Photo: Barbara Grossman-Thompson, 2012-2013, Nepal (left), and her guide and research assistant Bhagwaati Pun, reach Thorong Pass in Nepal during a 30-day trek in the Annapurna Conservation Area.
When I boarded a plane bound for Kathmandu, Nepal in August 2012, I was cautiously optimistic about the trajectory of my proposed Fulbright U.S. Student Program Study/Research grant on tourism economies in the Annapurna Conservation Area. Two months after my arrival, it was increasingly clear that, like many researchers, I would have to adjust my expectations. I spent a month trekking in the Nepali Himalayas accompanied by my guide, research assistant, translator, and friend Bhagwaati Pun, when I realized that my original research plan would need to change fast. Proper paperwork was held up, the research had already been done, and more importantly, the Nepali people I spoke with were both kind and frank in conveying their disinterest in my intended project! I felt lost and anxious about how to proceed. As a graduate student conducting her dissertation fieldwork, I felt my academic future was on the line.
I decided to take some time off from the academic side of things and put all my attention toward further developing my relationships with the wonderful community I was living in. My affiliate organization, Empowering Women Nepal (EWN), bi-annually organizes a free, month-long training for women interested in working as trekking guides. In Nepal, guiding has traditionally been done by men. EWN’s guide training gives women the opportunity to continue their education, learn new skills, see other parts of the country, and earn their own salary. During my participation in the training, I drew on my own background as an outdoor educator to teach classes on wilderness first aid, professionalism, and managing client-guide relationships.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Casey Scieszka, 2007-2008, Mali, with neighborhood friends in Bamako
The first word I learned in the Malian language Bambara was toubab. I must have heard it a hundred times a day, called out to me by children playing with sticks in the street, store-owners having tea on the corner, women pounding millet with babies tied to their backs.
Roughly, it means “whitey.”
There was no way I, the American hodgepodge of northern European ancestors, was ever going to blend in over in West Africa. Not even once I started wearing the local clothes or speaking the language or eating with my hands.
Slowly but surely though, each of the three times I settled into a new neighborhood (in Bamako then Timbuktu then Segou), I heard the word less and less. As I learned all of my neighbors’ names, they started learning mine. Exchanging greetings and names turned into exchanging bits of news, which turned into hanging out under mango trees during 120 degree afternoons, which eventually turned into friendship.
That is where the Fulbright Program does its best work.
Beyond this interpersonal connection, I enjoyed my formal research. I looked at the role of Islam in the education system, which meant that I spent my days doing observations in different kinds of classrooms, interviewing teachers and principals, having conversations with parents and students. I learned a lot about the politics of language, about the perceived differences in moral versus academic education, about finger-pointing and about the effects of decentralization. But all of that academic research would have been missing its real pulse if the Fulbright Program hadn’t allowed for the time and freedom to become a part of the community as well. Issues that I came across in my research became crystallized in the more personal experiences of my new friends and neighbors. Sure, I knew that most Malian girls don’t make it past 6th grade; but that figure meant so much more to me once my neighbors started talking about whether or not it was worth the money to send their twelve-year-old daughter Saran to school anymore.
It’s hard to remember what I even thought of Mali before I lived there. I knew it was hot, had produced some amazing musicians like Ali Farka Touré, and was home to the ever mysterious Timbuktu. Now though, for me, Mali is made up of familiar faces; faces with names, homes, families, favorite foods, favorite songs, jokes, grievances, desires. Mali is now the people that I met.
Hopefully, the vision of America now has one more face to the Malians I met—mine. Americans are too often generalized as loud and uncaring, greedy, rich, and unskilled in foreign language. I did my best to be my best: to listen, to learn, to give in the ways that I could.
The formal results of my experience were my Fulbright report (which helped members of USAID decide to fund specific foreign language programs in private religious schools they were previously very wary of), the nonprofit I went on to co-found (Local Language Literacy, which is dedicated to creating, printing and distributing books in local languages like Bambara to students free of charge), and the illustrated book To Timbuktu about my two years living in Asia and West Africa that came out at the beginning of this March.
To Timbuktu was a fantastic way to take my Fulbright experience and get it into the hands of a wider audience, to put Mali on the map for more Americans, and to stay in touch with the places and people that had become so dear to me.
My boyfriend and I just went back to Mali this past January—exactly three years since we left at the end of my Fulbright. And sure, when we got out of the taxi, we were bombarded by cries of “Eh Toubab!” But the closer we got to our old home, the more we started hearing calls of “Fatimata! Salif!” And those aren’t other words for “whitey.” They’re our Malian names.
Keep repeating to yourself: “Feasibility! Feasibility!” Don’t set yourself up to do some kind of country-wide survey all alone. Be realistic about what one person can look into, how long it will take you, and what you yourself are especially qualified to do/will enjoy doing.
Look into as many potential affiliates as possible. It’s often really hard to track people down from abroad. Some of these people you contact may not wind up being your official affiliate but could be wonderful people to meet up with once you’re in the country, nonetheless.
Leave some room for your research to change. That’s one of the best parts of doing a project like this: you have a plan; you do some work and meet some people, learn something new, and wind up going in a direction you might not have anticipated.
