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Canada

U.S. Fulbright

Service Meets Self-Interest: A Disabled Veteran Does Research Abroad

March 8, 2017

Michael Verlezza, 2014-2015, Canada, participating in an annual tradition – The Fulbright Canada Orientation Hockey Game at Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Photo Credit: Rebecca Lawton)

Not long after 9/11, I enlisted in the United States Army. Eight years and two deployments later, my outlook on life grim, I opted to separate from the military. Rudderless, I enrolled at Bridgewater State University with the aim of completing an economics degree, and after some success, I was invited to an informational meeting with a member of Fulbright’s outreach team. Lured largely by the prospect of free pizza, I attended a meeting that would reset my life’s course.

As a freshman, I had taken a Canadian history course, and coupled with my complete lack of language skills, Canada seemed the strategic choice. Initially, I pitched a proposal that had me studying international exchange rates. I was assured that this was boring (even by economists’ standards) and told to go back to the drawing board. Not long after, the VA’s report outlining the frequency of veteran suicide was published. As a disabled veteran myself, I began to wonder what American tax dollars were getting us if they weren’t ensuring the safety and care of my fellow vets.

My Canadian history professor set me up with the Principal of the Royal Military College, and I put together a proposal whereby I would study federal spending on Canadian and American veterans. In addition, I proposed I augment my analytical skills (and thus my research) by taking a Master’s of Mathematics and Statistics from Queen’s University in Ontario.

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U.S. Fulbright

Street Kid Takes Flight: From Dark Streets to Northern Lights

November 17, 2016
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Zane Thimmesch-Gill, 2008-2009, Canada, visiting Glacier National Park

I’m excited to announce that my debut book, Hiding in Plain Sight, was just nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. It follows a homeless female-to-male trans kid as he struggles to survive on the streets. The book is an important resource for adults trying to understand the inner lives of at-risk children, and an inspiring story for vulnerable youth who dream of escaping poverty and violence. It’s also a plain ole exciting adventure story. The book is available through Amazon, Goodreads, Kobo, Smashwords, and iTunes.

And I couldn’t have written it without the invaluable experience of the Fulbright Program.

As a young adult, I lived on the streets. After years of struggling with extreme poverty and violence, I managed to get through college and graduate school. Although it might sound weird, once I escaped the streets, I started to miss them; no matter where you come from there’s something comforting in the known.

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U.S. Fulbright

A Fulbrighter in Montréal: From Historical Fiction to Contemporary Reality

December 18, 2013
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Cam Terwilliger, 2013-2014, Canada (right), with Cultural Liaison Thomas Deer (right) from the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center

Ever since I graduated from my MFA in creative writing, I’ve been plugging away on a historical novel titled, Yet Wilderness Grew in My Heart. Set in colonial New York and Québec during the Seven Years War (1756-1763), it focuses on the experience of the Mohawk, the indigenous people that compose the eastern nation of the Iroquois League, a sophisticated confederacy that played a decisive role in the war. From the very start, I loved reading about Mohawk culture, as well as how this complicated people clashed and combined with Europeans on both sides of the Canadian border. However, I must admit: when it came to writing the novel itself, it was no picnic. In fact, it was quite a struggle.

As any writer will tell you, working on a long project can make you feel disconnected from life—particularly when you’re fitting it around your day job. Throughout the late nights or early mornings, you spend so much time hunched over your computer that you start to wonder why you’re doing it at all. What relevance might your writing possibly have to the world carrying on outside your window? Well—thanks to my Fulbright grant to Canada—I’m happy to say that I now have resounding answers to these questions.

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U.S. Fulbright

360 Degrees of Ice: How My Global Perspective Expanded with Fulbright, By Zane Thimmesch-Gill, 2008-2009, Canada

November 5, 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I remember the exact moment I found out that I’d received a Fulbright grant to study in Canada’s Northwest Territories. I was driving cross-country when a series of tornadoes forced me to take shelter in a ramshackle motel in Eastern Colorado. The walls of the room were hand painted, floor to ceiling, in murals of ducks flying over forested lakes.

When I logged into my email and found the acceptance letter, I literally jumped up and gave the ducks high fives. Later that night as I ate a celebratory dinner of soggy pizza from the gas station next door, I stood by the tiny window in my bathroom, watching tumbleweed lash the still grazing bison.

My memory of that night is so vivid because I had fantasized about living in the Arctic since I was a little kid. I was drawn to the remoteness, to nature in its most pristine form. I understood that climate change was having a profound effect on the Northern ecosystem, but it was still some of the most untouched land on earth.

