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U.S. Fulbright

Navigating Your Identity Abroad

April 23, 2021

What does it mean to be an American abroad? Five Fulbright 75th Anniversary Legacy Alumni Ambassadors reflect and analyze how their personal identities affected their Fulbright experience.

Strengthening My American Identity

David N. Bernstein, MD, MBA, MEI
2013 Fulbright U.S. Student to Luxembourg

David N. Bernstein (right) is a Clinical Fellow in Orthopaedic Surgery at Harvard Medical School. While on his Fulbright in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, David earned a master’s degree in entrepreneurship and innovation from the University of Luxembourg. As part of his degree program, David interned at Silicon Luxembourg, a rapidly growing media and event planning startup designed to highlight the blossoming entrepreneurial spirit within the country.

“Everyone, the American is here!”

I had only been in Luxembourg for a few weeks in fall 2013, but I had already become a regular at Pitcher, a favorite local bar throughout the Grand Duchy. With a pint of Bofferding in hand, I would discuss my experience living in Europe, as well as what it was like to live in the United States, with a few of my closest Luxembourgish friends.

From business to education, and everything in between, my friends and I covered a lot of ground in our conversations. However, I began to realize an error in my approach. As a Fulbrighter, I had committed to representing the United States as a cultural ambassador. Thus, while my opinion was important, I had an obligation to share differing positions and viewpoints held by other Americans to share a complete picture of the United States.

As I reflect on my time in Luxembourg nearly a decade later, I realize that sharing and discussing varying perspectives on life and policy in the United States strengthened my identity as an American. Indeed, the power of the United States is in its rich diversity of people and ideas, as well as its endless opportunities. This idea was solidified sitting on a barstool with a beer in hand, surrounded by my Luxembourgish friends. While I consider myself a citizen of the world, I am forever proud to be an American.


Expanding the American Identity

Kristine Lin
2013 Fulbright U.S. Student English Teaching Assistant to South Korea

On her Fulbright, Kristine Lin (left) taught English to elementary students at Jeungan Elementary School in Cheongju, South Korea. During winter break, she used a Fulbright Korea Alumni Foundation Community Grant to support and lead an English camp, which focused on improving student understanding of American culture and traditions through hands-on activities.

Before my Fulbright, I was excited to immerse myself in Korean culture and experience as much as possible. I did not anticipate, however, having to explain my own identity while living abroad. Growing up in the United States, I was used to identifying myself as Chinese; when I arrived in South Korea, that changed.

Living outside of major cities with large foreign communities, I found myself explaining my American identity in response to quizzical looks from local Koreans. I was sometimes the first American they encountered, and I didn’t look like the blonde hair, blue-eyed person they expected.

Using my limited Korean language skills, I explained I was Chinese American, as my parents were born in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and I was born and raised in the United States. I soon took pride in being different than the “typical” American that many expected to see and turned it into a learning opportunity.

It became my mission to teach my elementary school students about the racial and cultural diversity in the United States, and I even recruited another Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to co-teach a winter camp on American culture. Using my racial identity to help teach students was never something that had occurred to me before. However, I found it to be not only an eye-opening experience for my students, but also an empowering experience for myself.


Davíd with El Chimboraso in the background, the largest volcano in Ecuador and the closest point to the moon on Earth.

Davíd en route to Quilotoa, a water-filled crater lake and the most western volcano in the Ecuadorian Andes.

Davíd posing next to his año viejo, an effigy made in his image as a loving joke by his friends, that was burned in the traditional Guayaquil New Year Festivals of 2014.

“Hey, We Are Here, Too”

Davíd Morales
2013 Fulbright U.S. Student ETA to Ecuador

Davíd Morales is a scholar, educator, and community activist interested in education as a tool for social change. He is currently a doctoral student and researcher in the Race, Inequality, and Language in Education program at Stanford University. He has taught language, culture, and critical thinking in public schools in San Diego, San Jose, and San Francisco, and in Ecuador as a Fulbright U.S. Student ETA.

