UConn Fulbright scholars have bright futures

Thinking about post-graduate plans can be daunting, and many of us might not feel ready to jump from college to a strict nine-to-five. Luckily, there’s a way you can take a gap year and still pursue your interests, travel and get paid. Sound too good to be true? These five UConn alumni are here to tell you that it’s completely possible.

We’re talking the Fulbright Program, a grant funded by the U.S. Department of State that sends recent college graduates and professionals all over the world to pursue different projects. There are several different types of grants, including the English Teaching Assistantship, Masters programs, research grants and more.

If you’ve already heard about Fulbright, you know it’s a pretty competitive program and has an exhaustive application. But don’t let the statistics or work scare you away! UConn has plenty of resources to help you apply. Here are some experiences from UConn alumni involved in the Fulbright program.

(Courtesy/Margo Bailey)

Margo Bailey (’17)

Fulbright Type: Fulbright Masters

Location: Madrid, Spain

I have an atypical grant because I am Fulbright Masters student getting my Masters in Management at IE Business School in Madrid, Spain. IE is an international school, so I am in class alongside students from Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa. Surprisingly, there are less than 10 North Americans in the program and I am the only one from the U.S. in my section. For this reason, I often feel like I spend the majority of my day in some exciting international country. Although school takes up a lot of our time (another way my Fulbright experience is atypical), we also have a lot of group dinners where we try each other’s food. I have joined the executive board of the IE Net Impact chapter and am learning a lot about B Corporations, impact investing, social entrepreneurship and other responsible business practices. 

Outside of school, I live with three girls from the south of Spain that I met through a mutual friend. I cannot express enough how grateful I am to have found them. They give me the sensation that I am living in Spain, and they are also some of my best friends here. So far I’ve visited my friends in Granada for long weekends, explored the País Vasco in northern Spain, danced until 5 in the morning, witnessed one of my roommates get proposed to and attended Fulbright’s midyear conference in Salamanca.

Advice for prospective Fulbrighters

This advice will hopefully help you both in preparing your application and during your Fulbright: determine what you want to get out of the experience in context of your future goals. Don’t think of Fulbright as a simple break from the real world; think of it as another critical step in your development as a person. I discovered Fulbright my first semester junior year at UConn, and then quickly began imagining my life after graduation with Fulbright as a part of it. I saw the experience as a way to learn more about how business could be used to improve international relations via social impact. Once I began to see how Fulbright fit into my career, I naturally started doing things at UConn that fit this path. For example, my senior thesis turned into a project about the social impact of bilingual advertising and I studied to get my C1 certificate in Spanish. In turn, these things also improved my Fulbright application, and have set me up for success in Spain.

In terms of the application, make sure you go talk to LuAnn and attend her application writing workshops. You will learn a lot from her, improve your essays and will simultaneously learn a lot about yourself through the writing process.

Contact Information: Margo.bailey@uconn.edu

(Courtesy/Catherine Han)

Catherine Han (’17)

Fulbright Type: English Teaching Assistant

Location: Valle de Santiago, Guanajuato, Mexico

Hi! My name is Catherine Han, and I am living in Valle De Santiago, Mexico, on an English Teaching Assistant Grant. This grant places Fulbrighters in schools abroad to work as English language assistants and cultural ambassadors. Valle de Santiago is a small, sunny place in the middle of Mexico where I am one of the only foreigners in my town. At first, adjusting to a Mexican pueblo was a little difficult - culture shock is a very real phenomenon, and in such a small town, it's exacerbated even more. Through working at my school and forming connections in my town, I have come to feel incredibly integrated into this tight knit community, and learning so deeply about Mexican life has expanded my world view. The generosity of Mexican culture has inspired me, and the food is some of the best you'll ever eat!  When I return to the United States, I will be entering medical school and plan to use my Spanish-speaking skills to work with patients who need access to medical services in Spanish. At a time in our history where many divisions between people come from misunderstandings about where we come from, I believe that the Fulbright program breaks down these barriers by creating a space for conversations - conversations between you and your local friends, between you and your friends and family back home, between you and fellow Fulbrighters - that ultimately lead to understanding and acceptance.  

Advice for Prospective Fulbrighters

Before applying, I read a piece of advice that said to make it sound like everything in your life has been leading up to the moment you applied for the Fulbright, and I think this advice has merit. Because so much of the Fulbright application is based on the application essays, it is so important to craft a narrative of what you will gain from the Fulbright and how you plan to use it to serve your community in the future. Think of it as convincing the committee that you are a worthy investment, and investing in you will not only benefit your own life, but the lives of others around you. Triple, quadruple check your essays to make sure they flow and have no spelling errors! If you're specifically applying to Mexico, brush up on your Spanish, as the Spanish interview is an important component of the selection process, and feel free to contact me as well with questions. 

