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U.S. Fulbright

All Problems Have Solutions: Insights from My Fulbright in Andalucía, Southern Spain

February 12, 2014
Julie Charbonnier

Julie Charbonnier, 2012-2013, Spain, collecting toad eggs in one of Doñana National Park’s ponds

Carmen Diaz Paniagua “Poli” knows this place like the back of her hand. “You’ll make a right at the tree with a stork nest, and then turn left when you see the road split into three,” she explains nonchalantly as I follow her through the terrain. All I see are miles of sands and a few scattered bushes, with no discernible landmarks. My Fulbright U.S. Student Program grant in Ecology on the consequences of global change on amphibian dynamics brought me to Doñana National Park, one of the world’s most renowned systems of wetlands tucked away in Southern Spain (Andalucía), two hours southwest of Sevilla.

A few days later, clearly lost as we attempt to follow Poli’s instructions, my labmates Rosa and Maria, and I bop around the dunes in a car. Rosa stopping and twisting the timeworn map sideways says “No! No me lo puedo creer (I can’t believe this),” as she makes a sharp U-turn, the car nearly tipping over. Maria smiles, saying, “todos los problemas tienen soluciones (all problems have solutions).” She’s still chipper despite our long detour in the desert. We finally find the pond, and it’s buzzing with insects and tadpoles. The species found in Doñana have evolved to withstand the heat and scarce rainfall. Doñana is incredibly unique: it’s a rest stop for half a million migratory birds, the last natural habitat of the elusive and endangered Iberian lynx, and home to eleven species of amphibians, the highest in all of Europe. It’s just one of the reasons I chose this spectacular location to conduct my Fulbright in collaboration with Dr. Ivan Gomez Mestre.

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U.S. Fulbright

The Unexpected Journey, By Mildred Gonzalez, 2011-2012, Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to Spain

November 21, 2012

It was only spring of my senior year at Lafayette College, but I could already feel the sun beating down my neck, my best friend and I quickly regretted the trip to check our mailboxes, but chatted as we walked. I was happy to have accepted a job offer, but told my friend that a part of me still felt unsettled about life after graduation. After all, we were about to say goodbye to our home for the past four years. This was as obvious and as painful as the sun stinging our eyes, but neither of us spoke about it. When we arrived at our mailboxes, I reached into mine and unexpectedly discovered a thin manila envelope. It contained a letter congratulating me on being offered a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in Madrid, Spain.

If someone came up to me a few years ago and told me that I would one day become a Fulbrighter, I would have laughed. The Fulbright Program was something that I had heard about in presentations, but not something I imagined myself doing. The first time I heard about the program, I was attending a Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO) college retreat. Fulbright Alumni Ambassadors talked about their overseas experiences and the application process. Liking what I heard, I decided to apply, never thinking that I would be awarded a grant.

I am grateful to have had an opportunity to participate in the Fulbright Program. It is not every day that someone has the chance to work with students in another country. Through my assistant teaching experiences, my students’ perspectives on the United States changed as well as my own. My presence in the classroom allowed my students to experience another culture, as I made sure to give presentations on American holidays and traditions. While my students learned about Thanksgiving, I learned about Spanish traditions. I started a pen pal program between my students in Spain and a group in Texas. This project not only helped with students’ language acquisition, it also created a format for cultural exchange. Through my Fulbright experiences, I learned that I do not want to be just a teacher; I also want to be a student. Living in Spain created a desire within me to learn about other cultures and gain different perspectives.

Looking back, if I hadn’t received a Fulbright grant, I still wouldn’t have regretted applying. The application was hard work, but putting it together has prepared me for applying to other competitive programs I might pursue in the future.

If I could give future applicants any advice, it would be the following: Don’t just know why you want to receive a Fulbright grant, know what you can do in your selected country. It is important to research the country in which you would like to carry out your grant. Remember that the Fulbright Program is about cultural exchange. It is not just about how you will change as a result of your Fulbright experiences, it also involves asking how you’ll have an impact on those you’ll meet. You are applying to become a cultural ambassador. It is a big responsibility, but one that I enjoyed every minute of.

