Thursday, June 23, 2005

What it means to be a Fulbrighter.

“It is altogether unrealistic and probably undesirable as well to aspire towards a single, universal community of humankind with common values and common institutions… The rapprochement of people is only possible when differences of culture and outlook are respected and appreciated rather than feared or condemned, when the common bond of human dignity is recognized as the essential bond for a peaceful world.” Senator J. William Fulbright, from remarks upon receiving the Athinni International Prize from the Onassis Foundations in Athens, Greece, April, 1989.

What it means to be a Fulbrighter…

Following are the comments that I made on the “What it means to be a Fulbrighter” Panel this past week in Washington D.C. I thought some of you might be interested to finally know what I did over there all those months.

In my experience, the Fulbright program is often misunderstood. In the US, my friends and family understood the prestige of the award, but when they heard that I was going to Bangladesh, they commended my “compassion” and “self-sacrificing attitude”. Many were happy that I was going to “help those poor people”. On the flip side, my friends and family in Bangladesh saw me as just another researcher, a young, idealistic do-gooder who would come to their country, get what I needed for my thesis or dissertation, and hightail it out of there once it got too hot-dirty-smelly for me to handle.

When I explained that the main goal of the program is a diplomatic one – to enhance mutual understanding, tolerance and respect between nations – I got a very different reaction. Especially in Bangladesh, when people heard that I wanted to learn about their country and culture, they were very happy to have the chance to share. I learned that they had a lot on their minds.

Senator Fulbright was a brilliant man. He wrote and spoke extensively about world systems and dominance and power (read The Arrogance of Power – c. 1967). His theory was that world peace and cooperation between nations could only come about when we understood each other’s cultures. In today’s time of globalization and the war on terror, there has never been a greater need for mutual understanding. Fulbrighters are doing some very important work that will bring us one step closer to world peace. It’s diplomacy on the micro level – making friends one at a time – that will help us to have a tolerant world. I know that I made at least ten good friends, who will stand up for Americans when they are being bashed or disparaged. They will say, no, I have a friend named Katie, and she is not like that. Not all Americans are the same.

So the question is, how do Fulbrighters actually bring this about? Junior Fulbrighters are going abroad on the premise of a research project, and Senior Fulbrighters are going to teach a course in their given field. How does this foster mutual understanding? The answer is, Fulbrighters must go beyond their original plan. The research or teaching experience will be personally and professionally beneficial, but Fulbrighters have a responsibility to go beyond what is personally beneficial. The key is building community involvement and personal relationships. While living abroad, Fulbrighters become a part of their surroundings.

Some ideas of how to accomplish this:

1) Be Open and Flexible. Planning is good, but not always feasible when the plan must be executed in a different country. So far, every Fulbrighter I have spoken with has changed their plan in some way, big or small, from their original research or teaching proposal. Being willing to change and look for new opportunities can offer Fulbrighters a chance to find many ways to become involved in the community. It will also take a lot of pressure off. Beating your head against a brick wall is not only painful; it doesn’t make for good research.
2) Go Beyond Research. While you change and develop your research plan, look for ways in which you can give back to the community. Teaching English is always a good option. In the process of teaching, you will be talking about things like daily life, relationships, family and other important cultural aspects. I found that I developed wonderful relationships during my English classes.
3) Be Creative. Use the skills that you have to come up with interesting sub-projects. I went to Bangladesh to study public health, but I have a background in fine arts. I bought fifty disposable cameras before I left the US, and wanted to use them to do a photography project. I organized a group of women, and with the help of a photographer friend, we had discussions regarding the daily lives of women in Bangladesh. Through our discussions, we developed themes and discussed the differences between America and Bangladesh. After teaching them how to use the cameras, they went out and photographed their communities, homes and country with the hope of illustrating those themes. I now have a pictorial record of our conversations, which I hope to put together into a website and maybe even an exhibition that can be shown in the US.

Lastly, please remember, you will always be a Fulbright scholar, and your responsibilities do not end once you leave your host country. You should always find ways to share your experience with people back home. This is the other half of the puzzle. American people tend to be very insular, and we need to expose them to as much of the “outside world” as we can. Speaking for myself, I am proud to have this responsibility, and thank Senator Fulbright for his forward-thinking initiative.
May the world one day be peaceful, may we all just get along.

1 comment:

TKP said...

Brilliantly put, Katie. I am proud to be one of your colleagues...

Trying to make a better world by eating lotsa mangoes and teaching WWF terminology in my English classes,