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Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship

Fulbright-National Geographic U.S. Fulbright

Exploring the Extraordinary in Your Ordinary

May 29, 2020

By Emi Koch, Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellow to Vietnam, 2019-2020

My dad almost spit out his morning coffee. Puzzled, he cleared his throat.

“Em, are you… sure?”

It was June of last year and I was only thinking to apply for a Fulbright.

“It’s just a thought! I’m just looking into it.”

My words rushed together, the way they do when I get overly excited — which happens a lot. I have ADHD.

He cautiously took a second sip of coffee.

“I mean — isn’t a Fulbright really competitive? Like for people who… you know?“

I knew who he meant. The smart people. Valedictorians. Meredith, who took AP Physics in high school.

Acknowledging his question, I glanced back at my laptop with the “Getting Started” page on the Fulbright Student Program website staring brightly back at me. The thought that the U.S. State Department would pay me — me! — to travel to a foreign country and devote nine months of my life to collaborating with local residents with a shared curiosity for actionable, positive change seemed beyond my wildest dreams. But the only thing that seemed more impossible than me winning a Fulbright, was me not applying.

I knew my dad’s apprehension was well-informed by my past struggles and letdowns involving my grades, where I had to prove to others that I was capable and yes, even smart…just not in the conventional way.

A few years ago, I was diagnosed with Dyslexia (a learning disability in reading), Dyscalculia (a learning disability in math), and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) that comes with a mean stutter  when public speaking. I was a sophomore in college, and up until that point in my life, I had simply believed that I was slow.

The first time I noticed it, I was five. While I was surrounded by my classmates stretching their hands high up in the air and shouting, “Me! ME!” so that the teacher might call on them first to reveal the coveted, correct answer to the subtraction problem, my hands were clenched tightly around the desk as if we were all about to blast off into the deep, dark unknown forever. I had no idea what was going on… only that so much was going on. Contrary to popular belief, people with ADHD don’t have trouble concentrating. We simply concentrate on everything all at once. The math problem, the other students, the staple shining on the floor and that weird pencil mark on the desk that looks like an acorn are all equally begging for our attention.

In school, this restlessness and attention to peripheral details presented a huge challenge that often resulted in poor grades, dismal SAT scores, and low self-esteem. Surfing was my escape. Sliding down the face of a wave, I knew exactly where I was — physically, mentally, and yes, even spiritually. Unlike the classroom, the ocean was this dynamic force that required my absolute, divided attention — to everything all at once. For the first time, my disabilities were capabilities; misfits that found themselves useful. Mystifying still, the ocean was what ultimately ushered me back into the classroom. I’m a social-ecologist, meaning I study the relationships people have with our built and natural environment. My focus is on the world’s millions of miles of coastlines and the many isolated, marginalized fishing communities that depend on ever-depleting marine resources. I’ve come to realize that my disabilities are like superpowers — if harnessed properly, they enable me to explore nuances — whether of a physical space, a word in a foreign language, or a feedback loop in a marine social-ecological system. These overlooked subtleties are where the problems hide… those details researchers seek in order to solve problems. In that ability to spot those details lies the ability to find the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Almost one year after being awarded a Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellowship to Vietnam, I’m still pinching myself that it really happened. My dad spit out his coffee for a second time when I told him the remarkable news.

Before I arrived, people described Vietnam to me as overwhelming. If by that they meant overwhelmingly beautiful, industrialized, and karaoke-curious, I understand. During my time there, I immersed myself in a small-scale fishing community with a rapidly-developing tourism scene and rising sea level just north of Ho Chi Minh City. I lived in the back of a water sports center called MANTA. MANTA trains fishermen to become certified sailing instructors so that they can teach tourists how to sail, and how to use the power of wind energy as an alternative to fossil fuels. MANTA also provides fishermen with an alternative source of income, though this doesn’t mean that the fishermen stop fishing – that’s in their blood.

Since I lived inside a water sports center, I was fortunate to have stand-up paddle boards at my disposal. They were my go-to mode of transportation and earned me credibility among the fishermen for maneuvering my own water craft. I paddled out to sea and met them at their boats for interviews. Sometimes, they invited me on board for breakfast, and we would help ourselves to buckets of freshly-caught soft shell blue crabs, cracking open the not-so-soft shells with our teeth and slurping up the honeyed insides.

In my research, I listened to fishermen’s stories and explored the social and ecological impacts of low fish availability on the human security of ocean-dependent villages along the East Sea. Back on land, my colleagues included several children, ages four to sixteen — the sons and daughters of local fishing families. These kids accompanied me with waterproof cameras to document their lives. Despite the innumerable dissimilarities between my childhood and their own, I can’t help but identify with some aspects. These kids are smart. They are resourceful. I think they’re incredible. But many of them have been told they are not something enough to be successful, or they are too something to have real authority.

I wanted to wash all that social conditioning from their minds and tell them they are powerful. You, kid, are the superhero of your own life story. Our disadvantages, disabilities, discriminations, and disappointments do not define us, because we have the human right to make up our own definitions.

My research team and I explored the extraordinary in the ordinary. They helped me capture nuances in their images that are often unaccounted for in academic papers and news stories. As one fisherman said, the projects we did together were an opportunity for everyone to “big themselves up”… and that’s what Fulbright has meant for me.