Photo: Mildred Gonzalez, 2011-2012, Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to Spain (far right), with her first year high school students at IES Al-Satt in Madrid, Spain

U.S. Fulbright Unknown

How Do You Teach and Learn Diplomacy? By Linnette Franco, 2009-2010, Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to Spain

May 23, 2012

As a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in Madrid, Spain, I worked with over 120 students in a citywide bilingual program. The highlight of my year was working with 14- and 15-year-olds in the Global Classrooms program for Fulbright ETAs to Spain. In 10 Madrid high schools, Fulbright ETAs helped to prepare students for an annual Model United Nations conference. Actively participating in a Model U.N. conference is a rigorous endeavor for any high school student, but even more so when they are expected to participate in another language. I adored my students, but they succeeded in proving every cliché about high schoolers true; they often complained, whined and put more effort into not doing work than doing it. They didn’t want to participate in an extracurricular activity involving more research, writing, or public speaking in English. My students were very opinionated about their hesitation and initial dislike of preparing for the conference.

I myself was ready to take on the challenge of developing and strengthening my students’ skills. As Fulbright ETAs, doing this would be an easy enough task compared to providing our students with the more abstract lesson required for them to be successful at the conference: we had to enhance our students’ understanding of the importance of diplomacy. We had to find ways to help them recognize the value in promoting thoughtful conversations and effective relationships. Our students had to think more outside of their classrooms, school, neighborhood, city and country, in order to understand better that actions and relationships overseas can have an impact on them. I had to teach my students an abstract concept that I myself was actively experiencing and reflecting on during my Fulbright grant.

When you are a Fulbright ETA, you always have to be “on,” readily available to answer any question or assuage concerns your students, new peers, neighbors and friends may have. As an American abroad, you can become the be-all and end-all resource for everything American, but you will want to avoid proving every cliché about Americans true. You must be available to answer many questions about the United States, sometimes whether you like it or not, and this can be a real learning experience. At the end of the school day, you can leave your Fulbright ETA self at your assigned school, but you can never leave your American self. As Fulbrighters, we become educators to everyone we meet, not just our students. We inform others about the United States. We can dispel myths and correct misinformation while making a temporary new home for ourselves in our host countries. 

Sometimes, you will have a great desire to answer questions and explain American laws, politics, customs, or food.  Other times, the discomfort generated by questions about the U.S. is so palpable you almost wish you didn’t have to speak for the whole country. Therein lays the beautiful and positive dilemma of being a Fulbright ETA. How one handles those sometimes uncomfortable conversations with grace and tact can make for a successful Fulbright experience.  But it is not until you are a Fulbrighter abroad that you really get an in-depth understanding of how to manage these kinds of conversations. Having experiences in which you have to speak for a culture and country is how we truly learn diplomacy, and, also how we can teach it. When you are “the foreigner” to others and they are “the foreigner” to you, you are compelled to communicate and find things that will help you to connect with others. This is what my students had to do during the Model U.N. conference and what I had to do each day as a Fulbrighter in Spain.

After weeks of researching, writing and debating, my students ended up thoroughly enjoying themselves at the Model U.N. conference. The conference flowed naturally, and they met other bilingual students and formed new friendships. They garnered the confidence to speak about their assigned country with assurance and listened actively when questioned about its policies. They were graceful and exercised tact, and had learned that seeking to foster mutual understanding is an accomplishment in and of itself. I had learned the very same.

My advice to prospective applicants is to seek out opportunities that involve working with diverse groups of people. Whether it is through internships or community service, it is important to place yourself in settings that will encourage engaging in all kinds of conversations and events. Take time to reflect on how you might navigate your way through tough conversations during your grant. Be ready to dispel myths about Americans that may make you giggle, frown or feel surprised. If you have reflected and are eager to pursue a Fulbright grant, then be prepared for one of the most amazing experiences of your life.

