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Environmental Studies

U.S. Fulbright

The Three Rs: Research, Relationships and Reciprocity

June 18, 2013

Marisa Rinkus, 2010-2011, Brazil (left), and her research assistant inspect a sea turtle on the Brazilian coast

In February 2011, I left a snowy Michigan winter and headed south into the warm Brazilian summer to study community engagement and sea turtle conservation on my Fulbright U.S. Student Program grant. While excited by the prospect of living near the beach, I knew that conducting research in another country would require hard work with the assistance and collaboration of others.

In reality, relationship building on a Fulbright grant begins before you leave the United States–often via email and Skype. Having already made a few contacts in Brazil by email, and even visiting a few months before my Fulbright application was due, I assumed securing an in-country affiliation would be easy. However, my request for a formal letter was denied at the last minute. With little time to spare, I turned to the Internet and stumbled upon the graduate program in Society and Environment at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas which mirrored my research interests—community participation in coastal conservation. With a little bit of convincing, a translated copy of my proposal, and a draft letter of affiliation outlining the terms of our collaboration (which included a joint publication), I soon had my Fulbright affiliation. Once I arrived in Brazil, my host-country adviser provided feedback on my research and helped me navigate the paperwork required to conduct research as a foreign researcher in Brazil, including securing research ethics approval for conducting research with human subjects (similar to Institutional Review Board approval in the United States).

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U.S. Fulbright

Reevaluating the Meaning of the Word Home, By Cristina Gauthier, 2010-2011, Brazil

February 2, 2012

As the jumpy, beat-up bus lifted a cloud of dust behind it, I felt a lump in my throat.  I stuck my head out the window and took in the scenery: palm trees, mangroves, birds and sunshine.  I was leaving the small rural town of Mutá in Bahia, Brazil, for the last time.  Nine months had passed and Mutá had started to feel like home.

When I first arrived, my intention was to help the town reuse all its organic waste.  My Fulbright project consisted of building a biogas system to produce cooking gas, supplemented by composting, while raising awareness about adequate solid waste disposal methods.  After a few months of investigating the possibility of a replicable biogas system (as an alternative energy method for rural communities), I realized that my Fulbright experience was about more than just my research.  I quickly became involved with the Mutá Residents’ Association and its nursery.  Each day, I visited the kids, helped with lunch, read stories and relished the company of these wonderful children who, in spite of not having luxuries of any kind, giggled, smiled and played with me.

Living in this community gave me an opportunity to become part of something bigger than my Fulbright project.  During most evenings, I attended Association reunions, church activities, birthday parties and other events that allowed me to discuss customs back home, food differences and national and international stereotypes.  As I overcame language barriers, the challenges I initially faced in adapting to living in a poor fishing community diminished considerably.  By offering English lessons, I became friends with the older children I mentored and tutored.  I also performed tutorials for the community on composting and biogas as alternative ways to dispose of organic waste.  All of these regular interactions helped me recognize how the degree of a community’s social inclusion’s impacts environmental issues, and how it affects rural communities throughout Bahia. My Fulbright experience expanded my understanding of underrepresented social groups with limited access to traditional education, and developed my ability to transcend cultural differences to attain a common goal.  Collaborating with some amazing people, I was able to design and construct a biogas system, a composting area and a small garden in the nursery.

Previous to these wonderful experiences in Mutá, I had worked hard on my Fulbright application.  I spent six months reading dozens of articles, investigating related projects in Brazil, sharing my project proposal and personal statement with friends and colleagues and obtaining affiliations.  I urge current applicants to do the same.  In developing a proposal, demonstrate that your proposed project will fulfill a very palpable need that will directly benefit your host community.  Furthermore, in finding an affiliation, patience and perseverance are crucial.  Potential host affiliations need to be contacted well in advance of the application deadline.  Keep in mind that contacting more than one affiliation can be advantageous, particularly if your first choice doesn’t work out.  The success of your project can depend on the number of people who are interested in it.  Also, while you’re developing your proposal, keep an open mind to changes.  This greatly benefits any project.  Starting early with these application components gave me time to craft polished documents that I felt confident submitting, and my efforts ultimately paid off.

As a Fulbright alumna, I have benefited from a world of opportunities in academia.  I have participated in conferences, presented my findings at universities and met marvelous individuals through non-governmental organizations interested in learning more about my project.  My Fulbright grant continues to be much bigger than just the sum of my research; it was, and is, a life-changing experience through which I uncovered my passion for investigating ways to fulfill rural communities’ basic sanitary and energy needs.

On my last day in Mutá, good friends walked me to the bus stop and sent me off with hugs, kisses and nostalgic goodbyes.  With barely any academic education, members of this community taught me many important things in only nine months.  Through their constant acceptance, incessant curiosity and unmistakable joy, they made me feel right at home.  I still keep in touch with many of my friends, and it is rewarding to know that they are currently eating the vegetables we planted together.  The most valuable lesson I learned?  Not everything is as one expects.  Nine months is more than enough time to make a place feel like home.

Top left photo: Cristina Gauthier, 2010-2011, Brazil, weighing organic waste

Middle photo: Cristina Gauthier, 2010-2011, Brazil (right), attending a birthday party for one of the children at the Mutá Residents’ Association’s nursery


Making Recycling Their Bag: China’s War on Plastic Bags, By Mary O’Loughlin, 2009-2010, China

January 26, 2011

On September 2, 2009, I arrived in Wuhan, China to begin my Fulbright research on Chinese environmental public policy.  Arguably the biggest city in the world that few have ever heard of, Wuhan is a 10-million person metropolis located in central China on the Yangtze River.  As the only city occupying both banks of China’s longest river, its location on the Yangtze has long ensured its importance as a production and transit point connecting the eastern and western portions of the country. In recent decades, Wuhan has become particularly well-known as a steel and manufacturing center as well as an educational hub.

While in Wuhan, I studied China’s environmental policy through the lens of its policy on plastic bags.  The inspiration for this seemingly obscure research topic was that on June 1, 2008, the Chinese government introduced a nationwide ban on the free distribution of plastic bags in retail outlets.  According to this ban, any Chinese store that wanted to offer its customers a plastic bag would have to charge them for it.  This policy’s introduction represented an important effort to reduce plastic waste in China and a means to promote environmental awareness.  A “price tag” was literally going to be associated with material consumption involving plastic bags.  My Fulbright research sought to evaluate the implementation, enforcement, and effects of this policy.

Thanks to the Fulbright Program, I had the opportunity to explore China’s application of this new environmental regulation firsthand.  My research involved interviewing local shopkeepers and customers about their initial reactions to the bag policy, meeting with Chinese environmental experts (and discussing plastic bag usage in China with them), and collecting quantitative data and observational research about Chinese plastic bag consumption.  By having a unique opportunity to be on the ground and “in-country,” I was able to witness firsthand how the government implemented its policy and the population’s response.  Through my study, I have come to better understand and appreciate the practical implementation and enforcement limits associated with even the most well-intentioned Chinese environmental law.

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