U.S. Fulbright

Tips for Fellowship Applicants

October 2, 2017

Fulbright U.S. Student Program applications are due this Friday, October 6 (no later than 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time)!

Need some last minute application tips and inspiration to help you hit the ‘submit’ button? Read 2015 Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow and 2017 Fulbright Alumni Ambassador Ryan Bell’s article from 2015 below.

Good luck to all of this year’s applicants!

This time last September, I sat in my home office back in Missoula, Montana, having a tiny panic attack. The deadline for the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship was three weeks away. My cluttered desk summed up the state of my application: teetering stacks of books, a fringe of Post-it Notes around my computer screen, and the trash can filled with rewrites.

I thought: Why put myself through the trouble? The odds were long that I’d get the grant, anyway.

Outside, the sun shone on changing leaves. Autumn is my favorite time to fish and I knew of a river where the trout were biting. My fly rod was in the closet, ready to go.

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U.S. Fulbright

A Cowboy Rides the Rails Across Russia and Kazakhstan

June 26, 2017

Ryan Bell, 2015-2016, Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellow to Russia and Kazakhstan, visiting the ranch he helped start in Voronezh, Russia. (Photo Credit: Michael Hanson)

The train was stopped at a border crossing between Russia and Kazakhstan. I opened my cabin door and saw three guards walking down the aisle. One carried an AK-47, another led a bomb-sniffing dog, and a third held a briefcase, presumably for processing each passenger’s immigration documents.

My passport and visas were in order; however, my cabin was not. The small table was crowded with my laptop, audio recorder, and notebooks. Camera equipment and clothing spilled out from my roller bag where it sat on one of the vacant bunks. A messy cabin would not make a good impression, so I hurried to tidy up before the guards reached my door.

(A Russian friend had let me in on a secret of traveling by rail: you can often get a four-person cabin all to yourself by reserving a bunk next to the bathroom. “It didn’t smell that bad,” she said.)

As a Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellow, I logged 33 travel days riding in a train car, zigzagging 23,780 miles across Russia and Kazakhstan. That’s just a few hundred miles short of matching the Earth’s circumference – 24,901 miles. Mobility was key for my research project Comrade Cowboys about farmers in Russia and Kazakhstan who were rebuilding their livestock industries with the help of cattle and cowboys imported from the United States.

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U.S. Fulbright

Check Out the Updated Fulbright U.S. Student Program Tutorials!

March 15, 2017

Our Fulbright U.S. Student Program tutorials have been updated for the 2018-2019 application cycle, which opens on April 3.

The tutorials are up-to-date, online slideshow videos designed for applicants and Fulbright Program Advisers (FPAs) to learn about program and application basics. Since some tutorials may be a prerequisite for attending webinars, we recommend that Fulbright applicants and FPAs review them before registering. We hope you find them useful and informative!

To listen to and watch our tutorials, click on the General Overview Tutorial below and here.

U.S. Fulbright

The Story About Hiroshima and Nagasaki You Have to Hear

August 8, 2016
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Takeshi Miyata wanders through Auschwitz during his 85 journey around the world on Peace Boat’s 80th Voyage.

“Everything is connected,” exclaimed Takeshi Miyata as he walked along the railway at the Auschwitz death camps, almost 70 years after Jews were carted off to slaughter in the same location. “Jewish scientists escaped the Nazis, helped America build an atomic bomb, and it was dropped on me.”

Anyone who entered Hiroshima and Nagasaki within two weeks of the release of the only two atom bombs detonated over people were designated as Hibakusha: “Exposed to the atomic bomb/radiation.” Miyata, and eight other members of the Peace Boat Hibakusha Project, had traveled halfway around the world from Japan. They shared their cautionary tales of nuclear power in each port of call along the way. Some spoke publicly for the first time in their lives. I was their web reporter.

Peace Boat, part cruise ship, part political lobby, was on its 80th voyage in 30 years. The Hibakusha Project was participating in a Peace Boat voyage for the sixth time. Our journey in 2013 started in Da Nang, Vietnam, where we spent the day with victims of Agent Orange who have experienced generational effects of the chemicals wartime use.  We confronted Japan’s own violent past in Singapore at the National History Museum. We shared testimony with a Hungarian-Polish Auschwitz survivor at the center for Dialogue in Poland, and befriended El Salvadorian revolutionaries in Central America.

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U.S. Fulbright

Breakdown in the Kalahari

June 22, 2015
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Daniel Koehler, 2014-2015, Fulbright National-Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow to Botswana

Want a window into the day-in-the life a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow? Read 2014 Fellow Dan Koehler’s account of how he deftly handled a truck breakdown in the middle of the Kalahari desert en route to doing some filming for his project.

Interested in learning more about the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship? Attend the webinar, Fulbright-Nat Geo: Introduction, this Wednesday, June 24 at 2:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m. ET.

Live in the Washington, DC area? Come hear the first five fellows share their experiences on Tuesday, June 30 at 1:30 p.m. ET. For more information on how to attend this even, click here.

Mosodi shut the hood of the truck. “It’s the gearbox.”

Earlier that morning, we had departed New Xade for another round of filming in Metsiamanong in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Shortly after passing the border gate into the reserve, the engine of our truck started making a loud clacking noise.

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