Photo: Linnette Franco, 2009-2010, English Teaching Assistant to Spain, helping her students interpret a popular American rap song during one of her English classes (photo courtesy of Jermil Sadler)

U.S. Fulbright

The Role of the Spanish Constitutional Court in Shaping Immigrants’ Rights in Spain, By Cris Ramón, 2008-2009, Spain

May 11, 2011

In September 2008, I arrived in Madrid to study the legal rights of immigrants in Spain.  Much like Ireland and Italy, immigrants’ rights have become a major political and legal issue in Spain given the recent growth of its immigrant population.  For my Fulbright project, I analyzed the legal impact of seven sentences that the Spanish Constitutional Court issued against the Ley Orgánica 8/2000, a reform of Spain’s main immigration law.  The reform, which was introduced by center-right Partido Popular in 2000, stated that immigrants could not exercise certain constitutional rights such as the right to public assembly.  In 2007, the Court declared these provisions unconstitutional because they deny individuals Constitutional rights guaranteed to all.

My research focused on determining whether these sentences prompted legislators to further expand immigrants’ rights in additional law reforms.  I interviewed immigration attorneys, law professors, politicians from Spain’s main political parties, and non-governmental organization and labor union representatives.  I intended to understand how judicial and political concerns had shaped the original law.  I discovered that while legislators fulfilled the Court’s mandate to remove the unconstitutional provisions, political concerns regarding the Spanish economic crisis led them to restrict other fundamental rights to control the influx of immigrants.  In other words, political factors continued to limit immigrants’ legal rights despite the Court’s efforts to expand them.

In addition to my research, I worked with six fellow Fulbrighters, also studying immigration in Spain, to organize a conference titled, From Emigration to Immigration: Seven American Perspectives on Immigration in Spain.  It was a success on several levels.   We had a standing room only crowd, and an engaging discussion took place about how the United States and Spain can help each other improve their ability to assimilate immigrants.  Planning and executing this conference was definitely one of the highlights of my Fulbright grant!

The most fulfilling aspect of my time in Spain, however, was that my appreciation of immigrant aspirations, like those that inspired my parents to move to the United States, deepened based on conversations that I had with Spaniards I met and with whom I worked.  Since most probably hadn’t previously interacted with the American son of Salvadoran immigrants, these interactions became an opportunity to explain how my family’s story reflected the common immigrant aspiration to move to the United States in search of a better life.  Some Spaniards shared their own family’s emigrant history during and after the Spanish Civil War.  These conversations helped me to understand how powerful shared or similar experiences can be in connecting people.  My Fulbright grant has not only helped me feel more connected to Spain’s history of emigration and immigration, but also to my family’s own story.

Two pieces of advice for applicants pursuing study/research grants:

  • You’re a young professional with no immediate plans to attend grad school?  Apply!

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program welcomes applications from all individuals who are U.S. citizens and have at least a bachelor’s degree or equivalent, including young professionals who aren’t in grad school or currently enrolled in an academic program.  If you want to carry out research in a specific country, review the Fulbright Country Summaries to see if the country to which you’re applying prefers applicants who haven’t completed a graduate degree.  Also, make sure to get in touch with your alma mater to find out if they would be willing to assist with your At-Large application. Many college and universities will also accept alumni applicants for the on-campus competition.

  • With a little effort, finding a host affiliation is absolutely possible.

Fulbright applicants without a research affiliation in their chosen country can be creative about finding one.   My undergrad professors and I did not have any academic contacts with law professors in Madrid, so I went through the faculty sites of every major university in Madrid and emailed a copy of my preliminary proposal to professors specializing in immigration law.  I received a response from my future advisor, Diego, within 24 hours.  While this specific approach won’t work everywhere, it is one of many possibilities for making contacts abroad.

Photo: Cris Ramón, 2008-2009, Spain (top row, right) with six fellow Fulbrighters who collaborated on the From Emigration to Immigration: Seven American Perspectives on Immigration in Spain conference: (Top row, left to right) Jesse Feinberg, Marisa Diaz, Oscar Perez de La Fuente (Professor of Philosophy at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid), Alexandra Hinojosa; (Bottom row, left to right) Nicole Nfonoyim, Peter Holderness, and Michelle Dezember.

