Fulbright Fellows Find Purpose Despite Scuttled Plans
They planned to be in places ranging from Taiwan to Spain to Colombia by summer’s end, but the COVID-19 pandemic has postponed or cancelled those trips. And now, with continuing protests against systemic racism in America, they’ve shifted their focus to home.
Thirteen recent Davidson College graduates and young alumni are finalists for the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. The grants they’ve been offered for research and English Teaching Assistantships (ETA’s) span 11 countries. Three other Davidson candidates were named as alternates. The Fulbright grants that haven’t been cancelled are currently postponed until January, at the earliest.
As the new graduates shift to plan B, they’re contemplating their role in this society at this time.
Recent protests—spurred by a white police officer’s murder of a Black man in Minneapolis— became a clarion call to fight racism. The pandemic, which has disparately affected Black, Latino and Native American communities, has galvanized their resolve to eradicate inequities in the health care system.
With the world in a state of whiplash, we talked to the class of 2020 Fulbright finalists about their aspirations to foster change.
Catherine Cartier hopes to return to Morocco, improve her Arabic, and tell the stories of the people and culture she’s come to love.
The aspiring journalist, whose work has been published in newspapers and magazines, was awarded a Fulbright open study and research grant in Morocco. It would be her second time living in the country; she spent a year studying abroad there in high school.
Cartier is also a Truman Scholar. She’s currently working part-time and remotely for a Washington, D.C., think tank, researching conflict finance in Sudan and South Sudan. The pandemic shifted her Fulbright start date to January.
Cartier, who has attended protests, says the current fight against systemic racism needs to lead to lasting change.
“People of color have been doing this work for hundreds of years and white people have failed to show up,” she said. “As white people, we need to realize that this is an ongoing commitment to dismantling white supremacy. We can’t just turn away when the national media turns to another topic. We have to keep doing the work.”
Cartier, a Belk Scholar and Michigan native who spent much of high school and college abroad in places ranging from Canada to Jordan to Tajikistan, has always been a planner. The pandemic dismantled that strategy.
“I would never have expected the world to look like this,” she said. “I’ve come to realize that you can’t plan everything, and that I have to take things day by day. I think we’re going to be living with this uncertainty for a long time. I’ve got to continue to participate and show up, to support people who are dealing with coronavirus, and centuries of racism.”
As she works from her Decatur, Georgia, home, Olivia Conley is more conscious than ever of the opportunities she’s had, from her Davidson education to the Fulbright grant.
Conley, a Hispanic Studies major and Studio Art minor at Davidson, plans to go to Spain in January to teach English. In college, she studied abroad in Peru and Spain.
Last summer, her Spanish proficiency helped her get an internship funded through the college’s Center for Career Development. She worked for a New York startup, Encantos Media Studios, which creates bilingual educational content for children, such as animated nursery rhythms on the Nickelodeon channel.
The company hired her to continue working part-time during her final year at Davidson and she may eventually go full-time. Among her other duties, she writes newsletters and lessons for Encantos in Spanish and English. Conley says she’s been especially fortunate to have a job during the pandemic; she knows many people have lost theirs.
In a summer where social injustice has come to the forefront of national attention, Conley said she and others need to step up.
“I’ve lived a privileged life,” she said. “And for others like me, it’s imperative that we keep up this momentum. We have to hold each other accountable and push for change.”
Alex Idonije is home with his mom in Miami while awaiting pandemic restrictions to lift in corporate America.
If all goes well, he’ll teach English in Taiwan in January. Meanwhile, the software engineer is working on an internet platform to connect disadvantaged people with the resources they need. He hopes his efforts help to humanize poverty.
“I realized a long time ago that your way of living is very fragile,” he said. “In the blink of an eye you can be the exact same as someone you never paid attention to before. You have to be empathetic and listen to everyone’s perspective.”
He said George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis didn’t shock him: “It was horrible, but if you’re a Black person you’ve seen unjustified killings before.”
This time, though, he senses real momentum for change.
“I’m humbled and proud and amazed by how many people are standing up and advocating for police reform,” he said. “And I’ve got respect for the people who’ve stepped up and really want to right the wrongs of the past.”
He’s one of three recent graduates planning to go to Taiwan as a Fulbright ETA. He grew to love East Asia after spending a year abroad in Shanghai and Beijing during college. He plans to become an international human rights lawyer.
Idonije remains hopeful.
“There’s a lot of work to be done, but I feel optimistic,” he said. “I’ve always been optimistic about America and humanity.”
Alisha Kendrick-Pradhan spent her junior year studying abroad in Ecuador as an intern with a women’s rights organization.
During a “social therapy” retreat, she met women working toward environmental justice in their Amazon region communities.
The women incorporated therapy into their activist work, with the intent of “healing themselves to then heal their community.” They examined the gender-based disparities they face as women and environmental stewards.
Their activism, leadership and commitment to self-healing for empowerment inspired her.
Kendrick-Pradhan plans to return to Ecuador in January, where she’ll research the role of self-healing in women’s environmental activism. A sociology major at Davidson, she plans to study anthropology in graduate school. Her parents live in India, so she’s currently staying with her grandmother in Oklahoma.
Societal injustices, in Ecuador and the United States, have a commonality, she said.
