs where we played games and practiced English without the pressure of grades or assignments, and organized weekly cultural seminars on topics including religious and cultural diversity, sports, and American holidays and traditions. All of these activities provided students with opportunities to improve their English, and their confidence, in a fun and laid-back setting. While our activities sometimes focused on aspects of the language—workshops on slang and phrasal verbs were always a hit—I found that the students were most interested in in-depth discussions focusing on distinctions between the United States and Brazil.

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Williamson: Vignettes from a Coal Town

By Nidhi Sen, 2015 - 2017, India

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Nidhi Sen is Fulbright Student from India pursuing a joint degree master’s program in gender and sustainable international development at Brandeis University.

Driving around the central part of the Appalachian region in early spring, one is struck by the jagged, rocky hills and the bare-leaved trees. All along the winding roads, I saw old and rusting conveyor belts and mining equipment lying abandoned by the wayside. It was a stark reminder of what used to be considered the heart of a billion dollar coal industry and what sustained an entire culture and way of life for generations. It made me aware of how the burden of history looms large over this landscape and its people—one that even visitors like myself cannot escape from.

Arriving in Williamson a few days ago, I was initially struck by the absence of people on the streets and the lack of human activity. It was strangely new to me, and I fell into the immediate trap of comparing it to small towns in India and with familiar images of urban decay. But a few hours into my stay here and after interacting with the dynamic team of Sustainable Williamson, I realised that underneath its “sleepy” mask was a group of passionate and dedicated individuals who are trying to revive the local economy and revitalize the lives of the local community.

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