The first time I was called a fake American, a half-gringo, I laughed. It was a joke. It was fine. Actually, it was better than fine because I never really considered myself an American anyways, let alone a gringo.

We could get into the complexity of what they, I, we, the world, mean by “American” (as I write to you from one of the two continents baptized “America”s by European colonizers), but it is enough to mention that there is no doubt that the United States has monopolized this identifier.

As for gringo–let’s just say that when I was growing up in the Latinx community of Barrio Logan in San Diego, California, gringos were the white people who lived by the beach with the double garages and the 9-speed road bikes. So, you can imagine my laugh, my “if only they knew” smirk, when my students in Guayaquil—where I was doing my Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship—would call me a “fake American,” a “half gringo.”

I was born in the United States to migrant parents from Mexico in search of the elusive “American Dream.” I have navigated this country as a brown boy and a brown man; my Indigenous ancestors account for the pigmentation of my skin that I was ashamed of, along with my language, and culture. I wanted to be white, with everything that being white entails.

After I finally got to learn about my people’s history and culture in high school—the struggles they faced and movements they led, their brilliance and resiliency—I became empowered and sought to reclaim and embrace my identity– a counter-identity to the essentializing “American” identifier.

But after a couple of months, a couple more jokes, and a couple more skeptical comments about whether I could teach English because I am not really an American, it suddenly dawned on me. It happened when I was asked to teach a lesson on Thanksgiving. It’s not just about turkey, mashed potatoes, and laughter around the dinner table every fourth Thursday of November. It is also about broken treaties, pain, remembering, and mourning of one’s ancestors and land. It is not just about a standardized and monolingual version of English, it is also about a fluid, dynamic, and ever-evolving way of using English, inspired by many other languages and ways of understanding the world.

It dawned on me I am, and have been part of, this American experience. So have my parents, so have my friends, so has my community, and so have many others who do not fit the typical American image that is exported throughout the world.

It became important for me to stand in front of my classes and proclaim: “Hey, we are here, too,” and these have been our erased experiences. It became important for me to remain a bit longer with Fulbright—now as an Alumni Ambassador—and to encourage others like me to do the same.


Addressing Immigration Through Personal Experience

Cristobal “Cris” Ramón
2008 Fulbright U.S. Student to Spain

Cris Ramón (back right) is a senior policy analyst with Bipartisan Center’s Immigration Project. On his Fulbright, Cris Ramón studied the legal rights of immigrants, specifically analyzing the legal impact of seven sentences issued by the Spanish Constitutional Court against the Ley Orgánica 8/2000, a reform of Spain’s main immigration law.

As the son of Salvadoran immigrants and student of Spanish immigration policy, I saw that Spain, and many European countries, struggled with welcoming and integrating immigrants, and that immigrants in Spain and Europe also dealt with xenophobia and racism.

While on my Fulbright in Spain, my family’s experience in the United States allowed me to speak to different audiences about the benefits of immigration and effective immigration policy. I helped people in Spain understand the complexities of the immigrant experience and the importance of societal integration through welcoming communities. I also spoke with policymakers about the importance of humane migration, using my mom’s story of receiving legal status through the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act to note that pragmatic, humane policies can produce better outcomes.

Although I will never know if my conversations changed any minds or policy outcomes, it allowed me to move forward with my career as an immigration policy analyst who produces better policies for addressing the challenges and opportunities that immigration presents to the United States and Europe.


Strengthening My Identity in A Foreign Context

Vince Redhouse
2015 Fulbright U.S. Student to Australia

Vince Redhouse (left, with the U.S. Ambassador to Australia), the 2015 Anne Wexler Fulbright Scholarship in Public Policy recipient, studied at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, where he completed an MPhil in Philosophy under the supervision of Robert E. Goodin. Vince’s thesis focused on the topic of political reconciliation between settler states and their indigenous citizens.

I am a member of the Navajo Nation. Throughout my Fulbright in Australia, I was challenged again and again as to what that meant and why that should matter.

