Receiving a Fulbright U.S. Student grant fulfilled a lifelong dream of working in one of the most challenging communities in the world: a South African township. The grant allowed me to research the strengths of an extremely impoverished community with an estimated 40% HIV prevalence rate. The findings of the assessment were used to plan and implement HIV prevention programs at a local community resource center, Butterfly House, which serves 400 orphans and vulnerable children.
I conducted hundreds of interviews with people living around Butterfly House and quickly realized their strength. While interviewing a woman in her shack, I learned of her community activism efforts. She had mobilized over five hundred women to sign petitions to shut down a local pub that had been serving underage youth. A man shared his interest in nutrition and his endeavor to build a community garden. Others spoke of their participation in neighborhood watches. The list continued to grow and I left each interview knowing that each of us had shared a moment of mutual understanding of the world.
My research findings led to the development of the Community Support Worker Program, where community role models volunteered their time to participate in a 64-hour training on navigating local resources, preventative health, conflict resolution, human rights and much more. Most had very little school education, but were rich in life, work and volunteer experience. After the training, community support workers volunteered to organize community advocacy events, be role models to youth, and run a guidance center. Shortly before my Fulbright grant ended, I learned that the South African Hospice Palliative Care Association had named this program a best practice model of care.
The change I experienced as a Fulbrighter is immeasurable. I was challenged to find solutions to complex social and health problems and did this through collaboration with South African friends, mentors, and researchers. My experience changed my perspective on community development and I plan to replicate my research in my native Texas, where I am currently a social worker.
The Community Support Worker Program’s motto is “Help us, to help you, to help others.” This fits well with The Fulbright Program’s goals because the grant allows you to help, learn and grow in ways only possible through cultural exchange. You do not have to be a genius to receive a Fulbright grant; you just have to be passionate about making an impact in the world.
If you are considering The Fulbright Program, do not hesitate! Choose a country that you are drawn to, and know you can learn from. Ask for help. Create a timeline. Reach out to potential host organizations and do not be discouraged if they do not reply. There are many host organizations out there and someone will respond. Go into the experience with an open mind. Be curious and ready to learn. Your experience will not be what you expect it to be—it will be better than you can imagine.
You, too, could find yourself opening up that award letter one day.