Three weeks before the Fulbright U.S. Student Program application deadline, I walked into my Fulbright Program Adviser’s office and told her that I wanted to apply for a grant to Malaysia. Rather than turning me away, she helped me prepare my application, critiqued my essay drafts, and was an invaluable resource throughout the entire process. For every Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) applicant, one of the most daunting tasks is tailoring his or her life story to the country of application. For me, the questions were, “Why Malaysia? And why me?”
In order to take full advantage of the opportunity to live and understand a country at its roots, I wanted to pick a place as far removed from the United States as possible. Malaysia offered the unique challenge of living and teaching with three distinct races, religions, and languages. Why choose to delve into one culture when I could learn about three?
My placement in a secondary school of over two thousand students was a melting pot of the country’s demographic blend. Although I got exactly what I hoped for, I had no idea what lay ahead. The classroom not only contained the typical high school obstacles, but the students would also self-segregate themselves according to gender and race. As an ETA, I served in many roles: as a teacher and a cultural ambassador for the United States, yes, but also as a friend, mentor, and even mediator. There were days I struggled with the stress of adapting to such a different environment, but there were also countless moments that made it all worth it.
One of these moments was a district wide art workshop I held that focused on community and youth empowerment. Students from each of the district’s thirteen schools brainstormed ways in which they could use their individual talents to find solutions to their country’s problems – as they understood them. Despite skepticism within the administration, I pushed for the workshop to be as inclusive as possible. After the discussions, each student translated their vision of a “Better Malaysia” onto a wood tile using various mediums. At the end of the day, we combined all of the tiles to form a mural to reinforce the symbol of one community, regardless of race or religion, working to find a common solution.
That mural was an incredible achievement of which I was proud, but nowhere near as proud as seeing the new community that was born from it. As my students approached me after the workshop to share their excitement of their new found friendships, I realized how my students’ self-confidence had grown from just earlier that day. I am still amazed at how these students, who were typically divided, were able to come together so well in that moment.
If you are even considering applying for a Fulbright grant, I say go for it. Be ready to adapt to the wildest experience you cannot begin to imagine, and be willing to approach each day with an open mind. My ten months in Malaysia were without a doubt, the hardest and most rewarding experience I’ve ever had and I take away not only countless memories, hundreds of photos, but also the 3,651 new Facebook friends that still know me as “Miss Janice.”