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Meet the #UMFulbright Cohort
Elizabeth “Liz” Oliphant (B.S. Earth and Environmental Sciences ’18) is in Indonesia for one year researching geothermal energy. The bulk of her time will be spent in Bandung, located about 110 miles southeast of Jakarta and home to her host university Institut Teknologi Bandung. Her research focuses on how the surface chemistry of a specific type of volcano differs from the type of volcanic system typically used for geothermal energy. Having a better understanding of the surface chemistry can help geothermal companies identify and map potential sites for geothermal power plants—reducing the overall cost to consumers.
Although she’s been in country less than a month, Liz is excited to start her language classes. “Once I understand more of the local language, it will open me up to making so many more friends.” And she anticipates that her research will lead to notable results, and eventually a published paper.
Liz is also using her fellowship to see if a career focused on independent research is a good fit. “Fulbright gives me a really good opportunity to try out this industry and see if this is what I want to do in the future. Taking part in the Fulbright Program will really influence my future.” In her off time, she’d like to see as much of the country as possible. “I love hiking and being in nature, and I know Indonesia has some really beautiful sites.”
The Emerald City, California, native was drawn to the Fulbright Program because of the freedom to design her own project. “I’ve known for a while that I want to go into the renewable energy industry, but I've struggled with deciding which energy source to focus on.” This will be her first geothermal research project; her past work has focused on solar and biofuels. “I think this project will show me if I want to pursue hard geology and geothermal energy in the future, or if I want to focus strictly on solar.”
After completing her Fulbright in 2020, grad school is in her future. “I might look into summer field work in South America,” she says, “and in the fall [of 2020] I hope to be starting a masters or Ph.D. program.” Her advice for anyone interested in applying: start early. Liz recommends finding an in-country sponsor sooner rather than later, and encourages applicants to embrace networking to gain insight, advice, and feedback.
Sofia Squatriti (B.A. English and French ’18) arrived in Mérida in the southeast region of Mexico in August and will be in country through the end of May. Her main goals while with the Fulbright Program are to become fluent and comfortable speaking Spanish, and to learn as much as possible about the culture.
As a Fulbright Teaching Assistant (ETA), she spends 20-25 hours per week at a language center that’s part of the Autonomous University of Yucatán. Each day brings something new—teaching a variety of subjects to a wide range of students. “Some teachers prefer that I give presentations about U.S. culture,” she explains, “while others suggest interactive games or ask me to teach a specific grammatical topic.” On any given day, her students could be 15-year-olds taking supplemental English classes, college students, and 80-year-old retirees wanting to learn a new language. In addition to teaching, she also hosts a conversation club “Sofia’s Corner,” a music and video club, and a games club.
English Teaching Assistants in Mexico are required to also complete a project outside the classroom. So, Sofia volunteers at a local immigration lawyer’s office, helping with translations and assisting clients with filling out forms—which ties in to her career goals. She plans to go to law school in September and eventually become an immigration lawyer. So why did this aspiring lawyer apply to the Fulbright ETA?
“Even though I’m not a teacher, I was really interested in the ETA grant because I wanted to spend a year being part of the same academic process—foreign language learning—that opened so many doors for me. I also wanted to gain the kind of fluency in Spanish and cultural competency in Mexico that would make it possible for me to communicate with Mexican immigrants in the United States in their language and on their terms.”
The biggest reward of her Fulbright experience so far has been getting to learn about regional differences across Mexico. “So much of what we think of as ‘Mexican’ in the U.S. is specific to central and northern Mexico. Being in Yucatán, I’ve been able to learn about lesser-known things like Hanal Pixan (the Mayan celebration for Day of the Dead), and foods such as panuchos and cochinita pibil.”
Her advice to the next Fulbright grantee cohort: Have an open mind and be flexible when things don’t go according to your plan. “The best piece of advice I got before coming to Mérida was to say yes to as many things as possible. Saying yes to an invitation—even when it's inconvenient or you don’t feel like it—leads to more invitations and more relationships. I’ve found that this is by far the best way to become more integrated in your host community.”
