Four awarded Fulbright grants to study and conduct research abroad

Three members of Elon’s Class of 2018 and a recent alumna are among 10 Elon students selected for Fulbright awards this year — a record for the university. 

Three members of Elon’s Class of 2018 and a recent alumna will be studying and conducting research abroad in the coming year with the support of Fulbright awards.

This spring saw 11 current or recently graduated Elon students selected to receive Fulbright awards, the most the university has seen in a single year. Along with these students who will be studying and conducting research in Finland, the United Kingdom and India, six Elon seniors and a 2016 alumna were selected as Fulbright English Teaching Assistants.

The accomplishments of these seniors add to Elon’s reputation as a top producer of Fulbright Award winners.

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, the Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government. Congress established the program in 1946 “to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.”

Recipients of Fulbright grants are selected on the basis of academic or professional achievement, as well as demonstrated leadership potential in their fields. The Fulbright study/research awards are available in approximately 140 countries worldwide, with recipients enrolling in graduate programs or designing their own independent research projects in conjunction with affiliates in universities or relevant institutions abroad.

Brianna Birchett

Birchett, originally from Asheville, N.C., graduated in 2017 as an international studies major and will be conducting research in India with the support of the Fulbright award.

An Elon College Fellow, Birchett was a Lumen Prize winner who focused her research on the effects of 20th century political reformists on modern conceptions of devadasis, who are hereditary female dancers and courtesans in Hindu temples. Her Lumen Prize mentor is Brian Pennington, professor of religious studies and director of the Center for the Study of Religion, Culture and Society.

““The complexity of the issues that Brianna’s project tackled and the analytical subtlety they required were among the most challenging of those faced by any student I have taught or advised,” Pennington says. “Her persistence in difficult research contexts allowed her to uncover important and little-considered factors in a highly contested social system in India. Particularly gratifying to me as a mentor is that she now intends to leverage what she is learning in India via Humanities and Social Science disciplines for a career in global public health, signaling the practical and policy arenas to which she will apply what her research has and will show.” 

Birchett has studied abroad in India three separate times while a student at Elon, and looks forward to returning to the country to continue her research.

“I am elated to continue and complete a project that has been near to my heart for years now and that I believe is important for better understanding how the world perceives a community that has been thoroughly stereotyped and disenfranchised,” Birchett says. “A Fulbright award demonstrates that others also believe this research is warranted—and what a wonderful feeling that is! There are few things as rewarding as others validating and supporting the work into which you have poured your time, energy, and love.”

Since graduating in 2017, Birchett has been serving as national campaign coordinator at the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation. She’s eager to return to her research and truly integrate into a community as professional ethnographic researchers do. “Building close relationships and experiencing what it means to be a researcher living and breathing her study will be invaluable to a future working in community health development,” Birchett says.

Anya Fredsell

After graduating from Elon with a religious studies degree, Fredsell will be traveling to India to continue research she’s dedicated herself to while at Elon.

Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, Fredsell is an Elon College Fellow and is a recipient of the Elon Presidential Scholarship, Rawls Endowed Research Grant, the Center for Research on Global Engagement Grant, the Graves Family and Johnson Family religious studies endowed grants, and the Lumen Prize, Elon’s most prestigious research award. She’s a recipient of the Outstanding Scholar of Religion Award and is a member of the Theta Alpha Kappa (Religious Studies) and Phi Kappa Phi honor societies.

Fredsell has already spent significant time conducting fieldwork and research in India focused on South Asian religions, modern transnational yoga traditions, global Hinduism and women’s religious practices. Her Lumen Prize research has centered on exploring yoga’s changing role in global society through an ethnographic study of yoga communities.

“This award means returning to my favorite city, Chennai, where daily life entails visiting vibrant religious sites, perusing colorful vegetable markets, participating in lively festivals and processions, and offering spinach and head rubs to friendly neighborhood goats and cows,” Fredsell says. “In this framework, I will develop connections with people I encounter at my field sites and throughout everyday encounters to learn about their experiences and perspectives.”

Amy Allocco, associate professor of religious studies, has worked with Fredsell as her mentor, and says her academic record, research acumen along with her significant study and research experience in India have her uniquely poised for a Fulbright research fellowship.

