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U.S. Fulbright

Plenty of Adjustment Necessary, By Zipporah Slaughter, 2008-2009, Brazil

July 2, 2012

My Fulbright experience was nothing like what I had anticipated.  After the first week, I was ready to return home.  I was not off to a good start with my host institution.  On the first day at the center, the director greeted me sternly, “How’s your Portuguese?”  No, “Hello.”  No, “It’s good to meet you.”  No, “We’re looking forward to having you here.” 

Even after many language classes, I was still not close to where I wanted to be in terms of my comfort level with Portuguese, nor apparently where I needed to be.  I was disappointed and frustrated by my inability to communicate effectively.  I hired a Portuguese tutor, which I had included in my project proposal.  My listening ear improved and I connected better with the language.  Yet, language skills affected my research early on and progress moved slowly.  Beyond the obvious need for communication, language facility was important for understanding the significance of the issues surrounding my research topic, as well as work being done to address them.  It also added value to my overall Fulbright experience. 

My ethnographic research examined the structure, operations and effectiveness of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Salvador, Brazil, that focused on Afro-Brazilian women and girls.  To better comprehend how these entities were meeting the needs of the community, in addition to interviews and participant observation, I attended seminars, conferences, discussion groups and performances.  I also taught an English course to adults.  The research shifted as I learned that the nonprofits working on issues of gender and race were largely community-based groups and grassroots organizations.  Many were loosely structured and without documentation to qualify as an NGO, which limited their ability to apply for significant funding.  I asked questions about mission, vision, leadership, resources, outreach, and activities.  What was the role of these nonprofits in addressing and combating socio-economic inequities faced by Afro-Brazilian females, a segment of the population often at the bottom of social indicators?












The situation for Afro-descendant women and girls in Brazil is difficult, as racism and discrimination are prevailing factors.  The vast majority of Afro-Brazilians live in impoverished conditions without equal access to quality education and healthcare services.  Black women in Brazil earn less than half of what Whites earn.  In Salvador, the face of domestic labor (namely, maids or nannies) is typically an Afro-Brazilian female, and work is low pay and without labor protection rights.  Negative images of Black women in the media are pervasive and violence against women persists.  With these challenges, Afro-Brazilian women continue pushing to negotiate their own space within organizations to promote equality.

I came away from my Fulbright experience with a greater awareness and comprehension of the issues confronting Afro-Brazilian females and the organizations supporting their improved conditions.  While my expectations were met with my research, I left Salvador wanting to make a positive difference.  The earlier challenges I had experienced settling in–finding an affordable apartment, eating out as a vegetarian, excessive heat and no air conditioning, and administrative bureaucracy–faded into memory .  I gained more in return – developed greater confidence to travel abroad, learned to live in a new culture and made invaluable friendships.

My advice for applicants:   

  • Discuss your proposed research topic with professors and colleagues to develop a clear perspective and sense of how you expect to carry out your research.
  • Search organizations online to find an affiliate and make contact early.
  • Before traveling, clarify any expectations with your host institution.
  • Be flexible.

Top photo: Zipporah Slaughter, 2008-2009, Brazil, watching a sunset over the Bay of All Saints (Baía de Todos os Santos) in Salvador; the city of Salvador sits on a peninsula between the Bay of All Saints and the Atlantic Ocean

Middle photo: The all-female Banda Didá performing in the streets of historic Pelourinho; The Didá Education and Cultural Association is a nonprofit in Salvador founded in 1993, by Maestro Neguinho do Samba to improve girls’ confidence and self-esteem through music, percussion and the arts.

U.S. Fulbright

The Syrian Hospitality Waltz, By Antonio Tahhan, 2010-2011, Syria

December 6, 2011

Lost, I strolled up to a middle-aged gentleman standing a few feet beside me who was leisurely munching on a bag of peanuts.  I cleared my throat as I approached him.  “Marhaba,” I said in my peculiar Arabic accent, trying my best to say “Hello.”  As the man turned to me, I asked if he could direct me to the market.