Most of the time, these challenges made sense. My Fulbright research concluded that Indigenous peoples ought to be able to secede and that their respective colonial states should support their choice.

Sometimes, though, the challenges were less academic. Those challenges often came in the form of slurs and insults hurled on the streets or while riding public transport, or from people who simply felt like they deserved an explanation to satisfy their curiosity.

I ignored those particular challenges. Explaining one’s ethnicity and background is not a position that minority peoples like to be placed in. Sometimes, though, it’s good to place ourselves in that position so that we can truly educate others. In doing so, we might just discover new things about ourselves.

Throughout my Fulbright, I subjected my identity to the rigors of foreign worlds and foreign ideas, and, in the end, my identity is stronger for it.

U.S. Fulbright

Athletic Training

September 8, 2016

Teaching numbers: Christina Galardi, 2012-2013, Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to South Korea, teaches a captive audience a counting lesson in English as part of an early childhood cognitive development program through iFuture at the University of Ulsan. Ulsan, South Korea

I’m staring at an IQ test with fear that my hard-earned college GPA will be put to shame.

During my winter break from my Fulbright English Teaching Assistant position, I worked for a month with a Korean professor who previously pursued a Fulbright grant in the United States with a venture company that develops child cognitive development programs. I started by taking the same diagnostic test used to assess children.

Thankfully, my test anxiety was resolved by a satisfactory score. The professor then handed me some research articles to familiarize myself with the Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment Program used by the company. As I sat down with the texts, I blew the dust from my academic machinery and flexed my intellectual muscles.

In a few months, I will lift the scholastic heavyweights again to pursue a master’s degree in public health following my return home to the United States. Perhaps it will take a little while to get back into my routine, but I don’t think my mental force will have atrophied.

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U.S. Fulbright

Open the Door and People Will Enter

July 6, 2016
Corey Fayne

Corey Fayne, 2015-2016, Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to South Korea

In partnership with Reach the World (RTW), the Fulbright U.S. Student Program is publishing a series of articles written by Fulbright English Teaching Assistants participating in Reach the World’s Traveler correspondents program, which through its interactive website, enriches the curriculum of elementary and secondary classrooms (primarily located in New York City but also nationwide) by connecting them to the experiences of volunteer Fulbright English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) and other world travelers who are currently studying and living abroad. 

When I think about where I come from, I think about the diverse neighborhood I grew up in, the different types of ethnic cuisines I could try, and the ‘corn man’ ringing his bell, so my sisters and I could eat some delicious Mexican-style cucumbers! Although the current neighborhood I live in South Korea as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant is not as diverse as my hometown, Chicago, I still feel at home because of my homestay family’s open arms.

Living away from home for a long time is like eating pancakes every morning for three weeks without syrup. It is not easy. It also means that you do not get to hang out with your close friends, eat certain foods that you are used to, or, perhaps, speak the language you are most comfortable with. It is scary. But even this difficulty and fear can bring about growth and a better sense of awareness.

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U.S. Fulbright

Plasma Fused Cultures in South Korea

August 17, 2015
Nathan Taylor

Nathan Taylor, 2013-2014, South Korea (third from right), with his lab coworkers, visiting scholars from Germany in Bukchon Hanok Village in Seoul, South Korea

Prior to my experience as a Fulbright Student, I had almost no connection to South Korea. Before my Fulbright grant, I had been working on my Ph.D. at Drexel University in Philadelphia for the last five years and had never lived outside of my home state of Pennsylvania for any appreciable amount of time. The only tie that I had to South Korea was my research interests and a passion for learning about different cultures. I was introduced the Plasma Bioscience Research Center (PBRC) at Kwangwoon University by my research adviser at Drexel, so I advise any potential applicants to reach out to their advisors for connections as well. After receiving the fellowship, I spent 10 months living and working in Seoul, South Korea.

