Fulbright Student Program Blog

Category Archives: U.S. Fulbright

Snapshots from Life on Kiribati

By Aurora Brachman, Fulbright U.S. Student to Kiribati

During my sophomore year at Pomona College I became aware of Kiribati, a small Pacific Island nation at risk of vanishing forever under rising sea levels. Scientists project that in as few as 30 years the entire country could be under water. Little did I know that Kiribati would play an important role in my life, and ultimately lead me to the Fulbright Program.

At the time, there was little information about how the 110,000 citizens of Kiribati were responding to this frightening prognosis. The media representations available were sensationalistic and objectifying, transforming Kiribati into a symbol of climate change, but failing to acknowledge the reality of the daily lives of the I-Kiribati. Despite never having never made a documentary before, I applied for and received a grant through the Pacific Basin Institute to create a documentary making the I-Kiribati and their stories the focal point.

Navigating Kiribati as an outsider is challenging. It is one of the least-developed countries in the world. Eighty percent of the population lives a subsistence lifestyle and there is severely limited access to electricity or running water. Though life will continue on the island for the next few decades, climate change is already making its mark. Some of my closest friends have had their homes destroyed by King Tides – exceptionally high tides that have become more powerful in recent years and are inundating the island, flooding homes and turning fresh water brackish. One friend lost her baby sister to dehydration from drinking water contaminated with oceanwater.

Yet what struck me most about Kiribati had nothing to do with climate change. Kiribati is vibrant in a way I didn’t know anything could be. I have never encountered a group of people that radiate love the way Kiribati people do. During my time there, I befriended a tight knit group of high school students, and they became my liaisons to their world. I was 19 at the time and so were they, and despite our vastly different life experiences, we related as most 19-year-olds do. We commiserated over our anxieties surrounding our encroaching adulthood, discussed our dreams for our futures, and shared our fears about a world paralyzed to act on climate change.

Yet when I asked my friends what they would miss most about Kiribati when they are forced to leave, and the resounding answer was, “the way we treat each other.”

After returning to Pomona, I dreamt of going back to Kiribati. I applied for and was accepted to the Fulbright Program. As someone interested in an artistic field, I didn’t know if my work would be deemed “scholarly enough” or worthy of a Fulbright – but my worries were unfounded. I strongly believe that no one who is interested in applying for Fulbright should be under the false impression that Fulbright is not for them. Fulbright is an incredible resource, and if you have a passion for something, you should absolutely apply.

In consultation with my Kiribati network, I developed a new project for my Fulbright, tentatively titled Life Between the Tides. An anthology series, Life Between the Tides is intended to be a platform of empowerment and self-representation for Kiribati and to build respect, empathy, and understanding of Kiribati people to ease their transition when they are forced to migrate from their country in the near future.

My post-production work will be supported by funding through a granting institution called “Pacific Islanders in Communications,” an organization funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). I was extremely fortunate to receive the funding as well as a commitment to digital and potential television distribution through the CPB. Life Between the Tides is projected to be released by the beginning of next year.

My time in Kiribati was one of the most challenging but rewarding experiences of my life. I treasure the lessons it taught me, and the fortitude and resilience I discovered that I never knew I had. Any challenges I face now pale in comparison to what I overcame on my Fulbright. I feel a kind of self-assuredness and self-confidence in my ability as a filmmaker, and a person, that I never had prior to this experience.

This September I will begin my MFA in Documentary Film and Video at Stanford University. I am both anxious and excited to be expanding upon my skills as a filmmaker, storyteller, and artist. In addition to refining my own abilities as a filmmaker, I want to pioneer a new form of participatory documentary filmmaking that works with disenfranchised communities to help equip them with the skills and tools to tell their own stories.

Compelling stories do not only lie at the center of the Pacific. Now, more than ever, there is a critical need for fostering greater understanding across communities through nuanced storytelling that honors the lives of its subjects. I hope to always use my position as a documentary filmmaker to uplift the narratives of those who struggle to have their voices heard.

Photo credit: Aurora Brachman and Darren James

Bringing Seabirds to the Mountains: Environmental Storytelling Through Fulbright

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.

What Chilean Jewelry-Making Taught Me: A Fulbright Year in Review

By Sarah Lightfoot Vidal, Fulbright U.S. Student to Chile (Engineering) 

In March 2014, I began the biggest adventure of my life to date—a Fulbright research fellowship with el Centro de Investigación de Polímeros Avanzados (the Center for Advanced Polymers Research, or CIPA) in Concepción, Chile, studying biological polyesters and biomaterials.  I had never before been afforded the opportunity to live in a foreign country, much less while also working on two of my greatest passions: the Spanish language, and polymers.