There was no rush; everything in Aleppo, Syria, happens in its own time.  The man offered me some of his peanuts.  I declined politely as he extended the snack-sized bag.  I made sure to say, “Shokran,” or “Thank you,” so as to not offend, but he insisted.  Having already lived here for a few months on my Fulbright grant, I understood this was part of the intricate, Syrian hospitality waltz.  It’s a well-established, figurative dance based on a set of unspoken rules.  If you watch it take place between two locals, it can be quite beautiful.  I was still learning.  I explained how I had just eaten lunch and was absolutely stuffed.  I followed with a comment about how delicious my meal had been, and he smiled and instructed me to follow him.

We exchanged stories as we walked down the busy street.  I mentioned that I was a Fulbright Student studying food in Aleppo; he chuckled and assured me I had come to the right place.  In fact, many Arabs and food scholars consider Aleppo to be the culinary capital of the Middle East.  Historically situated along the Silk Road, Aleppo has served as the home for a myriad of cultures: Armenian, Circassian, Greek, Jewish, Kurdish, and Turkish.  They have all played a role in shaping what Aleppan food is today.

The conversation with the older gentleman went smoothly, as if I were chatting with an old friend.  Once he knew I was there to study lunch, he began to tell me of all the dishes I needed to taste.  As we passed prominent landmarks, he interjected to explain how I could find my way in case I ever got lost again.  He insisted on walking with me until he felt confident I could find the market.  When we arrived at the point where we parted ways, he extended his bag of peanuts one more time.  I couldn’t say no, not after all that we’d shared.  That would be considered, “aaeeb,” or “shameful.”

I politely grabbed a couple peanuts from the small bag and tossed them in my mouth.  They were dry-roasted and salted, and actually very tasty.  I thanked him again, “Shokran,” and repeated it a couple more times.  He responded by extending his open hand across his chest, over his heart, saying, “Ya meet ahlan w sahlan,” which roughly translates into, “Oh, you are most welcome a hundred times over.”

In Syria, and across much of the Middle East, symbolic gestures, however small, can have significant social implications.  These gestures are equivalent to the imperceptible signals exchanged between two dance partners on a dance floor.  Placing your hand over your heart is understood to be a gesture of openness and sincerity.  Numbers also play an important role in social exchange.  Many Arabic phrases can be reinforced by a quantitative amount.  For instance, if you want to congratulate someone, you can say, “Mabrook.”  But for emphasis, you would say, “Alf mabrook,” which literally means, “A thousand congratulations.”  Even ordinary exchanges can sometimes trigger the waltz.  The expression for “good morning” is “sabah al kher,” literally, “morning of goodness.”  A standard response would be “sabah al noor,” or, “morning of light,” but you might also hear, “ya meet sabah,” which translates into “one hundred beautiful mornings.”

During my stay in Syria, I met many people, like the middle-aged man, who were interested in getting to know me – and vice versa.  Conversations that started about eggplants and parsley evolved into stories of love and companionship, culture and politics. 

These exchanges, however imperceptible, are indicators of a larger dance meant to teach us about one another.  They are a means by which we can participate in each other’s cultures and form relationships based on mutual understanding.  I consider these interactions to be highlights of my Fulbright in Syria.  These are the interactions I carry in my heart and continue to share on my blog in an effort to continue the waltz I started more than a year ago.

My tips for Fulbright applicants:

  • If you are in a city with other Fulbright students, try not to spend most of your time with them.  The best experiences come when you form new relationships with locals from your host country.
  • If you are interested in improving your language skills, set up informal conversation sessions with someone who has similar interests.  This will make language learning more enjoyable and will be a great way to meet new people.
  • Participate in local events that align with your personal interests.  This will help you establish a network of friends you can connect with during – and after – your Fulbright grant.
  • Never stay at home by yourself.  Always reach outside of your comfort zone.  Meet new people even if it seems awkward or difficult at times.  Invite friends to share a meal, set up weekly movie nights – participate in events that are fun.  Remember that cultural exchange can happen anywhere, anytime.