Nearing the halfway point in his Fulbright year, Ryan Etzcorn (M.A. Public Policy; Asian Studies ‘16) is pleased with the progress he’s made while in China. For nearly five months, Ryan has been researching social and economic transformations facing the country’s civil society, with a focus on the Guangdong Province. He’s hoping to “better understand the ways that quasi-governmental organizations behave as intermediary channels and gatekeepers for funding and social control.” Although the bulk of the work is centered in Guangzhou, he’s been able to visit Shenzhen—expanding his comparative research between the two cities.
The remaining time in country will be spent processing the rapid societal changes occurring in China and looking for opportunities to introduce the global significance to a wider, Western audience—helping Ryan achieve his career goal of “becoming a leader in sustaining and expanding direct interactions between Chinese and American citizens, beyond the narratives provided by their governments and media.”
Although the months have gone by quickly, they’ve been significant. The most impactful experience he’s had relates to his research and his integration into several WeChat groups that are populated with social, business, and government leaders of all age groups who are all seeking innovative solutions to social problems.
Despite current tensions between the United States and China, Ryan continues to be amazed by the openness and warm welcomes he’s received in South China— “a stark contrast to what is often portrayed in U.S. mass media,” he says.
His best advice for those interested in applying to the Fulbright U.S. Student Program: get feedback, early and often. “Don’t be afraid to write a draft [of the Statement of Grant Purpose] and have faculty advisors, Fulbright advisors, and peers give feedback.”
Sam Shuman (PhD candidate sociocultural anthropology ’21) has been in Belgium for eight months, researching how the reterritorialization of labor and capital within the global diamond supply chain is shifting how trade is conducted within the industry. “Diamond middlemen or ‘brokers’ are rapidly being cut out of the trade,” he explains, “reflecting a broader economic process called disintermediation.” By focusing on the vanishing brokers, Sam hopes to find clues as to the direction global, supply-chain capitalism is moving.
He’s spending the majority of his time in Antwerp with the Hasidic Jewish community, a workforce in the diamond industry that has been economically displaced by regulations and relocation. Through oral history interviews, Sam can reconstruct the lives and work places of Hasidic cleavers and polishers prior to the 1970s relocation of manufacturing to the global South. Participant-observation gives him a picture of the daily life of trading and the disintermediation of brokerage at this historical juncture.
This fieldwork has also taught Sam that his research can’t exclusively revolve around one city (Antwerp) or even one country (Belgium). “After Fulbright, I’ll be expanding my research to Ramat Gan, Israel, and Bombay, India.” Sam is planning a career in academia, as well as writing an ethnography based on his dissertation research.
Alexander Dennis graduated in April 2017 from the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures with a bachelor of science in Italian, and it was his studies in Italian that first piqued his interest in a possible intercultural exchange.
Alex is currently living in Campobasso, a town in southern Italy, well into his fourth month as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. He works in two secondary schools teaching in English language classrooms with curricula focused on marketing, economics, and international relations. Along with the rewarding academic responsibilities, Alex has enjoyed sharing personal accounts from his experiences in the United States.
While his first time living abroad hasn’t been without the expected challenges, such as missing family and friends, that come with adjusting to daily life in another country, Alex sees this as invaluable. “Acknowledging unfamiliarity has helped me to be more receptive of this new culture,” he explains. “I’ve had some amazing experiences integrating myself into this community by finding ways to do familiar things I love—theater and photography—in the context of another language and culture.”
Medical school is in his future, he wants to pursue a career as a physician. But Alex would also like to continue fostering understanding between Americans, Italians, and beyond.
For students interested in applying to the Fulbright program, Alex recommends talking to the campus Fulbright advisors, as well as past Fulbright fellows, sooner rather than later—and approaching the process with an open mind.
“Don’t discount yourself, even if you think you may lack the background that you perceive as necessary,” he says. “Instead, think about the experiences you’ve had and the unique ways in which your background and character would allow you to share your culture with others.”
He suggests applicants remember the time spent abroad as a Fulbright grantee is a learning experience. The only certainty, he adds, is “that it likely will be much different than you’ve expected.” Embrace the change.