Contact information: catherine.y.han@gmail.com 

(Courtesy/Paulina Rowe)

Paulina Rowe (‘17)

Fulbright Type: English Teaching Assistant

Location: Rionegro, Antioquia, Colombia

When I first learned I’d gotten a Fulbright Scholarship, all I could think about was how amazing it would be. I sort of forgot about the part that I was moving to Colombia and how hard that would be! I was placed in Rionegro, a small town about an hour away from the well-known city of Medellín. For a while, life was really difficult. There were so many new things I needed to adjust to, and as the only Fulbrighter and one of the only foreigners in the town, I often felt alone. But being in a smaller place has had so many benefits—I get to practice my Spanish a ton, and because of the low cost of living I’ve been able to travel all over the country.

This experience has really expanded my worldview. Not only has teaching helped me reconsider my potential career path, but also I have gained so many other life skills that I wouldn’t have had I not moved to Colombia. Living abroad has made me an infinitely more capable and confident person – and having to navigate it all in a foreign language has made it all the more difficult and all the more rewarding.

I’m asked all the time what I thought about Colombia before I came, and my students are so quick to tell me that while the country does have a particularly violent history, there is so much more to it than “Narcos.” Hearing that, and seeing firsthand how true it is, has been really special, and I feel obligated to bring that back to the U.S.

I’m so grateful for all of the Fulbrighters and Colombians I have met over the past eight months. This journey has been hard; there have been days when I felt lost and freaked out that I would be living in Colombia for ten months. But now, with only two months left, I can safely say that this has been one of the most rewarding and fulfilling things I have ever done.  

Advice for Prospective Fulbrighters

My biggest piece of advice is one that might induce some eye rolls but one I can’t emphasize enough: just apply! I found out about Fulbright at the end of my junior year, and I remember going to the Office of National Scholarships & Fellowships to ask the advisor LuAnn if she thought I was a good candidate. I was expecting her to tell me that either I was or I wasn’t; that I would get the grant, or I wouldn’t. Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula for winning a grant, and no way to be sure what your chances are. I almost stopped working on my application countless times because I was so full of self-doubt and so sure that I was crazy for thinking I’d get this grant.

Know that you’re not crazy for wanting this, and if you get it, you absolutely deserve it! Work hard on your application, especially the essays, and utilize all of the resources available to you (ONS&F, the Writing Center, your friends, your parents, your professors). Make sure your application and is coherent – it should give a complete picture of where you have been, where you want to go and why Fulbright needs to be a part of it.

My experience was uncommon in that at first I was an alternate, and found out about a month later that I had received the grant. So even if you don’t get it right away, don’t give up hope! Do your research regarding which type of grant you want and for which location (information is on the Fulbright website), reach out to everyone you can and be confident in yourself.

Contact Information: Paulina.rowe@gmail.com

(Courtesy/Lara Hawley)

Lara Hawley (Undergrad ’16, Masters ’17)

Fulbright Type: English Teaching Assistant

Location: South Africa

My name is Lara Hawley and I am currently serving as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in South Africa for nine months. I arrived in January and will be here until October. I graduated in May from the Secondary English IBM program in the Neag School of Education. This first month in South Africa has been a whirlwind, but I have loved every single second of it! I am currently teaching at a high school in one of the more rural villages outside of the city of Polokwane. I have been running small groups with the grade 8 and 9 students who are struggling with English and holding extra English classes for grade 10 and 11 students to give them a more relaxed setting to practice their English. I have also helped coach debate and fundraise to buy books for my school. I think one of the biggest challenges I have faced is learning to navigate the different interpretation of time that South Africans have. They have a more relaxed idea of time, therefore making it more difficult to get things accomplished both while at school and in my free time. For example, any meetings, tests and classes often do not occur even on the planned day let alone the correct time. Another major struggle I have encountered is the class sizes here. There are often class sizes of 60 + students, making it almost impossible to give them the individualized attention they deserve.

Advice for Prospective Fulbrighters

I think the best advice I can give someone who wants to pursue a Fulbright is to go into the experience with an open mind and understand that you are entering into an unfamiliar place and will need to be both flexible and patient as you learn from one another. The only advice I have for the application process is to be genuine in your essays and try your best to communicate your passion and desire to take part in this program. Lastly, I just want to say that if you are accepted to Fulbright, never take the opportunity for granted. It is truly a beautiful thing to be given the chance to live in another place and grow as a citizen of this world. 

