Gender & Identity, Life

I won a Fulbright Scholarship. This is how you can win one, too.

I want people, women especially, who are eligible to apply for a Fulbright grant to know about it and consider applying.

When my mom told me to apply for a Fulbright grant, I resisted. I knew that I would never get something so competitive, that not just recent graduates but professionals would be applying to. But per usual, my mom was right, and now, six months into my English Teaching Fulbright, I’m so glad I took her advice.

For those who don’t know, Fulbright is a program for recent college graduates, masters and doctoral candidates, and professionals from the U.S. to pursue a project abroad. There are lots of different types of grants, including Research, English Teaching, and a Digital Storytelling Fellowship. There are other types of grants for those outside of the U.S. to complete a research project at a university in the U.S. as well. In order to apply, you have to pick one program and one country to apply to. This, for me, was the hardest part, because there are so many countries to choose from and statistics for all of them that tell you how many grants are offered and how many people applied for them in previous years.

I wound up applying to the English Teaching program in Colombia for various reasons. I liked the length of the grant (10 months), I knew I wanted to be in a Spanish-speaking country, and I found the history and recent political developments there really interesting.

[Image Description: A blue background with white letters that read “Fulbright 70th Anniversary.”] Via Flickr
Now, I’m more than halfway done with my grant, which feels surreal. I remember the stress of the application process and how much I doubted myself. I remember getting the news that I had received the grant and almost didn’t believe it. Fulbright was for other people, definitely not for people like me.

Getting the Fulbright didn’t magically erase all of those doubts. Orientation, where you meet all of the other grant-awardees, was incredibly intimidating. I was surrounded by eighty intelligent, very successful people and I couldn’t help feeling like I didn’t deserve to be a part of that group.

Those feelings were only amplified as the grant progressed: When we dispersed from the orientation and went to our placement sites, I struggled. Rather than being in a city, where most Fulbrighters are placed, I had been placed in a town about an hour outside of a city called Medellín. Other than a few foreigners who had been living in the town for several years, I, along with another language assistant from Scotland, are the only foreigners in the town. Knowing that there were thirty Fulbrighters in the capital city of Bogotá, an hour-long plane ride or eight hour bus ride away from me, able to hang out and experience the adjustment process in a new country together, made me feel very isolated. 

There have been a lot of days when I’ve asked myself why I decided to do this. There have been days when I wondered if I was the only one having a difficult time adjusting. It’s so easy to look at social media and see everyone having an amazing time, and as I guiltily tailored mine to appear the same it made me further question my place in this program.

Luckily, as time passed and I became more involved in my town, life got easier. There are ups and downs, as there always will be, but I can say that I’ve learned to appreciate my town and my experience. In a lot of ways, I’m grateful that I’m in a smaller location. I think being in a big city would cause me to compare my experiences to those of the other grantees, and render myself feeling inadequate.

Now, looking back on all that I’ve seen and done so far in Colombia, I’ve realized how much I’ve grown. I’ve floundered and stumbled a lot in this country and with my Spanish, but all of that struggling has resulted in a big confidence boost. And I’ve thought a lot about how I may never have had the opportunity to go through all of this because I was almost too scared to apply to the program in the first place.

I want people, women especially, who are eligible to apply for a Fulbright grant to know about it and consider applying. I can only speak on behalf of Fulbright Colombia, but I think this program and others like it tend to be very exclusive. Not just because they are competitive, but because of the types of people who apply for them. Just knowing about the grants in the first place requires a certain amount of social capital. That is, you are probably aware of such types of opportunities because the people surrounding you know about them.

You also have to feel empowered enough to apply to them. The application process and the statistics of who actually receives grants are incredibly intimidating, and I think that those two aspects alone deter people from applying. Maybe it’s a way for such programs to weed out only the very determined applicants. But I also believe that for those who haven’t been told they should apply or the lack the support systems to encourage them to pursue these opportunities might feel that they wouldn’t stand a chance to receive the grant, or wouldn’t belong if they did.

Fulbright is richest when it is diverse. One of its aims is to share U.S. culture with other parts of the world. The only way to do that is by ensuring that grantees themselves represent the diversity that both comprises the U.S., and in which we take pride.  

So if you’re a U.S. citizen looking to spend time abroad, don’t rule out Fulbright. It’s a selective program, but it’s worth going for. I promise you that you deserve it.