Fulbright recipients are agents of change
Elon is consistently ranked as a top producer of Fulbright students who teach, study or conduct research abroad after graduation.
By Alexa Boschini ’10
When Jenna Mason ’16 first arrived in Thung Saliam, a small village in rural Thailand about seven hours north of Bangkok, she barely spoke her students’ language. Plunged into a completely different culture more than 8,000 miles from home, she found common ground through her camera. Mason, a Fulbright grant recipient, was one of the first Americans to live in Thung Saliam, and the first native English speaker many of her students had ever met. But the relationship she forged with them through photography pierced the language barrier. They loved having their photos taken, and interacting with Mason and her camera became a shared visual form of communication. “It was three or four months in before the kids really started responding, and the camera was probably the biggest influencer,” Mason says.
During her time teaching conversational English in Thailand, Mason not only bonded with her students but with the whole community. She dined with them (the kids particularly enjoyed watching her try spicy local fare). She learned Thai from her neighbors and fellow teachers. She participated in ceremonies celebrating the life of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand’s longest-serving monarch who died shortly after Mason arrived in the country. Just as she shared her culture with her Thai community, she carried their traditions with her when she returned to the United States.
Mason was no stranger to global education while at Elon, where she was a Periclean Scholar and majored in special education and middle level education. She spent a Winter Term in Costa Rica; a summer in Salamanca, Spain; and a summer interning in the United Kingdom. But after graduation, she wanted a more immersive experience abroad. Living and working in a new country for a year, she says, was the most humbling experience of her life. “Those experiences at Elon made me realize that I was only getting a taste of places and cultures, and in order to really immerse, I needed to live somewhere for a longer period,” Mason says. “Fulbright is such a strong and sustainable program, so that became the way that I could fulfill that mission.”
Mason is one of 48 Elon students to be awarded grants from the Fulbright U.S. Student Program since 2007. Since its inception, the Fulbright Program has provided more than 380,000 participants—chosen for their academic merit and leadership potential—with the opportunity to study, teach English or conduct research abroad. More than 1,900 U.S. students, artists and young professionals in more than 100 different fields of study are offered Fulbright Program grants annually. For four consecutive years, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs has recognized Elon as a top producer of Fulbright recipients.
Janet Myers, professor of English and director of national and international fellowships, says Elon students’ unique qualifications make them an exceptional fit for the Fulbright program. “Oftentimes it’s things they’ve already done at Elon that will make them competitive,” Myers says. “One of the major questions on the application is, ‘Is your project feasible?’ The Elon Experiences give students the tools they need to achieve that. Leadership, research, community service, study abroad, internships—those experiences we emphasize dovetail really nicely with what the fellowships are looking for. I think that’s crucial to the success of Elon students.”
The Fulbright Program was established under legislation introduced by the late U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas in 1946 to exchange ideas and find solutions to shared international concerns. Funded through an annual appropriation made by Congress to the Department of State, the program now operates in more than 140 countries around the world. In addition to its student program, Fulbright a wards grants to U.S. scholars, teachers and faculty to conduct research and teach overseas. Some 4,000 new foreign Fulbright students and scholars also come to the United States annually to study for graduate degrees, conduct research and teach foreign languages.
“One of the first things I tell students when I’m describing the Fulbright Program is its mission to promote mutual understanding between citizens of the U.S. and citizens of other countries,” says Sarah Lentz Krech ’13, associate director of national and international fellowships. “It’s the flagship international exchange program, the first of its kind. It was founded shortly after World War II with excess money from leftover war funds. Its mission is really powerful, and that’s where its prestige comes from.” Elon’s involvement in the Fulbright U.S. Student Program is more recent, but success came quickly. The university began keeping records about its Fulbright recipients in 2007, when Jennifer Romano ’07 received an English teaching assistantship in Argentina. After just a couple of years, the number of Elon students and alumni awarded grants annually steadily rose.
Elon’s fellowships initiative grew from the Honors Program when Myers was that program’s associate director. As the initiative evolved into the National & International Fellowships Office, Elon began recruiting students to apply for Fulbright grants. Initially only a handful of students applied each year, but as Elon’s representation in the Fulbright Program grew, so did its applicant pool. Today, about 20–30 Elon students apply for Fulbright grants annually. “Students who are a great fit demonstrate their authentic appreciation for other cultures,” Krech says. “If they can leverage their studies abroad or maybe cross-cultural experiences within the United States, then that’s often what makes for a good Fulbright application.”