Questions for Cris about his Fulbright experiences?  Feel free to email him at

U.S. Fulbright

A Home Away from Home: Rediscovering Foreignness and Familiarity During My Fulbright in Spain, By Yasamin Rahmani, 2009-2010, Spain

August 1, 2010

The world begins and ends in Amrika. For my parents, that would be “um-REE-kah,” the Farsi-infused pronunciation of America. This was my family’s motto when we joined the multitude of transplanted souls who traded the familiarity of home for an embryonic opportunity of a better life. The phrase can be perceived negatively, suggesting a myopic America distant from the rest of the world. However, we were the uprooted, the mythical “huddled masses” and “the homeless, tempest-tossed” engraved on Lady Liberty. Our definition was born from a gold-plated dream that drew millions of immigrants to the United States. The dream—and its sometimes ugly underbelly—is always different, but for my parents it meant building the life that we could not have back in Iran.

I was eight years old when we moved from Tehran to Atlanta.

The journey was overwhelming – from the initial shock of cultural dislocation, to the slow process of adapting and finally integrating into my surrogate home. Resident alien, cultural chameleon, naturalized citizen, hyphenated American, Persian-or-Iranian, and just plain American—it was evolution on a small scale. I faced a whirlwind of triumphs and failures as my coming-of-age story collided into the uncharted territories of coming-to-America. The experience left a few scabby memories but no permanent scars.

I have come a long way since my days as a shy Middle Eastern girl, but once again, I find myself as a foreigner in a new country. Exactly one month from today, I will celebrate a year abroad in Valencia, Spain with the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. The grant allowed me to research under the mentorship of Dr. Almudena Ramón Cueto, a renowned spinal cord injury investigator. My project examines the regenerative potential of olfactory cell transplants as a treatment for people living with paralysis, a condition that currently has no cure. As a pre-medical student and a compulsive planner, you would think that going for a Fulbright scholarship was part of some preemptive plot, but it was never the plan. It was when my plans changed that the pieces of my Fulbright application fell into place. My first detour was the Petit Undergraduate Research Scholars program at the Georgia Institute of Technology. It was here that I fell for neuroscience research. A year later, I wandered off again on the Georgia State study abroad program to Spain. It was an unrelated effort to improve my Spanish. Junior year almost had me back on the pre-med track until I found out about Dr. Ramón Cueto. She was well-known in the research community, her entire scientific career was dedicated to finding a cure for spinal cord injuries, and her laboratory was located in Spain. It is funny how plans change. Instead of applying for medical school, I applied for a Fulbright grant.

My Fulbright experience has been an incredible year but the first few months were the most difficult. I found myself in that interstitial space between tourist, expatriate, and immigrant. I discovered my foreignness once again, this time not as an Iranian, but as an American. In many ways, my Fulbright year mimicked the same rewards and obstacles I faced growing up. These included the obvious language barrier, the struggle for balance between foreignness and familiarity, and the constant need to reaffirm that decision to move in the first place. They are all manageable hurdles with persistence and dedication. What lies past those challenges is that international spirit that is embodied within the goals of the Fulbright Program: of exchanging knowledge, people, and ideas. These are the true treasures of navigating a new country on a Fulbright grant.

To the prospective grantee, I urge you to take the plunge and apply.

The experience is a rare opportunity to add a new dimension to every aspect of your life. Professionally, you become more versatile and less conventional. Personally, you become more accessible and less afraid. The stereotypes melt and in the process of immersing yourself into a new culture, you become more aware of your own. For some, the host country becomes a new home country, making the voyage back filled with uncertainty. Born in Iran, educated in America and currently anchored in Spain—my personal world map labels all three as home. When will I go back? I imagine one day. And to where? That is the hardest question of all.