Contact Information: Lara.hawley@uconn.edu

(Courtesy/Marissa Piccolo)

Marissa Piccolo (’17)

Fulbright Type: Masters Program

Location: Belfast, Ireland,United Kingdom

It is difficult to sum up my Fulbright experience in a few paragraphs - It has changed my life! There’s a variety of opportunities through Fulbright to take advantage of depending on your interests and background. I’m currently pursuing a one-year Masters Degree at Queen’s University Belfast in the United Kingdom through one of Fulbright’s university partnership awards, where your tuition is waived and you are provided a generous living stipend by the host university. Truthfully, this year has been a dream that I am still trying to wrap my head around.

Oftentimes people ask, “What’s the catch?” The Fulbright program was founded by Senator Fulbright after World War II, with the conviction that cross-cultural educational exchange promotes cross-cultural understanding and peace. It’s both an academic and cultural experience. Quite simply, you are supported to be abroad and do something you are passionate about, in the expectation that you will contribute to “soft diplomacy” as a representative of the United States in the host country, and for the Masters programs, that you will produce meaningful research and want to use your newfound knowledge to better the world. That’s also the basic case you want to build in your application. For Fulbright, unlike some other scholarships, it’s incredibly important to not only be strong academically but show that you want to have an impact and are enthusiastic about immersing yourself in the local community and culture. It’s also important to show that this is the right time, and place, for you to be selected to do that. UConn’s Office of National Scholarships and Fellowships is an incredible resource that assists students in the application process – make an appointment!

My degree program is specifically a Masters in Global Security and Borders – a new and rather innovative course that allows my classmates and I to study two of the most important issues facing international relations. It has been incredibly insightful being in Northern Ireland during Brexit, learning more about the legacy of the Troubles and how societies move forward post-conflict. When people claim I left the US for a year to escape crazy politics, I laugh. We hear from Brexit experts and those who took part in the peace process first hand, but I have also learned a lot through my friends and classmates here.

This semester, I’m also undertaking work in the Executive Office of Northern Ireland where I am completing an evaluation study of their good relations policy. Most of my research and focus at UConn was on American politics, and I was eager to get a fresh comparative perspective. You’re able to understand international issues in a new light when living another country, as well as more about the United States and your American identity. In times like these, the founding mission of Fulbright especially resonates with me – and I’ve found engaging with people from different backgrounds on some of the most difficult issues facing us all to be very challenging but rewarding.

The US-UK Fulbright Commission itself – not just the degree program I’m in at Queen’s – has provided many opportunities. We’ve been able to meet with members of parliament and other politicians, ambassadors, businesspeople, journalists and academics. Using the Fulbright name and network has helped me connect further with people once I settled into Belfast. I was just in Belgium and Luxembourg for a week after being selected to attend a seminar with some other Fulbrighters in Europe at the European Union and NATO headquarters with United States diplomats. These are extraordinary opportunities that have all been in this one year that I am still amazed by – and the Fulbright network continues to support you after your year is over (which is great, because I’m having a difficult time coming to terms with the fact that it is).

Besides the academic and professional side of it all, living and researching abroad have been rewarding on an individual level. I have learned so much about myself and been able to travel through the UK, Ireland and Europe. My favorite has been discovering the remote places of the Irish countryside in a way I couldn’t if I was only here for a few months. If there is any part of you that is interested in going abroad with Fulbright – apply. You never know, and through the process of applying you will be exposed to other opportunities and ways to go abroad that you can pursue even if you don’t get the exact scholarship.

One of the many things I’ve learned this year is that you will regret not following that gut instinct and seeing where it goes – especially when you’re just out of college, and are faced with a flexibility and freedom to take such risks that you haven’t had before. And to reiterate – this would all not be possible if it was not for my experience at UConn, support from faculty and friendships I made there that all lead me to be ready to take on this journey!

Contact Information: Marissa.piccolo@uconn.edu 

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If you have any questions, please feel free to contact any of us! We’d love to hear from you, give you advice, and talk about our experiences. Also please don’t hesitate to reach out to UConn’s Fulbright advisor at the Office of National Scholarships & Fellowships, LuAnn Saunders-Kanabay. She’s amazing, supportive, and an essential resource if you are interested in winning a Fulbright Scholarship. Best of luck to all who decide to apply!