Top Photo: Antonio Tahhan, 2010-2011, Syria (second from left), forming friendships with Bedouins who hosted him during a camping trip to Palmyra, Syria

Middle Photo: One of the many entrances to the interconnected labyrinths that make up the ancient markets of Aleppo

Bottom Photo:Antonio Tahhan, 2010-2011, Syria, walking through the valley in Ma’loula — a town of about 2,000 inhabitants and one of the only remaining places on earth where Aramaic is still spoken.

U.S. Fulbright

My Time with the Bleeding-Heart Baboons: An Ethiopian Fulbright Experience, By David Joseph Pappano, 2010-2011, Ethiopia

July 5, 2011

Most people have the same image of all primates. This generic ape or monkey swings through the trees, eats bananas and lives in a small social group of about 20-30 individuals. Few people imagine monkeys that sleep on sheer cliffs. Even fewer folks think a primate could eat grass. And only a handful of people have ever observed over 1,000 wild primates living together in a single social group. Through my Fulbright grant, I had the fortune of spending time with a peculiar primate species that exhibits all three of these behaviors. During a 10-month stay in Ethiopia, I studied the behavior of geladas (Theropithecus gelada).

Geladas are known by their nickname, the “bleeding heart baboon.” Geladas are not, however, true baboons. While baboons eat meat, fruit, and nuts, geladas are the only primate species to feed nearly entirely on grass (over 90% of their diet). Their “bleeding heart baboon” nickname comes from the unique bare patch of skin located on the chest and neck of both male and female geladas. In females, this patch changes color from light pink to deep red with beaded vesicles and is thought to be a visual indicator of estrous. The male chest patch is likely a sexually selected signal, as chest color varies across males and is associated with dominance status.

My Fulbright grant allowed me to conduct dissertation research on the social and hormonal factors that influence bachelor geladas’ behavior living in all-male groups. In these groups, males may form bonds with other males that may persist through adult life. Young bachelors are often smaller than dominant leader males and may cooperate to overthrow leaders in order to mate with females. My research examines the nature of these relationships, particularly if young males are more likely to cooperate with their buddies when fighting leader males. Additionally, I collected feces to understand stress hormone level variation among bachelor males. These data will allow me to understand the relationship between stress and social bonding among male geladas, and is important for an understanding of how human friendships evolved.

While geladas may have been the primate of interest for my thesis, they were not the only primates involved in my Fulbright experience. I worked closely with many humans as well during my time in Ethiopia. Since I worked at Simien Mountains National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), I lived with the park scouts and their families. I worked with a field assistant, Esheti Jejaw, and trained him in various scientific methods. In turn, he taught me how to speak Amharic, make injera (traditional Ethiopian bread), and navigate the cliffs of the Simien Mountains. Finally, my relationship with the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa allowed me to speak to high school students about my research and conserving Ethiopian biodiversity. I hope that at least one of these students pursues a future in wildlife biology, but I’ll settle for eco-minded doctors, lawyers, and future leaders of Ethiopia.

  • If you are interested in applying for a Fulbright study/research grant, I recommend you always be mindful of the Fulbright Program’s mission to promote mutual understanding between the U.S. and the people of other countries. Find creative ways to incorporate this into your research plan, even if you study plants, birds, or primates. You should be foremost an intellectual ambassador, and secondarily, a researcher.
  • If you are currently at a university, seek out faculty members that have had Fulbright experiences. Get to know them and ask them for reference letters. Do not think, however, that having a recommendation from a Fulbright alumnus guarantees a grant. It is far more important to have recommenders that know you both personally and academically.
  • Finally, your research proposal should be something that can be accomplished within an academic year. Think of it as the first step to a larger project that incorporates the Fulbright Program’s goals. You cannot cure diseases or save entire ecosystems in less than a year, but you can make significant progress and impact lives that will last well beyond your grant tenure.