As you are preparing to apply, keep in mind the two essentials of a successful Fulbright application: matching what you are passionate about with a solid network.

1. Find your passion.

You certainly cannot buy it. You can hardly fake it. And nobody can come and give it to you. It is that unshakable energy that drives each and every Fulbright grantee. It is called passion, that elusive intersection of interest and talent. Everyone experiences it differently. But before even thinking about applying, take the time out to find out what you are passionate about. This will be at the heart of your grant proposal and will help you decide the focus of your project. More importantly, it will make it easier to persuade Fulbright reviewers to invest in your proposal. Genuine passion radiates easily, making for an authentic and convincing project proposal.

So what if you have not found it yet?

This may sound counter-intuitive, but avoid looking for it. The process will leave you feeling frustrated and disappointed. Instead, experiment. Surf the possibilities by trying new things, anything and everything. When something excites you, dive in deeper. Also try not to limit yourself by time. The beauty of the Fulbright Program is that there are no age limits: you can apply at the age of 22 or 32. You have a chance at it every year, so take the time to find out what you are truly passionate about.

Where do I start?

• Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture: Achieving Your Childhood Dreams
( An incredibly inspirational story.

• The Art of Manliness: Finding Your Calling Part IV
( A five part series on how to find your vocation. Ladies, please do not judge this website by the name. I promise you that the advice is universal, regardless of their intended male audience.

• Scott Young: Seven Steps to Evolving a Passion
A great article that puts things into perspective, showing that finding your passion is not an overwhelming, large-than-life task.

2. Build and maintain a professional network.

Your personal and professional contacts are one of the most important resources available to you. This is true whether you are applying for a Fulbright grant or just getting started with your career. But a network is so much more than colorful business cards and email addresses; it is all about the quality and diversity of these relationships, built one connection at a time. If you have a strong network, then it will be much easier to establish your host country affiliation. This is exactly how I acquired my affiliation in Valencia; my research adviser collaborated with the head of spinal cord injury research at the Shepherd’s Center, who had attended the Miami Center for Paralysis, where Dr. Ramón Cueto was a visiting professor. It was just a matter of leveraging my existing network to help put me in touch with Dr. Ramón Cueto.

Where do I start?

Manager Tools: How to Build your Network
This podcast is aimed at managers in the business world, but the basic principles can help you get closer to obtaining your affiliation. More importantly, they explain the difference between a real “network” and the fakeness of “networking.”

Manager Tools: How to Maintain a Network
Another Manager Tools podcast on the topic of how to maintain your network. You can’t build a network overnight, but with a few simple tools you can help sustain it. This website also contains a wealth of information that can be applied to all aspects of your career.

Once you’re on the path to finding your passion and building a professional network, the Fulbright U.S. Student Program has a wealth of resources to assist you in applying in addition to this blog:

Fulbright Directories

An often overlooked source of finding affiliations for your Fulbright proposal are the Fulbright directories of current and former Fulbright students and scholars. If you are having trouble finding an affiliation through your own networks, try reaching out to Fulbright U.S. grantees who have gone to your proposed host country and to Fulbright Foreign grantees from your proposed host country:

Fulbright U.S. Student Directory

Fulbright Foreign Student Directory

Fulbright Scholar Directory

Podcasts (available on iTunes)

Four types of podcasts are currently available:

My Fulbright Life:
Interviews with current Fulbrighters talking about their projects and experiences overseas.
Applicant Podcast: Interviews with IIE Program Managers and others on how to complete a successful Fulbright application.

Fulbright Alumni Roundtables: Interviews with Fulbright U.S. Student Program alumni grouped by world region or type of grant discussing their experiences in applying and being overseas.

Fulbright Guidance Sessions: Presentations with Q&A sessions on applying to the Fulbright U.S. Student Program held around the country.


Webinars provide an online forum for applicants to learn more about the program and to ask questions about applying. IIE Program Managers and Fulbright alumni moderate the discussions followed by question and answer sessions. Study or research and English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) applicants are encouraged to attend the session related to their proposed country of application. Check the home page regularly for dates and times.