“Anya has identified a worthy research question and crafted an eminently feasible project about which she is passionate and for which she has assembled an impressive network of contacts in India, resulting in not one but two letters of affiliation from distinguished local institutions,” Allocco says. Her Fulbright project, ‘Spiritual, Secular, Sacred?: Religion and Yoga in South India,’ analyzes how yoga practices and discourses fit into contemporary conversations about the nature of “religion” and Indian identity. Anya’s project brings her academic training and her experience together with her own identity as a yoga teacher and practitioner, and will lay the foundation for her future graduate work and career as a teacher-scholar of South Asian religions.”

Fredsell anticipates her work as a Fulbright award winner will provide her with “the expertise to both establish my voice as an emerging scholar in these developing conversations and create lasting relationships in local South Indian communities that I will maintain throughout my career.” She anticipates earning her master’s and doctoral degrees in South Asian religions. She aspires to develop Tamil language skills and continue ethnographic research in South India as she pursues a career as a teacher-scholar-mentor in religious studies.

Samantha Friedman

A special education and social studies major, Friedman will be studying and conducting research in the United Kingdom, thanks to the Fulbright award.

Originally from Missouri, she’s a Teaching Fellow and member of Phi Beta Kappa who during her time as an Elon student has studied in Argentina, Washington, D.C., Austria, Hungary and Germany. She’s been involved as an academic coach and coach coordinator with the Elon Academy.

A recipient of the Lumen Prize, Friedman has worked with mentor Scott Morrison, assistant professor of education, to study the effects of outdoor learning environments on children with autism. Her long-term goals include eventually opening a behavioral therapy center that uses outdoor spaces for therapeutic purposes.

“The resume that Sam has put together over the years puts her in rare company,” Morrison says. “She has proven over and over that she is insatiably determined and driven by excellence. Her Lumen Prize research on the effects of outdoor learning environments on students with autism will make a significant contribution to the fields of special education and environmental education. More than that, the practical implications will enhance the lives of children and their families.” 

She’ll be studying and researching at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, which is home to the National Centre for Autism Studies. “Receiving a Fulbright grant will allow me to earn a master’s degree studying autism spectrum disorder at a university that houses Scotland’s national center for autism,” Friedman says. “I will also be in very close proximity to a research partner that I have worked with for my Lumen project, which will be invaluable in expanding upon that research.”

She looks forward to the opportunity to grow further by living somewhere far from home and immersing herself in her research. Participating as a Fulbright recipient in “a rigorous graduate program combined with a research project will challenge me to become a better student and lifelong learner,” she says.

Sarah Holdren

Holdren, who is originally from Zanesville, Ohio, will be studying and conducting research at the University of Turku in Finland through her Fulbright award.

She majored in anthropology and public health studies and was an Honors Fellow, a Harvard T.H. Chan Multidisciplinary Research Training Fellow and was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Kappa Phi honor societies. She served as executive director of outreach and collaboration for Elon Volunteers!, was volunteer coordinator at the Open Door Clinic of Alamance County, participated with the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership Foundation and was a member of Kappa Delta.

As a recipient of the Lumen Prize, Holdren focused on how the medicalized culture of neonatal intensive care units impacts the experiences that mothers have feeding their infants. It’s an area of research Holdren will continue to focus on during her time in Finland.

“I plan to spend my year as a Fulbright student conducting research in Finland to better understand their cultural approach to milk utilization in the NICU,” Holdren says.  

Cindy Fair, professor of public health studies and Holdren’s Lumen Prize mentor, says that it’s been a joy to work with Holdren on this important research. “Her research skills are outstanding,” Fair says. “She was able to quickly establish rapport with mothers whose infants had been admitted to the NICU. It was clear that her participants welcomed the opportunity to share their infant feeding stories. Sarah’s work has meaningful clinical implications and, if implemented, could improve the quality of life for parents and premature infants.”

Holdren is interested in the intersections of culture and medicine and through her Fulbright year, hopes to add a cross-cultural component to her research so that she can document how these experiences might differ based on the health systems of different countries.

“Receiving a Fulbright Grant to the University of Turku in Finland is such an honor,” Holdren says. “As a person who values the importance of family-centered care in medicine, I am eager to learn from the physicians and researchers at the University of Turku and eventually implement their skills in my own practice as a future physician. I hope that I will be able to gain both the clinical and research skills to continue doing family-centered research in the U.S., in addition to building strong relationships with international scholars who aid in creating more welcoming and inclusive medical environments.”

Holdren is also the recipient of a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, and following her Fulbright year, she will begin graduate study in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University. Her plans long-term include attending medical school and becoming a maternal and child health physician and scientist.

Students and recent alumni interested in Fulbright U.S. Student Grants and other nationally competitive awards are invited to contact the National and International Fellowships Office at