I had just returned home from six weeks of studying in Madrid, Spain, when my sister called to tell me about the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. Traveling to Madrid had been my dream since I applied to college, and I had come back startled by the vastness of the world and the richness of other cultures. She told me that the Fulbright U.S. Student Program was an opportunity to spend approximately a year abroad potentially conducting independent research, or assistant English teaching while developing personally and professionally. While still on the phone with my sister, I looked up the Fulbright U.S. Student Program website and decided instantly to apply…three weeks later.
Yes, I started the application process late. Hungry for resources on how to put an application together, I found out about and attended local information sessions, met with my university’s Fulbright Program Adviser, and searched the all-knowing Internet. I learned that I had to apply selectively to one country. I also learned that for the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Program (ETA), I had to explicitly outline my teaching style and plans for extracurricular community work in my application. I also learned that professors had to be reminded gently, but regularly, to turn letters of reference in on time!
During my campus interview, I was told that my essay was too vague, that my resumé was perfect, that I wasn’t clear enough in explaining my teaching style, and, finally, that it would be nearly impossible for me to get a Fulbright grant. Six months later, I had an offer from a teaching program in New York City, and one month after that, I received a letter from Fulbright explaining that I had made the waitlist, but had not received the grant. More surprisingly, two weeks before starting the teaching program, I received notice that the Argentina Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship Program had enough money for one additional grant, and that I was next on the list! Seven months later, I was on a plane to Buenos Aires, Argentina, about to begin my Fulbright ETA grant.
I had chosen to apply to Argentina for two reasons: first, I think that the Spanish language is a beautiful instrument for expression; second, as it’s always been a dream of mine to be a theater artist, and Argentina consistently produces socially relevant, physically expressive theater–I wanted to explore theater during my grant year.
My journey, however, was bumpy. Once in Argentina, it took me nearly two months to find a place to live. It also took several weeks to adjust to my role at the teachers college, Instituto de Enseñanza Superior Lola Mora, where I was working. Friends I had made early in my stay disappeared within a few months, and my confusion and culture shock sometimes turned to sadness. It was challenging, but within these challenges, I found how to mold my life in Tucumán into one that felt right. I also started to turn my loneliness into motivation, stepped out of my comfort zone, and made more friends.
In Argentina, I grew bolder. I started suggesting lessons to teachers and implementing original, pop culture-based curriculum, like opinion essays about performances on American Idol, and critical reviews comparing American youth in Friday Night Lights and Gossip Girl. When my adviser left the country, I led two classes in literature discussions of Fahrenheit 451 and Animal Farm that were followed by informal chats at the local bar. I even suggested to my adviser the idea of building a drama-based English curriculum, which began to form when I applied to the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. The incredible people I met in Tucumán pushed me to make this dream a reality. I subsequently developed the curriculum and taught it to English teachers throughout the Tucumán province. These wonderful friends opened their homes, prepared delicious asado, or Argentine barbecue, and shared their families and lives with me.
The warmth of the Argentine community also ignited my boldness within the theater community. After blindly walking into a local theater and introducing myself to the director, I found myself quickly immersed in rehearsals for local shows. To get to know the community better, I started taking classes with the actors and later found myself involved in a theatrical process I had never seen before. I saw firsthand how actors built companies locally and created plays collectively using physical improvisation. I followed several companies to the local theater festival, and one as far as the international theater festival in Buenos Aires. Throughout the experience, the artists always treated me as an equal, pushing me to create — something I always seemed to run away from in college. Feeling supported, I pushed myself to direct two plays while in Argentina: an original English language comedy with university students and a cabaret of American musical theater sung entirely by Argentines. I found myself becoming a part of the community while also finding inner strength.
That fateful phone call from my sister plunged me into an experience that pushed me in many different ways. I now see my Fulbright experiences reflected in all aspects of my life back in the United States. The two years I spent teaching English as a Second Language in Washington, DC public schools through Teach for America were manageable due to my love for teaching and the skills I learned in those early months in Tucumán. Additionally, my freelance work directing devised theater with youth at Arena Stage, a regional theater in downtown Washington, DC, is purely fueled by the passion I found working with Tucumán’s inspiring artists. Ultimately, my commitment to a life of community experiences stems directly from my bumpy but invaluable Fulbright year.
As you prepare to apply for your Fulbright grant, know that the ride will be bumpy, but also know that what awaits on the other side is a stronger, happier you.
Here are some things to consider as you apply:
- Try to start the application process the summer before your application is due.
- Find out if your institution has a Fulbright Program Adviser. This person can read your essay, review your application materials early, and even set up a campus interview for you. The comments from this interview will be an additional document in your application, the campus committee evaluation.
- Even if you are not currently enrolled or have already graduated college, YOU CAN STILL APPLY!
- Choose a country you are passionate about. Know why you are passionate about that country and be able to explain why you need to pursue a grant there; the more specific, the better.
- Use the Fulbright website for guidance! And if you are an interpersonal learner, attend one of the many in-person information sessions or online webinars. Also, check out the tutorials that break down how to apply into easy to understand components.
- To get a Fulbright grant, you simply have to be yourself. Show you are passionate, humble, honest, and curious. Be brave and open!
Have questions for Fareed? He can be contacted as a Fulbright Alumni Ambassador at FMostoufi.AlumniAmbassador@fulbrightmail.org.