Today finally marks my first day as a Fulbright Scholar—nearly a full two years after I was awarded my first Fulbright grant.
I guess this story started in 2014, the year I can first remember seriously looking into the Fulbright program. I was a sophomore in college, and the closest thing I had to a life plan was to do things (i.e. being paid to living abroad on a prestigious fellowship) that sounded cool. But as I continued to grow throughout college, I realized I cared deeply about breaking down barriers and fostering mutual understanding, especially among different cultures. So naturally, I love the idea of Fulbright.
The Fulbright program is an international exchange program run by the State Department meant to increase mutual understanding between people in the United States and other countries. It was the brainchild of Arkansas senator William J. Fulbright, who in 1945 proposed that the US use excess war funds to fund international exchange. Although the values he espoused might not have always been fully reflected in his voting record, I admire his idealism and his commitment to working towards a future of peace:
“Finally, the Program aims, through these means, to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby to increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship.”
– William J. Fulbright, Foreword, The Fulbright Program: A History
Since President Truman signed the program into law in 1946, approximately 370,000 Fulbrighters—students, scholars, teachers, professionals, artists, and scientists from both the US and abroad—have participated in it. Among these Fulbrighters are hundreds of Nobel laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners, MacArthur Fellows, and heads of state.
During the start of my senior year, I filled out an application to join them. I applied to serve as an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in Turkey through Fulbright’s US Student Program. I wanted to work with university students, volunteer with Syrian refugees, and explore Turkey’s uneasy balance between secularism and Islam. So I was ecstatic when, in the spring of 2016, I was awarded a grant.
You may remember, however, that the summer of 2016 saw a terrorist attack in Istanbul’s airport and then an attempted coup in Ankara. And you can probably imagine why the State Department wouldn’t be wild about letting loose a few dozen US college grads into a country that was jailing thousands of academics for alleged participation in an alleged coup by a preacher who has so far avoided extradition and resides in Pennsylvania. They canceled the program.
Frankly, this sucked. I recognize that tens of thousands of people were far more affected by this development, but still, going to Turkey was something I was really excited about. And because so much of the funding for the program came from the Turkish side of the program, the State Department couldn’t do anything for us.
But then I go to apply to Fulbright again that fall, and I totally forget the lesson I just learned over the summer. I’m like, yeah, but the past is the past—surely more stability will fit in this geopolitical space! So I resubmitted my application, hoping things would get better. I made it as far as the semi-finalist stage before (in the wake of Turkey’s narrowly-won referendum to expand the powers of the presidency) the program was canceled once again.
I had no idea it would be Brazil that would save me from my poor decision-making. Wanting to add nearly 80 ETAs to the class they had accepted in the 2017-2018 cycle, they reopened their application over the summer. I knew next to nothing about Brazil, but I decided to give it a shot—and a few months later, after a tense couple weeks on the waiting list, I was finally awarded a grant.
Looking back, I’m thankful for the opportunities that Turkey’s cancellation gave me. Since the summer of 2016, I’ve worked as a communication consultant for the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development and an employment specialist for the International Rescue Committee. I’ll also be getting some of the same opportunities in Brazil as I would’ve in Turkey: I’ll still be working with university students, and there are some interesting things going on here with immigration and race.
My grant lasts nearly nine months, running up until November 16. In the meantime, I’ll be sharing my experiences and impressions here. My goal is to use this blog as a tool to bring people in the US and Brazil just a little bit closer—my own small way to repay this opportunity and honor Senator Fulbright’s legacy of intercultural exchange.
Let the story continue.