One day after working in the lab at CIPA, I stopped by a café (BAC-Bon Appétit Chile) for an espresso.  On my way out, I noticed a flyer for joyeria, jewelry making.  I love art and had been searching for a small class to supplement my experiences in engineering through Fulbright, with an opportunity to do something completely different from my day-today life.  I quickly contacted the professor (profe), and we were set for our first 3-hour class.

In the 3 months of my apprenticeship, I had the joy of learning metallurgy from a practical, artistic point of view.  Thrillingly, this included working with a flame!  My professor would explain why we need to alloy the silver (plata) with another metal to increase its strength and our ability to cold-work it—practical evidence for engineering themes I had already learned at Drexel University.  I developed vocabulary I would not have learned in my scientific lab: some words I didn’t even know the equivalent of in English.  When it came time to begin a new piece, my professor took me to select a stone from another artist who had rooms full of beautiful raw and polished ones, both common and rare, indigenous treasures of Chile.  During my year in Chile I also purchased lapis lazuli jewelry (an indigenous stone of Chile) from local vendors, but the pride I felt upon completing my own pieces, start-to-finish, was incomparable.

My Fulbright project with CIPA focused on the development of biologically-produced polyester nanoparticles, for the encapsulation of quercetin (a polyphenol) and ultimately as a model for indigenous Chilean vegetable extracts.  Through the use of nanoparticles, which by comparison would be smaller in size than a common virus, we hoped to selectively deliver these extracts to patients either as a protective coating on biomedical devices or encapsulated via wound dressings.

To many it may seem like a stretch to connect silver-working with biomedical polymers research, but to me, this is what brought my Fulbright experience full circle.  I see similarities in encapsulating polyphenols or drugs to protecting a precious stone with metal; I equated the processing of large polymer pellets into small nanoparticles to the melting and reformation of the metal.  I was inspired by the skill and prevalence of talented Chilean artisans: a living manifestation of years of culture and experience of such a beautiful and complex country.  By recognizing that art and culture are fundamentally intertwined with science, we create an opportunity to collaborate and learn from those in fields different from our own.  Fulbright afforded me the chance to explore without fear and encouraged me to consume knowledge in anything and everything. I will always be grateful to Fulbright and to the beautiful country of Chile, which welcomed me and taught me so much about life.

Application tips:

  • Do not discourage yourself from applying—with a clear vision and strong motivation, your dream Fulbright experience is possible. Apply!
  • Start searching for your host affiliation early; be persistent but keep an open mind on all opportunities.
  • On editing, be receptive to suggestions from others, but ultimately the application is your own. You need to be content with your final product.

All It Takes is One: Creating a Fulbright Culture on Campus

Written by Mallory Carpenter, Fulbright Program Advisor, Marshall University, Huntington, WV

As a West Virginia native and first generation college student, hearing that fellowship applicants from West Virginia are like “unicorns” took me by surprise. At the biennial National Association of Fellowship Advisors conference, a fellow attendee made the comparison because, according to her, “West Virginia applications are so rare and so special.”

West Virginia is an underrepresented state in terms of the number of students who study abroad. Prior to the creation of the Fulbright Advising office at Marshall University, students had received a few study abroad awards back in the 1960s, but then literally nothing until 2015 – just before I was hired. That year, a student applied and received a Fulbright English Teaching Award (ETA) to teach in the Slovak Republic—this was the first Fulbright student award we had had in 48 years.

Despite this, I saw many connections between the character of my student population and the mission of Fulbright.  Encouraged by the ETA award success, I heavily promoted the Fulbright Program on campus. Fulbright’s mission of cross-cultural exchange fit my students’ drive and desire.

During the first year that my office was in operation, I had one applicant. He applied to a highly competitive UK Partnership Program. This was our first study/research application in years and there we were—advancing forward in the competition already. Sadly, right after his semifinalist notification came word that the UK school involved in his proposed partnership was doing away with the degree program—and that was that.

Nonetheless, I used that small success to promote the program more. “Look, we had one applicant last year and he advanced in one of the most competitive programs. You can do this,” I found myself saying over and over again to my students. My mission was to convince my unicorns they were really unicorns—by talking to them about their stories and showing them how they fit with Fulbright’s mission.