Though the latest crop of finalists are just beginning their Fulbright experience, the application process for next year’s recipients has already begun. For Elon students, that process begins in the spring of junior year. Alumni can also apply through Elon as long as they don’t have a doctoral degree, which falls under a different Fulbright program. Applicants can only submit for one grant in one country each cycle, so determining the right fit is critical. “Fulbright is a bit of a different beast because you’re applying just to one country and for one type of grant. You’re only competing with the people in that pool,” Myers says. “It really is geared toward whether you are well-suited to this specific niche. Sometimes students will discover they already have everything they need to do that project.”
The rigorous application process includes developing a research, study or teaching project; writing application essays and engaging in feedback sessions through the Fellowships Office; and completing an on-campus or Skype interview with Elon’s Fulbright Campus Committee, which includes 18 faculty and staff members. Fulbright’s National Screening Committee recommends semifinalists, who are then evaluated by a Fulbright panel in their chosen country. Finalists spend nine to 12 months abroad completing their project. A record 11 Elon students and alumni were awarded grants in spring 2018.
The resources the Fellowships Office provides are key to Elon’s growth in the Fulbright Program. “Dr. Myers was instrumental in helping me turn my seed of an idea for a project into a really strong proposal,” says Chris Jarrett ’11, who completed research in Ecuador through a Fulbright grant. “That kind of support does not necessarily exist in other places.”
Jarrett’s project stemmed directly from his undergraduate research at Elon. The international studies and Spanish major received the Lumen Prize, Elon’s top award for undergraduate research and creative achievement, and conducted research in the Amazonian region of Ecuador. He secured an internship there the following summer working with an organization that sold products made from guayusa, a caffeinated holly leaf native to the Amazon rainforest, to the U.S. Though its commercial use is relatively new, guayusa has been a significant part of rituals in the region for centuries.
Jarrett interviewed indigenous Kichwa people in Ecuador about how guayusa has been traditionally understood and valued in the community, with the goal of preserving knowledge about this cultural practice. He continued the work through his Fulbright grant and ultimately compiled the narratives into a book written in Kichwa, Spanish and English. He is now conducting long-term field work in Ecuador as a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at San Antonio. For that work he received a National Science Foundation grant and a Fulbright-Hays grant, which supports research and training with a focus on non-Western foreign languages and area studies.
“I tried to structure my first Fulbright project in a way that would fit the mission of the program, which is to emphasize or promote intercultural exchange and understanding,” Jarrett says. “The cultural adjustment and the linguistic adjustment were challenges, but it was a very enriching experience that laid the foundation for everything I’m doing now. And I built relationships with people that I still work with today, so that’s been special.”
In addition to study and research grants, many Elon Fulbright applicants pursue English teaching assistantships. Global study was familiar territory for Omolayo Ojo ’15, who moved to the U.S. from Nigeria with her family at age 7. At Elon, the international studies major, Periclean Scholar and Honors Fellow spent a Winter Term in Ghana and conducted research in Senegal and New York for her Lumen Prize project. But teaching English in France through her Fulbright grant was a completely different experience that broadened her worldview. “In Senegal, I had the structure of the study abroad program. In France, I was just kind of thrown in,” Ojo says. “Fulbright helps you out with information you might need, but finding an apartment, opening a bank account, etc., you had to do on your own and in French. My French classes at Elon and my study abroad experience certainly helped me.”
Ojo chose France for her Fulbright experience because she wanted to improve her French and continue studying migration outside the confines of a research project. She worked as an English teacher’s aide 20 hours a week at a multicultural school where many of her students were first- or second-generation immigrants, and in her spare time volunteere
d at two immigration and refugee organizations. Her work in and out of the classroom allowed her to explore what immigration looks like in different countries on a personal level, and allowed her to be an ambassador for American culture as well.
“Without the steps I took at Elon, not only would I not have known I wanted a more international career, but I don’t think I would have been a strong candidate for Fulbright,” Ojo says. “The experiences Elon promotes are exactly what Fulbright is looking for—leaders who are invested in global citizenship. Fulbright is looking for self-starters and go-getters, and Elon attracts and breeds those students.”
Steven Armendariz ’17, a political science and international studies double major, Isabella Cannon Leadership Fellow and Odyssey Program Scholar, studied abroad twice at Elon, once during Winter Term and one Semester at Sea. But it was his work with the “It Take a Village” Project, a children’s literacy program, that motivated him to apply for a Fulbright teaching assistantship grant in Spain. “While working with the Village Project, I realized the passion I hold for teaching , specifically English as a second language,” Armendariz says. “I also participated in a service learning program in Nicaragua, where serendipitously I taught at a local primary school. The experience was a crucial foundation for discovering my passion for teaching and working with local communities domestically and abroad.”