The people I met in South Korea were some of the most hospitable people that I have ever had the privilege of knowing. From my very first day, I was treated better than I could have imagined. The day that I landed, I was taken from the airport to my house and minutes later (after a 23 hour trip without a shower), went to a dinner with all of the lab members I would be working with and a visiting lab team from Japan. It was quite jarring, but they wanted to make sure that I was introduced as soon as possible and included in the event that was happening.

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U.S. Fulbright

Your Student Will Appear When You Are Ready: Finding My Paper Weaving Teacher in Seoul , By Aimee Lee, 2008-2009, South Korea

December 21, 2009

My search for a papermaking teacher started a year before I applied for the Fulbright U.S. Student Program grant and ended nearly six months after I arrived in South Korea. I knew it would be hard but didn’t realize that I would find much more than I originally sought.

I arrived in South Korea in June 2008. Soon afterwards, on a sweltering afternoon, I was with a family friend whose neighbor discovered that I was researching hanji (Korean handmade paper). She said that the owner of the local market’s oil shop made hanji dolls. I was not interested in doll making but I went all the same, only to be told by the butcher that the oil shop had shut down because of an accident that had killed the owner’s children. I left and didn’t give it a second thought.

After visiting various paper mills across the country, I eventually found the right hanji teacher for my needs who was a papermaker that I had contacted months before even applying for my Fulbright grant. During my apprenticeship with him in the brutal winter of January 2009, my hanji teacher and I were outside one day stoking a fire. Besides teaching me how to make hanji, he also taught me how weave paper cords known as jiseung. I asked if he had had a teacher. He said he did, but that his teacher’s story was tragic. His teacher had had a business and a family, but his two children and sister-in-law had been killed instantly in a car accident. His wife remained trapped in the car during the accident and suffered bad burns. He consequently shut down his shop and stayed home to care for his wife. I was shocked at the similarities between the two stories and asked where his teacher’s shop was located. It turned out that his teacher’s shop was indeed the very same one owned by the man I had tried to find the previous summer.

In February 2009, my hanji teacher introduced me to his jiseung teacher. I soon started taking jiseung lessons at his home while getting to know him and his wife and earning their trust. He hadn’t had a serious student in a while since most quit because jiseung is so difficult. But I stayed for eight-hour sessions while his wife cooked incredible meals to sustain us. He was a third-generation master who learned from his father and grandfather, and wanted to pass the craft along to his daughter. His son had not been interested in jiseung, but his daughter had showed interest at an early age which made her loss even more devastating. Even though they were only a decade older than me, it was clear that I became their surrogate child and disciple.

As an artist and ambassador for hanji, I encouraged my jiseung teacher to exhibit his work so that it didn’t stay hidden on the 10th floor of a high-rise apartment in Seoul. A month after I left South Korea, he presented a solo show in Insadong’s Ssamziegil – a famous building in a tourist center. He then went on to further exhibit his work and win a top prize. Neither of us knew that we would find each other and nurture each other’s work. The reciprocal nature of our student-teacher relationship made it one of the most meaningful experiences of my Fulbright year and a reminder of how unexpected tragedies as well as unforeseen opportunities can transform lives.

Since returning from my Fulbright year in South Korea, I have had four solo exhibitions, shown in several group exhibitions, lectured on my work and research and taught a class in a paper technique. All of my solo shows have either used or featured hanji in the hopes that using South Korean handmade paper will help raise awareness not just about the paper itself, but its applications in artwork. The largest and best publicized show I’ve had was my solo exhibit at the Diaspora Vibe Gallery in Miami called, “Native Intelligence.” I used hand-ground ink traditionally used in calligraphy, paper felting and large sheets of hanji to create a themed show that synthesized my Fulbright research while mining my ancestry and connection to the Korean landscape.

I recently returned to Miami during the 2009Art Basel Miami Beach show to promote my show and present artist talks. An audience member asked, “Do all Fulbrighters come out of their research with this much work to show?” I didn’t have a definitive answer, but I have been able to present four shows, fueled by my Fulbright research, within the span of three months. I can only imagine that most of us who conduct Fulbright projects in the creative and performing arts return with fruitful research outcomes, inspired and fully energized.