Contact every friend-of-a-friend in that country you possibly can. They might be able to tell you things your r esearch from home can’t, they might have friends who can be your affiliates, and they might even offer to host you when you first arrive! Having a tiny bit in common can go a surprisingly long way when you’re far from home.
My Fulbright grant was one of the most rewarding and exciting experiences I have ever had, and no words, pictures or videos can adequately capture its true essence. By building relationships internationally, Fulbright provides an opportunity for college graduates and professors and teachers to shatter any misconceptions held by Americans and host countries. As Martin Buber said, “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” A Fulbright grant is a journey filled with “secret destinations” which one is unaware of at the beginning of his or her grant. There is a vast difference between experiencing a country for a few weeks as a tourist and living in a different country. An academic year overseas provides an opportunity to fully immerse oneself in a different culture, develop a new routine and identify favorite places. A Fulbright grant allows for meaningful friendships to develop and, in my opinion, they are the shortest route towards personal growth. Through this growth, one also gives others an example to do the same.
Living abroad disconnects us from life’s daily routines and the comfort and security that family, friends and networks can provide. So who are we once all of these things have been removed? How do we handle life’s issues when the usual buffers are no longer there? How do we adjust to a new environment in which we are foreigners? Through which eyes do we view our new world: astonished, intrigued or judgmental eyes? These types of experiences are “secret destinations” for Fulbrighters, for the manner in which one responds to being in a new environment has a direct correlation to one’s level of personal growth.
The Fulbright Program provides grantees a myriad of benefits: regional enrichment seminars, networking opportunities with other Fulbrighters, an opportunity to gain international experience and exposure in one’s field, and to establish professional networks, among other opportunities. Each of these benefits are extremely rewarding both personally and professionally, but it is the relationships with host country colleagues, housemates, mentors and friends that help promote the Fulbright Program’s goal of fostering mutual understanding between the U.S. and other countries.
The Application Process
My campus Fulbright Program Adviser (FPA) was my greatest asset while I applied. I met with my FPA weekly to discuss my project and help with completing my application. Additionally, one of my English professors served as a second reader to provide feedback on my application’s narrative flow. As I contemplated the focus of my Fulbright project, the best advice I received was to build on my previous experience (academic, professional and personal) and tell the story of how point A led to point B that finally resulted in my desire to apply to Fulbright. Sometimes, we tend to omit key details about our own stories because we are so familiar with them and erroneously believe the details are not significant. But these details are the threads that tie our personal stories together and allow an outside reader to grasp who we are and why our projects should be supported.
My Fulbright project sought to identify the breast cancer screening barriers which may hinder a woman from obtaining a mammogram. Adhering to the advice I received, this project became my story’s thread that connected elements of my previous experience together: the academic focus of my project was public health and psychology (which I had studied); I had research experience with breast cancer screening barriers under my belt (my mother is a breast cancer survivor); and finally, I have strong personal ties to the Caribbean.
How I Selected Barbados and Identified My Affiliation
I conducted a Google search and quickly ascertained that Barbados is the only Caribbean country with empirical epidemiological data about their population’s breast cancer incidence and mortality rates. Here are a few important questions to keep in mind while selecting a Fulbright country:
(1) Is there a need or interest in your research or project? Remember that the potential host country will review your application during the Fulbright selection process.
(2) Is there an institution, organization or individual familiar with your topic? This entity will become your advocate and may have access to information and opportunities that you may not be aware of.
Once I obtained the breast cancer incidence data, I contacted the researcher who conducted the study, articulated who I was, what I had accomplished and that I was applying for a Fulbright grant. Most importantly, I asked if he would collaborate with me. He read my proposal and provided a letter of support all within the same week.
My advice to Fulbright applicants is to research your potential location, contact people and to always demonstrate professionalism and kindness in all interactions. Follow up with a thank you note. In an era of high speed technology, people still appreciate handwritten cards. This gesture will definitely be remembered.
One of your application’s objectives is for you to stand out. What makes you and your project unique? Why should the Fulbright Program select you? How will your project impact and benefit the host country? What legacy do you plan to leave? Fulbright offers a plethora of benefits for you as a grantee, but it is up to you to determine how your host country will benefit from your time there and all the unique things you can bring. Convey this information in your application and good luck!
Top photo: Misha Granado, 2007-2008, Barbados (center), pictured with two high school students, was invited to present at a college fair that focused on university/college life in the United States.
Bottom photo: Misha Granado’s project mentors Angela Rose (left), Professor Ian Hambleton (center) and Professor Anselm Hennis (right) at The Chronic Disease Research Centre.
I went to Iceland on my Fulbright grant to study the contemporary concept of landscape and how it is used in both industry and art. What I quickly discovered is that the landscape is a thread that runs through every fiber of Iceland’s being. Evidence of this was made clear upon first hearing a translation of the very well known Icelandic lullaby, Sofðu Unga Ástin Mín (Sleep My Young Love) by Jóhann Sigurjónsson (1880-1919). Another very apparent fact in Iceland is the landscape’s powerful presence. Mount Esja is a range that looms over Reykjavik and is also popular for day hikes. I hiked this mountain and saw views that look out over the vast sea in one direction, and back into the interior (a treacherous area, with very limited access) in another. Both dwarfed the city in size and power.