My Fulbright project would investigate how the Inuit were adjusting, physically and culturally, to the changes brought to the region by a warming planet. Earlier ice melt and later freeze up were altering the migration patterns of the herds the Inuit relied on for sustenance. Non-perishable foods shipped in on barges during the summer had introduced high levels of salt, sugar and preservatives to their diet. From the extensive research I’d done, I’d concluded that these nutritional challenges were the largest risk factor for public and community health. I packed my parka and boots and boarded the plane; confident that I knew what I’d find when I arrived.

My final flight was on an eight seat plane that was built like a tank. We flew over the Northwest Passage and landed on a rocky strip of gravel outside a small community. I’d gotten permission from the mayor and town council to conduct research, so I was uncomfortably surprised the next day when no one would make eye contact or talk to me.

I spent most of my first month wandering along the shore of the ocean and watching the sled dogs pace restlessly. Over that time I slowly came to realize that everything I thought I knew about the Arctic was wrong. No one wanted to talk to me about my research, because the questions I was asking weren’t relevant to their lives. It was a humbling experience. I felt betrayed by the years of research I’d conducted in preparation for my project. With the ubiquity of videos, photos and written material, it was easy to feel as though I already knew the Arctic before I arrived.

Once I was able to let go of my preconceived notions, the community really opened up to me. I started to learn about all of the concerns they did have, their struggles with poverty, questions of sovereignty, justice, education, land use and tourism. As we built trust, people started to confide in me, sharing stories that had seldom passed their lips. By the time the fellowship ended, I had gained a much more nuanced and powerful understanding of how climate change and shifting global economic structures were impacting the Inuit’s public and community health.

It would have been impossible for me to develop such a complex understanding without actually living in the Arctic. That’s the power of Fulbright. I learned how to listen for what was really being said, rather than what I thought I should hear. I learned that conducting literature-based research is important, but books can never tell the whole story. The only way to really know the world is to reach across the globe and make human connections.

Since my Fulbright grant, I’ve gone on to locate funding for two large research projects, learn a new language, and secure a contract for my first book, Hiding in Plain Sight, which will be published in 2013. The skills and knowledge I developed through the grant helped me in every one of those endeavors. Fulbright applicants tend to be intelligent, confident, driven, and resilient. But the grant helps hone those abilities on a professional level.

The Fulbright Association maintains a large support network around the world. Your ties to that global community don’t end when you return to your home country. In addition to working as a Fulbright Alumni Ambassador, I’ve also been a mentor to Fulbrighters studying in my city and participated in many events put on by my local chapter. These connections have proven invaluable both personally and professionally.

So how do you get involved in this exciting opportunity? It all starts with the application. Find someone you trust to edit your essays. Tell them you want the most honest and rigorous feedback they can give. It’s important that the proposal retains the quality of your own voice, but an editor can identify where your ideas are too vague, the language too flowery and information repeated.

Second, be willing to write and rewrite the application materials until they are clear, succinct, detailed and convey your passion. For reference, I rewrote my project proposal eight times. The degree of organization and professionalism of your application materials will speak to your ability to undertake the responsibility of teaching or researching in a foreign country.

In terms of the application itself, it’s important to approach the process strategically. At the outset it may seem that you don’t have enough space to convey everything you’d like the review committee to know. Be creative in how you include information. For example, there were a few accomplishments that I couldn’t fit into my project proposal or personal narrative, so I asked my references to discuss those achievements in the letters they were writing.

The Foundation for Educational Exchange Between Canada and the United States, or Canadian Fulbright Commission, wants to work with you. My research took place in the extreme North, where there were no realistic options for field supervisors. By planning ahead and starting the conversation with the Foundation early in the process, we were able to come up with a solution that allowed me to conduct my research and have adequate supervision.

Lastly, I was initially nervous to apply to the program because I’m a female-to-male transsexual. I’d read Fulbright’s statement about celebrating and supporting diversity, but it didn’t say anything about transsexuals. Trans people still face extreme discrimination in the United States and I wasn’t sure a government organization would want me. I spent a long time agonizing over whether to apply to the program. I’m glad I did. As a Fulbright Ambassador, I now have a professional relationship with many of the people who are on the application committee. I can attest that they truly seek out and value all diversity, even if they haven’t listed every permutation in their statement. So dream big and know that you, with all that encompasses, are welcome and wanted at Fulbright.

Photo: Zane Thimmesch-Gill, 2008-2009, Canada, filming on an ice road connecting two communities on the shores of Great Slavey Lake in the Northwest Territories