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Economic Statecraft

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

U.S. Fulbright

Learning About Solar Energy with an Economic Lens in Bangladesh, By Holly Battelle, 2010-2011, Bangladesh

September 23, 2011

My Fulbright research has taken me to all corners of Dhaka and to some of the most remote places in Bangladesh. Solar technology was first used here in rural areas not connected to the national electric grid. Most of these off-grid homes use kerosene hurricanes for light, which can be expensive, low quality and have negative health impacts. As an alternative to kerosene, some organizations in Bangladesh provide small loans to households for solar home systems (SHS). The systems can provide an average of six hours of electricity for a household to power light bulbs, small fans or TVs in some cases.

My most memorable and rewarding days in Bangladesh have been spent in the countryside biking on narrow dirt paths flanked by never-ending rice paddies, hiking through beautiful green scenery, or sharing a water taxi with locals to talk about SHS. The rural villagers I’ve spent time with and the families with SHS are some of the kindest people I’ve met. I am often the first American they have ever seen, and it’s been an amazing experience to talk about solar or local culture over a cup of tea or cha.  For every question I ask locals, I respond to a question about myself, my family, research and country.

When not in the countryside, I’ve spent my time learning about the budding urban solar industry in Dhaka. Solar is becoming more popular in Dhaka due to new policies and because of frequent power outages. When the power goes out, homes and businesses will usually run a diesel generator. Many residences, however, are turning to solar to supplement their generators.

Based on my economics background, the Fulbright Program has allowed me to explore solar – a completely new interest and area of study for me. In addition to learning about the solar industry in Bangladesh, I have been doing both urban and rural solar cost estimates to determine how soon homes and apartment buildings can break even by investing in solar compared to kerosene and generator alternatives. I strongly encourage all applicants and future grantees to take advantage of their academic and professional backgrounds to discover new interests during their Fulbright year.

My general advice for study or research applicants:

  • Spend time thinking about who or which organization you’d like your host affiliation to be and what your expectations will be when you arrive.  Because it often takes many emails and phone calls to get in touch with a potential host, you should start early in thinking about your Fulbright application. Having a host that is excited about your research and who is willing to support you can really make a huge difference, especially in the beginning. For countries like Bangladesh, try getting in touch with previous Fulbrighters. Ask them if they know anything about your potential host or if they can give you suggestions. When communicating with your potential host, try to be as clear as possible about your expectations and whether or not they will be able to meet them.
  • Be flexible and open to modifying, expanding, focusing and perhaps changing your Fulbright project. This is one of the best parts of having a Fulbright grant. Technology, policies and cities constantly change, and a great deal can change from the time when you apply for your Fulbright to the time when you arrive. Roll with the changes and take advantage of having the flexibility to modify your research as needed.
  • Try hard to learn local languages. Since so much of Bangladeshi culture is intertwined with the language, some of the most rewarding moments during my Fulbright grant have been when I’ve been speaking Bangla. Even though I often struggle to explain myself in Bangla, the effort is always appreciated and can never be fully translated by someone else.

Top photo: Holly Battelle, 2010-2011, Bangladesh, sharing a water taxi with locals en route to a village with solar home systems (SHS)

Bottom photo: Holly Battelle, 2010-2011, Bangladesh, on top of her apartment building in Dhaka which has 1 KW of solar panels

U.S. Fulbright

An Education: Lessons from Rural China, By Cary Lin, 2010-2011, China

June 15, 2011

When the Airbus A320 began its descent towards Guiyang Dragon’s Cave Airport, I strained in my aisle seat to look out the window at what would become my home in China for the next ten months. The low-hanging clouds soon betrayed tiers of rice paddies etched into verdant hills, framed by Limestone Mountains cut precisely in the shape of Hershey’s Kisses. Ears popping and eyes closed, I mentally projected myself into the landscape below: I was a young girl sloshing through that field, trailing my mother and grandmother, hands and cheeks muddy.