In collaboration with artist Benjamin Kinsley, my Fulbright project titled The Mothers of Mount Esja, involved working with six new Icelandic mothers singing Sofðu Unga Ástin Mín to their babies by the sea at the base of Mount Esja. When this haunting and highly descriptive lullaby is sung by the six mothers, the effect is both chilling and calming. Because the lullaby’s subject matter deals with the tragic decision to expose a newborn child to the harsh elements indigenous to the Icelandic landscape, we wanted to create a contemporary situation with these mothers in which safety and protection played against the tragic outcome described in the lyrics. Upon first arriving in Iceland, we noticed two striking things: there are a lot of young mothers, and babies are often left outside in the cold to sleep in their prams. These two cultural phenomena were part of the impetus behind this project.
In preparation for this project, we sought out moms who were willing to work with us under such harsh conditions as filming outside in the cold for several hours. We posted fliers and solicited help via the “Craigslist” of Iceland (www.barnaland.is, translation: babyland!). We received more volunteers than we expected and a lot of curious emails.
The mothers who worked with us were (below, from left to right): Brynja Guðmundsdóttír, Magnea Brynja Magnúsdóttir, Sif Heiða Guðmundsdóttír, Hlín Pálsdóttir, Thórunn Sóley Björnsdóttir, and Sigríður Kristinsdóttír.
These women not only provided their amateur, yet beautiful voices for the video (and patiently endured the cold), they also provided us with much insight into the two cultural phenomena we were chronicling. For starters, the babies slept peacefully throughout the entire filming. This was in part due to being sung to constantly for several hours, but they were also very warm inside their prams as we were later informed. They were covered head-to-toe in the softest lamb’s wool sleeping bags, tucked cozily inside layer upon layer of woolen blankets. The outside layer of the pram protects babies from the wind and rain.
“Why are there so many young Icelandic mothers?” we wondered. There is not a simple answer, and it may have a lot to do with the support and encouragement families receive from the government to pass on their genes. Because Iceland’s population is so small, every new Icelander counts!
The Mothers of Mount Esja, or the Mommies Project, as I fondly refer to it, was an experience that went beyond the final outcome of the video. Everything the project entailed, from the research, to soliciting volunteers, to the video’s production, was a cultural learning experience. Meeting and working with the mothers provided a platform to share experiences. The lullaby served as a comfort and a warning during the year as well. Its soft, soothing sound balanced out the hiss of the harsh winds common in Iceland. The lyrics framed how I would view the landscape for the coming months; listening for the “fissures that groan in darkness” as I visited the glacier during the long, dark winter, or noticing the black sand that “scorches” the green landscape. As lonely and isolating as the lullaby (and landscape, for that matter) can seem, one does not have to search long to discover the warmth and sense of community that Icelanders share.
My Advice for Fulbright Applicants in the Arts:
The most important things to keep in mind while preparing and presenting representations of your work is that your slides should be clear, consistent, and professional. This ensures that anyone viewing your slides will fully understand what it is that they’re looking at. Bad slides, whether they are blown-out or too dark will make or break an application. Take the time to prepare good slides. It’s worth it.
How to Prepare Clear Slides:
Avoid including unnecessary information (this is especially true for installations and sculpture – take a look at the room where the pieces are showcased and find what is extraneous).
Clearly and evenly light each piece (no glaring spotlights). Use a minimum of two lights pointed at 45 degree angles to each piece, parallel to the face of the camera.
Make sure the camera is in focus.
Use a tripod.
How to Prepare Consistent Slides:
Make sure the (color) temperature of the lights used to illuminate the works is the same for all pieces.
Check your slides on a well-calibrated computer screen (the color on laptop screens is incredibly unreliable).
Make sure the maximum pixel dimension is the same for all of your slides.
How to Prepare Professional Slides:
Set up a designated slide shooting area (either a blank, well-lit wall, or a large empty room).
Rent or borrow professional tungsten lights from a photo shop or studio.
Rent or borrow a professional SLR camera to take your slides. The photos will contain more information and allow you to obtain very nice high resolution images if you ever want or need to print them. Starting with high resolution images, and then reducing the size of the file later, will assure that you maintain high quality images.
Bracket your photos to assure the best exposure. There is nothing worse than whites that are blown-out, or shadows that show pixels.
There is always the option of hiring a professional photographer, but make sure they have experience shooting art works. They will know the process, but you must be there to manage all the details and to make sure that the work is handled carefully.
Always look at your work either on a projector or another computer. This will give you the opportunity to make corrections, if needed.
I hope this advice helps. Always remember to back up your work! If you keep one giant file containing your Fulbright project on your desktop, it will inevitably be deleted. Burn a disc or back up your work on an external hard drive periodically. Good luck!
Top photo: Jessica Langley, 2008-2009, Iceland (right, in red hat) with artist Benjamin Kinsley (left, in brown and green sweater), working with Icelandic mothers on The Mothers of Mount Esja project