Hailey Hughes

The next year, I had an outstanding student who was incredibly interested in a Fulbright award in Ireland. Hailey Hughes, an English major who was also interested in using disability studies in her creative writing, wanted to apply. We worked diligently for months on her application. Her professors approached me regularly, asking,“Have you heard anything? When will she find out?” It seemed like half the campus was invested in the student’s application.

I wish I could say Hailey got the award, but she didn’t. We were all disappointed. I tried to see the bright side, though. My office had been open for two years, and for the first time my office not only had applicants to Fulbright, but each of these applicants had been a semifinalist. Hailey came back to me in the spring saying, “I think I want to do this again. I want to reapply.”

That year, I had two applicants. The Fulbright snowball was rolling. Once again Hailey advanced to semifinalist status. Then, in early April, we received notification Hailey had received the award. She was the first study/research winner my institution has had since 1967.

People will see Hailey as a representative of the Fulbright Program and will get a glimpse of what West Virginians and people with disabilities can accomplish. To date, I’ve had double the level of interest in Fulbright applications for this year’s cycle. I can’t wait to see where it’ll go from here.

Photo Credit: Stephen Broome

Reading Greece

Written by Steven Tagle, Fulbright US Student to Greece 2016-17

At Mytikas, the highest peak of Mount Olympus, with Josh Arnold, an American friend I made on the way up

When I describe my year in Greece, I often feel like I’m describing a place I imagined rather than a place that actually exists. It is a place where golden light strikes marble columns and sparkles over the wine-dark sea; where rowdy, curious, and clever characters drink and dance; where tradition and innovation, creativity, and chaos brew in a social and economic cauldron. As a fiction writer with an admittedly tenuous grip on reality, I’ve inhabited Greece the way a reader inhabits a book. “Reading” Greece this year has reawakened my senses and bound me to Greek and Syrian people whose mythic stories have challenged what I thought I knew about the crises, and what I thought I knew about myself. I may be the newest reader of a book that spans millennia, but like Byron, Fermor, and Merrill, I’ve found a home in this country and hope to contribute to its pages.

The Vikos Gorge from the Beloi Lookout in Vradeto, supposedly the deepest gorge in Europe.

I came to Greece through its mythology, intrigued by a people whose gods were as raucous, petty, and vindictive as they were noble and just. The landscapes of Greece retain the mystery and power of mythology. Thanks to Fulbright, I’ve visited many of these places, where our world still seems to touch the world of the gods. I’ve walked along the Acheron River –  the “River of Woe” – whose spectral blue waters seem colored by the spirits of the dead. I’ve listened for prophecy in the rustling oak leaves at Dodona and felt stalactites drip onto the back of my neck as a silent boatman ferried me through the caves at Diros. I’ve retraced Odysseus’s homeward path through the Ionian Islands and paid tribute to monsters Hercules had slain in the Peloponnese. Some days, traveling alone and outside my comfort zone, I walked on the edge of fear, knowing that beyond fear is awe, or δέος, the proper attitude for approaching the gods.

I saw δέος on a Naoussan boy’s face during Carnival when he put on the wax mask of the γενίτσαρος for the very first time. I learned to play Trex in UNHCR hotels and befriended an amorous Iraqi who had lost his legs as a child. My students at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki shared their yiayias’ spoon sweets and their own stories of first love, of coming out, of overcoming anxiety, of living with HIV. I visited their hometowns, stations of my Syrian friends’ wayward journeys. I know which cheeses each island produces and for which dessert each village is famous. Everyone I’ve met breathes a bit of Greece into me, and their life stories take root in my imagination. Now initiated into Greek culture, I’m eager to soak up every bit of history and myth, new local food, new tradition.

At Kallimarmaro Stadium with the Solidarity Now team, the first refugee team to run in the Athens Marathon.

A monk on Mount Athos gave me this advice: To write distinctly, live distinctly. In Greece I learned a different way to live. I’ve always held myself apart from people, but here, I was expected to spill into other people’s lives, to reach over them for food, to let myself need and be needed by them. Friends who have visited me in Greece say that I speak louder in Greek, that I’m more willing to talk to strangers, more willing to ask for help. They notice how Greek people open up to me when I speak the language. When a Greek asks me if I’m part Greek, I respond, Ναι, η καρδιά μου είναι ελληνική, “Yes, my heart is Greek.” Completing my Fulbright year is a bittersweet accomplishment, like coming to the of a beloved book. But as Greece has become part of me, so has my experience become part of the story of Greece.