The jolt of the plane landing on the runway soon brought me back to myself. Guizhou, landlocked and underdeveloped, is home to a number of the 55 state-designated ethnic minorities, such as the Miao, Dong and Buyi. As one of the first China Fulbright student fellows affiliated in Guizhou Province, I studied female educational opportunities in rural ethnic minority areas at Guizhou University in conjunction with my advisor at Beijing Normal University. My research eventually illustrated that the rift in educational quality and opportunity between urban and rural areas is enormous and persistent, and I had the chance to witness it firsthand.

I remember a particularly memorable trip I took into the countryside.  In December, I had the fortune of meeting with a group of school-aged girls enrolled in extracurricular English classes. Being of Asian descent, they at first could not believe I was American; why, I looked just like them! I told them that America was home to lots of different kinds of people and that I was a hua qiao, a Chinese term that essentially means “bridge between two cultures.” They looked amazed. I remember observing their proud gesticulations in class as they chanted: “Hello! I can speak English, so I want to talk with the world. English is beautiful! English is powerful!” They took my hands in theirs and peppered me with questions about America (“What is Disneyland like?” and “What do girls our age do?”). I taught them the Hokey Pokey that we gleefully danced together.

I constantly imagined myself in the shoes of most girls I met. Above all, empathy was the undercurrent upon which I built bridges of mutual understanding with others. When asked why I was in Guizhou studying rural education, I often told people that my mother too was from Guizhou, and that she had left the countryside to become a doctor. They understood. In the course of tracing her footsteps, her story paved the way for my Fulbright journey and its significance became ever clearer during my grant.  I now believe I arrived in Guizhou both blind and deaf until I opened my eyes and ears to the stories told by girls I met and who shared their lives and dreams with me, and I with them. I am thankful for the roads we walked together.

My advice for prospective candidates applying for study or research grants:

  1. Choose an issue or project that you are particularly passionate about. It will come across in your application, and your passion will help you persist when the going gets tough.
  1. Find a mentor or professor at your institution that is knowledgeable in your field of study. She or he will be a great resource for you when developing your application and finding a potential host affiliation.

Photo: Cary Lin, 2010-2011, China, and several young students in a school in Guizhou, China

U.S. Fulbright

Straddling the Gap: How Sharing Diverse Experiences and Interests Can Help You Become a Fulbright Cultural Ambassador, By Katie Walter, 2009-10, India

October 13, 2010

I am in the finishing stages of a Fulbright-Nehru grant that examines conservation initiatives in the pilgrimage town of Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh, India. My research will offer insight into how to optimize public communication campaigns addressing conservation issues.

My journey has taken me from the narrow, medieval backstreets of traditional-minded Vrindavan, to the town’s mega temples, sprawling roads and luxury housing properties, to the office buildings and affluent areas of the capital city of Delhi. In each place, I have encountered varying degrees of concern over new development projects in Vrindavan: some critique them for helping to increase the number of visitors to the town while the basic infrastructural needs of local residents remain unmet; some believe that these haphazard development projects are a sign of well-deserved “progress;” while others still posit that they damage the town’s natural environment, which needs to be protected in the name of public health, local prosperity, religion and heritage.

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U.S. Fulbright

Life as a Fulbrighter is Good: Here Is How I made it Happen, By Brett Martin, 2007-2008, Italy

December 29, 2009

After graduating college with a degree in economics and psychology, I did what everyone else I knew who graduated was doing: I moved to New York City and worked 80 hours a week as an investment banker. I liked it, but it became obvious that I was much more interested in building my own business than buying and selling pieces of other peoples’ businesses. I began looking for a platform that would enable me to learn how businesses are built before taking the plunge. One night, I bumped into a friend I hadn’t seen in a while:

“Where have you been?” I said.

“Studying resource mobilization in Argentina.” he replied.

“That’s awesome!” I responded. “How did you pull that off?”