Top photo: Aimee Lee, 2008-2009, South Korea (left), and her paper weaving teacher, Na Seo Hwan, weave a traditional lantern out of Korean handmade paper, known as hanji.

Second photo: Aimee Lee, 2008-2009, South Korea (left), and her paper weaving teacher, Na Seo Hwan, brush lacquer onto pieces made from woven hanji (Korean handmade paper) in northeastern Korea at a traditional family paper mill called Jang Ji Bang.

U.S. Fulbright

An Alumna’s Perspective: Applying for a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) Grant, By Amber Rydberg, 2007-2008, South Korea ETA

June 17, 2009

Pictured: Amber Rydberg, 2007-2008 South Korea ETA (left) with Mrs. Shim, the KAEC/Fulbright Korea Executive Director on a Fulbright Korea ETA weekend retreat at Songnisan National Park

At the beginning of my senior year, I was aware of the Fulbright Program and what grants were available. Or so I thought. I knew there were research grants for those who had serious passions for very specific topics, of which I felt I had none. There was also a Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program for seasoned teachers, but I was just about to graduate from my undergraduate institution and not yet a teacher. And, there were grants for scholars, but I was also not one of those. Thus, in my mind, Fulbright, along with so many other fellowships available to soon-to-be graduates, sat on an out-of-reach pedestal.

Fulbright was removed from that unreachable pedestal when I was gearing up for a half-marathon with a friend. We touched upon every topic including the ominous, “So, what are you thinking of doing after graduation?” question. I wanted to go back to South Korea for the first time since my adoption and teach English for a year. That is when I heard about the Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) grant for the first time. My friend told me she was applying for a Fulbright ETA grant to Taiwan. At her urging (and I will be forever indebted to her), she suggested I visit and look into the ETA grants to South Korea.

I knew what I was looking for in my abroad experience from a previous stay in China. I worked in Beijing during the summer of 2006, and while there, I lived with a home-stay family: a mom, dad, and 9-year old daughter. I tutored my home-stay family’s daughter weekly and learned so much from her about life in China. Inspired by that experience, it became apparent that if I went to South Korea, I would want to teach English at the elementary school level. I would also want an opportunity to live with a home-stay family and to be immersed in the culture to learn as much as possible.

I spent hours on the Internet over the next few days researching ETA grants to South Korea and stumbled upon many useful resources. The most useful to me were the country summaries on the Fulbright U.S. Student Program website, the South Korea page and the South Korean Commission’s website. Some countries have Fulbright Commissions, and, South Korea is one of them. The South Korean Fulbright Commission’s website had answers to questions I hadn’t yet thought of. From orientation and home-stay information, to organized workshops and gatherings for grantees, the role the Commission plays, and ETA handbooks from previous years, the Korean Fulbright Commission’s website had a wealth of information waiting to be discovered by applicants like myself. It was a great way for me to decide if the Fulbright ETA grant was the right Fulbright grant for me.

My advice to prospective applicants: Start researching and thinking about the grant(s) you’re interested in early. There are ample resources available to you online: webinars and guidance sessions, videos, podcasts, Commission websites and the Fulbright U.S. Student Program website can help you to decide which grant you’re most interested in. It is important to understand the grant you’re applying for and what it entails before you start preparing your application. If you’re applying for an ETA grant, think about how you can be a cultural ambassador inside and outside the classroom while pursuing your own interests. If you’re interested in arts, maybe you’ll volunteer at an arts center. Do you like games? If so, maybe you’ll volunteer at an orphanage. Are sports your thing? Maybe you’ll join or coach a local soccer team, or begin learning a local, traditional sport. Like music? Learn to play a traditional instrument or join a chorus. There are many options. The project proposal is where you’ll want to clearly describe the passion you’re pursuing, what fuels that passion, as well as how your interests can guide you in your free time. Once you’ve written your proposal, have your peers, professors, and/or family members give you feedback. You don’t want to submit your application with any careless typos or spelling mistakes.