The Fulbright Program has a YouTube page where you can view videos of students and Fulbright staff members talking about the Fulbright U.S. Student Program.


Join the official Fulbright page on Facebook to learn more about the Fulbright Program and connect with others – including Fulbright alumni, current grantees and other prospective applicants from around the world. Check the Fulbright Facebook page regularly for news, events, resources and more.


The Fulbright U.S. Student Program is now on Twitter! Students can follow the Fulbright U.S. Student Program and receive updates at:

Last but not least, you can speak with Fulbright U.S. Student Program staff Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., EDT.

Good luck!

Photo: Yasamin Rahmani, 2009-2010, in front of L’Hemisfèric, located in the City of Arts & Sciences in Valencia, Spain, designed by architect Santiago Calatrava.


Unveiling a Vibrant Culture in Spain’s Historic Villages, By Dave Daversa, 2008-2009, Spain

February 22, 2010

My recent Fulbright experience led me to Spain for very scientific objectives. I went to research a disease known as Chytridiomycosis, which has proven to be a major threat to amphibian species around the world. Before my Fulbright grant, my long term study of alpine amphibian populations infected by this rapidly-spreading disease offered me important new insights into the disease’s ecological dynamics. Some of the most valuable and unexpected discoveries I made during my Fulbright experience, however, were not scientific nor were they found at my field sites. My most profound experiences came from close contact with Spanish culture in small towns that see few foreign visitors.

Spain abounds with historic villages in all of its regions: from the sunny and warm coasts of Andalusia to the mist-covered mountains of the Pyrenees. Each village has a distinct character, history and atmosphere. After moving from the urbanity of Madrid to these rural regions, I became hooked on everything “de pueblo” (from the village). This single Spanish phrase, though seemingly short and insignificant, denotes a myriad of qualities and characteristics about a region, its people and its landscape. For me, the descriptor always conveyed something positive. Romantic, pastoral landscapes boasting herds of sheep and long rows of grapevines serve as a quintessential “de pueblo” scene. Long, unhurried Sunday afternoon lunches in the company of close friends and family undoubtedly exemplify a typical “de pueblo” activity. A corner bar hosting a native clientele who hovers over wooden bar tops while snacking on cured ham and sipping a small glass of beer embodies the epitome a “de pueblo” atmosphere. Eating chorizo and cheese at ten o’clock in the morning is very “de pueblo.” My friend’s white-walled farmhouse in Andalusia’s olive country could be considered “de pueblo.” The narrow, winding cobblestone avenues enclosed by tile roofed and stone walled buildings in Segovia’s Jewish sector paint a scene that is definitely “de pueblo.” The cranky bartender at a rustic restaurant in an Asturian Mountain village who hesitatingly served me and a research colleague drinks was undeniably “de pueblo.” At once, this commonly used phrase suggests simplicity, authenticity, antiquity, family and a lifestyle not found in the city.

The most profound aspect of “de pueblo” life is undoubtedly the people. The closest friendships I made during my Fulbright grant were with people from small villages. These friends and their families often hosted fabulous meals in their homes. Over elaborate meals, I learned about Basque culture’s history, the increasing political and cultural divide between Catalonia and other areas of the country and many other interesting aspects of Spain’s rich cultural and political history. Simply stated, my most genuine and valuable education about Spain was instilled in a village setting. This unlikely cultural education embodies the Fulbright Program’s goals of promoting mutual understanding between nations and cross-cultural immersion. Learning does not only occur in an academic setting, but also in the world’s vast unknown regions possessing a diversity of cultures, each containing history and traditions not always found in a library. As I prepare to return to this lovely country after my Fulbright grant for further academic pursuits, one is likely to find me in a tiny, historic village enjoying a fruitful life that is “de pueblo.”

Photo: Dave Daversa, 2008-2009, Spain, and his co-researcher Saioa Beaskoetxea at one of their field sites in Penalara Natural Park located in the Sierra de Guadarrama Mountains outside of Madrid.