And that’s the first time I ever heard about the Fulbright U.S. Student Program – a magical program that enables passionate people to pour themselves into pursuing their dreams while promoting goodwill abroad. Most people think that you need to be a 4.0 student to get a Fulbright grant. Not true. You don’t even have to be a current student (!), but you do need to at least have your bachelor’s degree or equivalent. Through your application, you just need to be passionate enough about your cause and becoming an American cultural ambassador to convince the U.S. Government that you are worth funding, and will make good use of your time abroad. I can only share my Fulbright experience, but here’s my advice to potential applicants.

1) Pick a topic of great interest to both the U.S. and host governments.

1. Grant writing 101: you are asking these governments for a lot of money. Pick something that they care about.

2. I chose “The Effect of Globalization on the Italian Textile and Fashion Industries.” Italy’s family textile businesses have been decimated by low-cost, Asian imports. The Italian government wants to know how to make those businesses more competitive. Guess who else is worried about low-cost, Asian imports? You got it, Uncle Sam. Fulbright funds hundreds of projects every year that are politically and culturally expedient, so there are many options to choose from.

2) Pick a relevant and timely topic.

1. It’s better work on something new and exciting than to pick a topic that’s been beaten to death.

2. Globalization was about as hot as it gets in 2006. A woman in my Fulbright class studied the Slow Food Movement. The Italian Fulbright Commission was basically asking for her autograph.

3) Pick a topic that is personally relevant.

1. You need to convince the selection committees that you are PASSIONATE about whatever it is you propose to study, be it textiles or sea snails. Since the Fulbright Program does not require an end-of-grant report in order for you to receive funding, the committees need to know that you are going to follow through on your work and that you’ll be an excellent cultural ambassador.

2. I wrote about seeing Italian textiles manufactured by a family business first hand during my undergrad study abroad in Siena. I also demonstrated my commitment to the garment industry by interning at Dolce & Gabbana.

4) Pick a topic that leverages your unique skills.

1. Are the skills you have particularly relevant to the project on which you propose to work? They should be.

2. I studied industrial and competitive dynamics 80 hours a week for two years straight on Wall Street.

5) Bring skills that aren’t available in the host country.

1. This is similar to my previous point except that not only should you be qualified for the job at hand, few in your proposed host country should be able to do what you do.

2. Italy doesn’t have a crazy excessive work culture, so there are very few people there who have spent 80 hours a week trying to understand why some companies succeed and others fail.

6) Bring back unique skills that will benefit the U.S.

1. Uncle Sam is usually footing at least half the bill for you trip, so make sure he is getting something out of the deal (in addition to all of the good will you are going to spread!).

2. As mentioned in my first point, I brought back a better understanding of how small and medium sized businesses can compete with low cost foreign businesses. I’m currently putting the results of my Fulbright research into practice by starting my own business.

7) Secure as many solid affiliations as possible.

1. Nine months is NOT a lot of time to produce anything meaningful, especially when you have willingly immersed yourself in a culture and language you may know little about and in which you may not function “efficiently” in the first place. The Fulbright Program wants to know that you are going to hit the ground running. To do so, you are going to need some support and infrastructure in the form of an affiliation.

2. Most people have some connections from their current university or with professors from their study abroad experiences. I didn’t have either, so I just cold emailed over 75 business school professors all over Italy. I included examples of my work and offered to work on their projects for free. I ended up with my own office (and wonderful secretary) in the best business school in the country.

8) Use every possible question, no matter how small, to convey the value you will bring. Every word counts.

1. This is obvious.

2. I think I wrote the equivalent of entire paragraphs in a few single line spaces in my application.

9) Read everything on the website and talk to past grantees.

1. You can learn a lot by looking at who received grants and what they did. Talking to past grantees will give you an idea of what to expect. You may also listen and watch former grantees talk about their experiences.