Top photo: David Joseph Pappano, 2010-2011, Ethiopia (left), with his field assistant, Esheti Jejaw

David Joseph Pappano, 2010-2011, Ethiopia, speaking to high school students about his Fulbright research at the “Yes Youth Can!” conference held at the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa on April 30, 2011

A male gelada looks out over the Simien Mountains, Ethiopia

U.S. Fulbright

A Community Response to HIV/AIDS , By Chaunetta Jones, 2007-2008, South Africa

June 10, 2010

Molo, sisi! This warm, isiXhosa “hello” greeted me when I arrived in Grahamstown, South Africa to begin my Fulbright experience. Like many other Fulbright grantees, I never could have imagined that my time in-country would be so enriching and life-changing. While South Africa is currently enjoying the global spotlight as the host of the 2010 World Cup, the country remains challenged by how to meet the needs of the nearly 6 million South Africans infected with HIV/AIDS.

My Fulbright project was part of my larger dissertation research that examines what happens in communities when HIV/AIDS treatment has been made available. During my year in Grahamstown, I was affiliated with the Raphael Centre, an NGO that offers testing and support services to those infected with and affected by HIV/AIDS. As a medical anthropologist, I worked closely with HIV-positive men and women to trace how they make decisions about their care and treatment, and more specifically, how they decide if and/or how they will take antiretroviral treatment. While the nature of my project was extremely sensitive and it was challenging to deal with the types of suffering I witnessed, I will forever be grateful to those who shared their life experiences with me.

As a Fulbrighter, I took seriously my role as a cultural ambassador and fully embraced the tenant of “community engagement.” In addition to my research, I served on the Local AIDS Council, helped to organize World AIDS Day events, coordinated candlelight memorial services for HIV/AIDS victims, served as a foster mother for an orphaned infant, and – what I am most proud of—helped to create Camp Siyaphumelela. Siyaphumelela, isiXhosa for “We are coping/We are succeeding,” was designed to provide teenagers affected by HIV/AIDS with coping mechanisms to deal with the challenges they face in their everyday lives. Through the use of drama, dance, and music, camp participants are able to use various art media to express their emotions, and more importantly, create a trusting group of peers to support them long after their time at camp. With the tools gained during camp, the teens truly can say, “Siyaphumelela!”

A few tips for applicants:

1. My primary advice to Fulbright applicants would be to START EARLY! The process will take several months and it is very important to start working on the pieces of your application, particularly securing an affiliation, as early as possible. Also, I definitely recommend that applicants get feedback from their Fulbright Program Advisers (FPAs), professors and/or colleagues before submitting their applications. If you are a currently enrolled student, you must apply through your campus’s FPA if available. At-large applicants (those not applying through an FPA) should seek out advice and feedback from colleagues, experts in the field, and former teachers or professors.

2. In the Statement of Grant Purpose, you really want to make clear why you have chosen to do your project and why that project is a great fit for the country you have selected. I think it is important to demonstrate that you have done your homework, understand your project’s specifics and any sensitivities involved.

3. Think of the Personal Statement as a “narrative CV.” What about you, your academic training and unique life experiences make you the best person to carry out your project? These are the things that I think should be highlighted in your application, as well as the ways in which you demonstrate a commitment to promoting and enhancing cultural exchange. I would encourage applicants to be creative, but also make sure that your personal statement is honest and leaves readers with a true sense of why your project is important and who you are.

Good luck!

Top photo: Chaunetta Jones, 2007-2008, South Africa, with rescued orphans Asanda and Luvo who benefit from the Raphael Centre’s outreach and support services.

