Fulbright Student Program Blog

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Fulbright for Posterity: The Ripple Effects of Fulbright on Rural America

By Niecea Freeman, Fulbright ETA to Czech Republic 2018-2019

“How about: It’s quality, not quantity?” my dad proposed, wearing a grin. We were brainstorming city slogans for Loyalton, California, my hometown of 800 people nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountains—now named “the Loneliest Town in America.”  We all laughed. On the surface, country living seems like paradise, but in reality a myriad of issues affect rural communities across the nation. Employment opportunities are sparse, lower income leads to higher instances of poverty, and—consequently—there is a clear demand and absolute need for higher quality education.

Megan Meschery and her family in Spain, 2008 Fulbright program.

When the town’s sawmill closed in 2001, followed by a mass population exodus, Loyalton’s tax revenues declined rapidly and ancillary school programming disappeared with them. First, we lost music and art specials. Later, our middle school was condemned, and students were moved from portable buildings into the high school, losing their separate facilities entirely. In truth, it has only been through the extraordinary efforts of dedicated teachers and community members that our school district has been kept afloat: teachers like my high school Spanish instructor, Megan Meschery, who are determined to redefine our local community without much funding from state or federal agencies.

In 2008, Megan left for a Fulbright grant in Granada, Spain, where she examined how rural economic development funding provided by the European Union reduced inequalities in public schools regardless of geographic location. She sought to find parallels and lessons applicable to rural education in America and to develop ways to promote cultural awareness and growth in Loyalton. While Megan’s experiences rather highlighted the differences between U.S. and EU development models, Megan also returned from her two-year Fulbright burgeoning with ideas tailored to Loyalton’s situation, and immediately found ways to introduce positive change, starting with school electives.

The Sierra Schools Foundation sponsors hands-on learning opportunities like harvesting chamomile tea flowers in the Loyalton Learning Garden.

My favorite memories from high school are from the culture club she initiated, through which I saw my first Broadway play, Wicked, and visited my first classical art exhibit, featuring masterpieces from Rembrandt and Raphael. These experiences opened my eyes to the world beyond our tiny valley, and change did not stop there.

The following year, Megan founded a non-profit organization called The Sierra Schools Foundation (SSF – sierraschoolsfoundation.org) to combat inequality in the school district by providing grants for resources and programs such as the STEM Learning Garden, Local-Artists-in-the-School, Advancing to College SAT prep, and others. I volunteered with SSF throughout college, running fundraisers, where I witnessed firsthand how, with dedication and perseverance, local organizations genuinely have power to initiate positive change.

Niecea (right) and her mentor, Martina (left) in Lanškroun’s city square, Czech Republic, 2018 Fulbright program.

These formative experiences propelled me to apply for a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in the Czech Republic for the 2018-2019 academic year, where I will be living in a rural community not unlike Loyalton, teaching English to secondary students enrolled in veterinary and agricultural programs. As an undergrad, I pursued a B.S. in Integrated Elementary Education with an emphasis in English as a Second Language with the primary goal of becoming an elementary school teacher in a high-needs, rural community in the United States. Now, I  am ready to go forward and learn from the students and families of my host country to explore new perspectives and pedagogies that will reshape the way I view myself and my role as an educator. The quantity of programs in Loyalton’s schools has stagnated, but the quality of our education can continue to blossom

Niecea with the calves at the Lanškroun Veterinary & Agriculture School dairy

A Panamanian Fulbrighter Breaks Down Barriers for Female Engineers

Icela Quintero, 2014-2016, Panama, working at the Panama Canal as a vessel enters the Upper Chamber of the Cocolí Locks, in southbound transit (Atlantic Ocean-Gatun Lake-Pacific Ocean)

Since November 2016, I have been part of the group of engineers that oversees the control systems for the new locks of the Panama Canal. It is my dream job, and a position I would not have were it not for the Fulbright Foreign Student Program. As a Panamanian, working at the Panama Canal is a responsibility, our pride and joy, and lifeblood of our country. The Panama Canal is an integral part of our history and future, and it is our duty to keep it operative. I don’t do my job for myself, but for every Panamanian. I am reminded of this key motto I now live by daily, one which the Fulbright Program cemented in me. We are to be elements of change, and as long as I am in a position to do so, I will.

I never expected to become a Fulbrighter, but life takes us on mysterious paths. I became one in a most unexpected way. I was traveling in Europe with a group of 52 Latin American students. Among them were two future Fulbrighters; one Mexican and one Uruguayan. At that point, I realized I wanted to do more for my country, and my traveling companions explained how the Fulbright Program would give me the opportunity to do so. What I did not know was that participating in Fulbright would change my life in more ways than I ever imagined.

Lighting Pakistan, One Village at a Time: The Story of a Fulbright Alumnus Changing Lives for the Better

Hassaan Idrees, 2014-2016, Pakistan (right) taking a selfie with kids from the village of Revi ji Dhani, excited to see lightbulbs which will allow them to play and study until late in the evenings.

Hema, an eight-year-old girl, is one of five siblings living in the village of Revi ji Dhani, located close to the Mirpurkhas-Umerkot highway, a perennially drought-ridden area in Pakistan. Every day, she wakes up before the crack of dawn to fetch water from a hand pump at a distance of two miles. It is a winding, nasty route that she has to maneuver in the dark, for there are no streetlights, and snakes and wild dogs run amok in the desert bushes. Panting and sweating on her return, she has to get ready to go to a dilapidated public school situated a mile away. Hema has trouble finishing her homework under the grim gaslight at home: it’s inadequate, expensive, and dangerous. As her father runs a small store in the village, however, she is one of the fortunate few to actually attend school; the vast majority of children in Revi ji Dhani have to assist their families with herding cows or woodcutting to make ends meet.

Hema belongs to an unbelievably impoverished community: more than 46% of people in the Umerkot district, with a population of more than 700,000, live with less than $1.90 a day. Rural female literacy is less than 10% in this district. Access to the grid is limited to the main town and larger villages, and still suffers from daily blackouts. Smaller villages and hamlets have power outages for as long as 18 hours a day or are not connected to the grid at all. With little or no power, the local economy suffers, and life is tough.