2. I definitely got help from my buddy who was a Fulbrighter. Stick it out.

3. Make sure to check in with your campus Fulbright Program Adviser, if applicable. It’s never too early to start learning about your school’s Fulbright application process and deadlines.

4. The application process can be boring and tedious and easy to blow off. Don’t blow it off. It’s worth it. You’ll thank me later. I promise.

Photo: Brett Martin, 2007-2008, Italy, taking a break from the office to check out the sailing at La Spezia.

Brett Martin was a Fulbrighter at the Universitá Bocconi in Milan. His Fulbright research on organizational bottlenecks was recently published in the Harvard Business Review. He is currently building a better way to find new restaurants at

U.S. Fulbright Unknown

Changing Farming Practices in Nicaragua

September 23, 2009

The original concept of my Fulbright project was to strengthen the link between technical and financial resources available to small farmers in Nicaragua to promote more sustainable farming practices. My contacts included the National Autonomous University (UNAN) and the Center for the Promotion of Local Development (CEPRODEL), a micro-finance institution. A reforestation project involving the two institutions was already in the works, and by mid-April I was working full time organizing trainings and processing the participating farms’ evaluations.

With faculty from the Agroecology Department at UNAN, we organized trainings for the families of 24 CEPRODEL clients in soil conservation, organic fertilizers, organic pest control as well as proper establishment and care of trees. We emphasized the importance of ecological and financial sustainability through long-term business planning.

Teaching the workshops and following up with technical assistance required us to stay with participating families in the countryside. I have been warned by all my Nicaraguan friends that life in the country is very rough. The roads are often in terrible condition and are notorious mud traps during the rainy season. On our way out to the community, our pickup truck slid sideways, and we found ourselves jammed into a soft bank of mud with the back wheels elevated, completely blocking the road on the first day of trainings. After we tried to free the truck futilely using tree branches, 4-wheel-drive and pushing, a neighbor accomplished the task with his two oxen in minutes.

I was prepared for stark poverty, no electricity, no running water, simple meals and lots of mosquitoes. All of the above proved true. What I wasn’t prepared for was a host family so generous they hunted iguanas and killed a sheep so that we would eat meat instead of just beans, finding that my mosquito net was more useful in keeping bat dung off my bed than protecting me from mosquitoes and realizing that tropical ant bites hurt a lot more than mosquito bites. After the workshops ended, I spent my evenings with the family’s children, trying fruits growing wild in the nearby woods, exploring a river with waterfalls and rapids, making compost piles and helping to clear the acres of brush where trees from the reforestation project will be planted.

After several nights of long conversations by candlelight with my host family about my life in the States and the differences between our cultures, I began to realize that what I want this project to become is more than the strengthening of technical and financial resources available to Nicaragua’s small farmers. Instead of feeling deprived and being labeled poor, I want them to admire their beautiful land, to treasure the abundant natural resources and to be proud of the riches they are passing on to their children. Like the oxen who proved much more effective than our pickup truck in the mud, many elements of rural life are undervalued in our current society. In addition to changing our fiscal practices to work toward a just world, we need to change our value system to include the priceless riches of rural life.

Linking technical assistance with financial credit has helped Pedro Mendoza (left) maintain an impressive diversity: he farms cattle, five different grains and vegetables, three different fruits (including cashew) in addition to producing organic compost and honey. Along with providing loans to buy seeds and calves, CEPRODEL has helped him find new markets for his crops and improve the genetic makeup of his cattle herd.

Technical assistant Vernonn Berios and I use a motorcycle to visit as many clients as we can in one day and navigate the dirt roads that larger vehicles can’t access. Limited transportation options hinder market access for small farmers who sometimes have to travel whole days with oxen to reach a market.

Top photo: Engaging the reforestation project families in project and educational activities, especially young children, promotes an ongoing community dialogue about sustainable farming practices such as making compost piles and helps ensure their implementation.

To read more about Rachel Lindsay’s Fulbright experiences, please visit her blog.