Bottom photo: Chaunetta Jones, 2007-2008, South Africa (top row, second from left), with several Camp Siyaphumelela participants.

U.S. Fulbright

How I Obtained My Affiliation, By Katie Day Good, 2008-2009, Mexico

May 4, 2010

Since returning from my Fulbright-mtvU year in Mexico, my conversations with applicants have reminded me of just how daunted I was by the application process. Somewhere in Mexico – between playing in a mariachi band, staring in awe at Diego Rivera’s murals and exploring Aztec ruins – I managed to forget all of the hours I had spent researching project ideas, writing and scrapping drafts and revising my essays. One step in particular was so confusing that it nearly led me to crumple up those drafts and quit. How was I supposed to get a letter of support from a Mexican institution when I had never been there before? Although Fulbright English Teaching Assistants (or ETAs) are assigned their host institutions and don’t need to obtain affiliations, Fulbright-mtvU and Fulbright research or study applications require letters of affiliation.

Securing an affiliation is one of the hardest parts of completing a Fulbright application, but I think it’s meant to be that way. Your affiliation letter shows Fulbright reviewers that: (1) you have really thought your project through; (2) you’ve made contact with people in your desired host country; and (3) they have found your project feasible and worthwhile enough to write a letter in support of it. In a way, your affiliated institution is your “pre-screening committee.”

But don’t crumple up those drafts! Securing an affiliation actually turned out to be surprisingly easy. It just took a little bit of planning and patience. The process was so easy, in fact, that I decided to spring for two affiliations instead of one (since my project took place in two Mexican cities). Here’s how I found them:

1) Check out the Fulbright U.S. Student Program website for details on the affiliation requirements. Each country has its own requirements. In some places, you can affiliate with only universities or laboratories. In others, libraries, non-governmental organizations, artists, laboratories, conservatories, or writers are also o.k.

2) Don’t worry if you don’t know anyone in your host country. Many grantees don’t. There are other ways to find potential affiliations. Ask your professors. Google is your friend. Do a little detective work to find out who might take an interest in your research. Since I wanted to make audio documentaries about urban Mexican musicians, I emailed anthropologists and asked them for the names of Mexican ethnomusicologists and radio producers. Most academics in the U.S. and abroad are familiar with the Fulbright Program and are happy to help you. The Fulbright student and scholar directories are also helpful ways to find contacts in your proposed host country.

3) Have a well-defined project idea by the time you make contact. You don’t have to know all of your project’s details. After all, your confirmed affiliation might end up influencing where and what you study, but know enough to be able to make a good sales pitch.

4) Don’t wait for emails! Pick up the phone. A lot of great mentors are out there and willing to work with you, but many of them don’t have time or are not able to answer emails quickly. Instead, call them and introduce yourself. Acknowledge what you know about their work and make a cheery pitch for your project. In my case, after calling several institutions in search of my affiliation’s phone number, I finally reached him at his home. We wound up talking for an hour, and within a week, I had an express mailed letter with his warm endorsement and signature in my hands.

5) Once you’ve made contact, offer to send your affiliation a copy of your project statement (or rough outline) so they have all the details for writing their letter. It doesn’t have to be long and amazing, just a few clear sentences expressing support of you and your project. Ask that they write it on institutional letterhead.

6) Give yourself enough time to do steps 1-5 so that you can give your future mentor plenty of time to write and send your letter.

Once in Mexico, I found that every Fulbright grantee had a different relationship with their host affiliations. Some worked with them everyday; others, like me, met or emailed with them every few months. In my case, my mentors helped me find more contacts and resources in local musical circles. They kept me updated on events that were relevant to my project. Nothing was required of me on a regular basis, but it was up to me to steer my project. Whenever I needed my mentors’ help, all I had to do was ask.

Photo: Katie Day Good, 2008-2009, Mexico, with her mariachi teacher, Pedro Gutierrez, at the School of Mexican Music in Mexico City.