Armendariz began his Fulbright experience as an assistant teacher at a secondary school in Madrid. During the fall and winter semesters he taught his own course, Global Classroom, in which he used Model United Nations programming to teach his students about international diplomacy. His class was one from more than 80 schools that came together for a simulated U.N. discussion about human rights and the World Bank. Armendariz says it was rewarding to watch his students develop a passion for international relations and put their knowledge into action at the same time he was expanding his own perception of the world. He interviewed local residents for an independent project about the diversity of Madrid, learned more about the workings of the European Union and witnessed a major current event unfold firsthand: Catalonia’s movement to seek independence from Spain.
“I would recommend other Elon students and alumni apply if they want to push themselves to a new challenging experience that will allow them to grow personally and professionally,” Armendariz says. “They will have the ability to impact a local community while gaining new life lessons and values they can bring back to the United States, and they can teach the people they encounter abroad about United States culture. It is an opportunity to truly become a global agent of change.”
In addition to Elon’s emphasis on experiential learning, Myers cites the close mentoring relationships between students and faculty or staff members as a crucial part of students’ success in the Fulbright program. Myers, Krech and the rest of Elon’s Fulbright Campus Committee mentor students throughout the application process, and students must obtain three letters of recommendation from professors, employers or internship supervisors. “Those carry a lot of weight in reassuring the selection committee that the project is feasible and that this student can indeed spend nine to 12 months carrying it out and adapting to another country,” Krech says. “The mentoring is really special here at Elon.”
Mason credits her Periclean Scholars mentor, Senior Lecturer in Spanish and Assistant Director of Project Pericles April Post, with teaching her not what to think but how to think about the world and her role in it. Mason says Post was the greatest influence in her decision to apply for a Fulbright grant. “April supported my goals wholeheartedly, and I’m not sure I would have had the faith in myself to apply for it if it hadn’t been for her encouragement,” she says.
Armendariz and Ojo both count Jean Rattigan-Rohr, professor of education, executive director of community partnerships and director of the Center for Access and Success, as an important mentor during their time at Elon. Rattigan-Rohr says she isn’t surprised Armendariz, Ojo and many other Elon students have been so successful in the Fulbright program. “Both Omolayo and Steven were great fits for Fulbright because of who they are,” she says. “They’re both very caring, passionate young people who are able to clearly articulate a vision for how they want to operate in the world as they strive toward improving the lives of others. I would call them servant leaders in the true sense.”
That attitude coupled with the support of the Fellowships Office and Elon’s commitment to experiential learning have allowed the Fulbright program to flourish. Myers views Elon’s growth in the program as a ripple effect. As students see more and more of their peers securing Fulbright grants, their confidence in their own ability to succeed in the program grows. A wall in Powell Building features photos of Elon’s most recent Fulbright recipients, providing a visual representation of students’ achievement in the program that prospective applicants see as soon as they walk into the Fellowships Office.
“I think a big factor is students seeing that other students get Fulbrights,” Myers says. “Fulbright is perceived to be very prestigious, so it takes some students actually winning and coming back and talking about their experiences for other students to actually say, ‘Maybe I could do the Fulbright Program.’” Though Elon students have traditionally been drawn to the English teaching assistantship grants, Myers says interest in and acceptance to the study/research programs is on the rise.
Fulbright recipients find value in the work opportunities and intercultural experiences the program offers regardless of discipline or post-graduate plans. Mason transferred the skills and values she garnered from the Fulbright Program to Greenwich, Connecticut, where she teaches students with language-based learning disabilities at Eagle Hill School and hopes to pursue a master’s degree in speech pathology. Ojo went to Nigeria for a year and a half and worked through the country’s National Youth Service Corps before returning to the U.S. as a digital marketing consultant. Jarrett is exploring opportunities in Ecuador and the U.S. as he finishes his dissertation, and Armendariz hopes to continue teaching in Madrid.
Whatever one’s long-term goals, Jarrett says the Fulbright Program is a powerful way to learn about the world and give back to the global community. “You shouldn’t think about it only if you want to work abroad or in academia,” Jarrett says. “It can open doors and give you experiences that will serve you in anything you might want to do afterward. Imagine Fulbright being one stepping stone toward lots of possible opportunities.”