“The pandemic hit both countries very hard, especially in the more marginalized communities,” she said. “In Ecuador and in the United States, Black and Indigenous people have suffered the most and have fewer resources.”
“In the United States, police brutality and the disparities in COVID-19 cases and deaths illuminate the systemic racism ingrained in American society,” Kendrick-Pradhan said. “Having a college education is a huge privilege, and a responsibility to not be silent, to continue to learn from Black scholars and activists, to interrogate racism within myself and the systems I benefit from, and to hold myself, my community and institutions accountable.”
Eldina Kucevic has been sending emails to politicians, police chiefs and local leaders, demanding police reform.
She’s marched in peaceful protests against racism.
“I feel like all the people who weren’t taking this seriously before are now,” Kucevic said. “It gives me hope that people are more aware of the issues. It seems like this time is different.”
Kucevic, who studied in Shanghai during college, plans to head to Taiwan in January for a Fulbright ETA. She’s home with her family in New Jersey for now. She hopes travel restrictions ease so she can visit her grandparents in Montenegro, a tiny country whose borders include Croatia, Albania and the Adriatic Sea.
She majored in political science and minored in Arab Studies at Davidson and plans to work in international relations and diplomacy, with a focus on human rights.
This summer, human rights is especially at the forefront.
“Our first responsibility was to flatten the curve of COVID-19,” she said. “Then with the murder of George Floyd, I felt like I had to do something. As Davidson students and now alumni, this is what we’re designed to do.”
The protests and the pandemic have brought a new sense of clarity to Jason Lu.
The Russian Studies major once planned to be a diplomat. Now he wants to be a lawyer, helping the country’s most vulnerable navigate the legal system.
“This time period is the defining moment for my generation,” Lu said. “I want to make sure that other people have the opportunities that I have had.”
Opportunities like Davidson, where financial aid helped him become the first in his family to go to college. And the Fulbright grant, which he’d use to teach English and run extracurricular activities for students in Tajikistan.
For now, he’s home in Seattle, studying for the LSAT.
His family immigrated from Vietnam decades ago. His single mother never finished middle school, and has worked in a factory for most of her life. She doesn’t speak English.
Last summer he worked with immigrants through a Center for Career Development internship with The International Rescue Committee in Sacramento, California. He’s now leaning toward becoming an immigration attorney for people living in neighborhoods like the one where he grew up.
“A lot of the problems our country is facing affect some communities far more than others,” Lu said. “You have people worried about losing jobs, and having a lack of resources to handle the pandemic, or the justice or immigration system.
“It’s always been part of my plan to have a service component in my future. Things have become much more clear and urgent.”
Mara Papakostas planned to spend the summer in Jordan, working with refugees as an intern for a non-profit called Reclaim Childhood.
She’d be coaching girls and women in summer camp and a sports clinic designed to let them have fun, build confidence and bond with female role models from around the world.
Instead, she’s connecting remotely with the agency from her Dallas, Texas, home. She’s also studying for the GRE and taking an online Spanish class through a school in Barcelona. The Boren Scholar plans to brush up on her Mandarin with another online class before heading to Taiwan for a Fulbright ETA in January.
Mandarin is one of several languages Papakostas, who majored in East Asian Studies and Political Science, speaks proficiently. She’s gearing toward a career in diplomacy and international relations.
As she reads from afar about the pandemic, trade war and unrest in China, she’s closely following the impact of the pandemic, trade war and unrest in the United States.
Papakostas recently organized a local peaceful caravan protest against police brutality and racial injustice.
“Every one of us has to raise our voice to protest the violence and systemic racism in our country,” she said. “The pandemic has exposed racial disparities in healthcare, employment and poverty, and each of us has a moral responsibility to act.”
COVID-19 snatched Caroline Phan’s plan to research Parkinson’s Disease in Colombia. The country cancelled her Fulbright grant.
Phan planned to conduct her research at the University of Antioquia and spent countless hours designing her project and meeting with mentors.
“It was disappointing, but what I’m going through is nothing like the scale of the global pandemic, and that it’s disproportionately affecting Black and Brown communities,” Phan said. Coupled with the ongoing protests against racism, “I have to figure out, how do I contribute and address the gaps and injustices that exist?”
Science propels her.
Biology classes at Davidson helped Phan explain aspects of COVID-19 to her family and friends in Winston-Salem. She’s read extensively about the disease and its spread. She is looking for a medical research job now. She hopes to save money, then go to medical school and become both a researcher and doctor, possibly specializing in pediatrics.
She wants to help her future patients understand the science of their bodies, and how internal and external forces affect their health. She knows she can learn a lot from them. She also wants to study what other countries are doing to provide equitable health care.
“This is a challenging time for everyone,” Phan said. “It can be overwhelming. There’s so much that needs to be done.”
To Audrey Plimpton, the pandemic has reinforced how interconnected the world is. As have the protests, which have other countries eying the United States to see how it handles human rights issues.
She planned to do research with a Fulbright grant at the University of Salzburg and teach English at nearby secondary schools in Austria. The pandemic canceled the research project, but she still hopes to teach, though not as a Fulbright, and enter a master’s degree program at the university.
Plimpton, who lives in Florida, double-majored in political science and German Studies at Davidson. Her research proposal would have examined conservative and far-right political parties’ rhetoric. She planned to study how they use populist tactics and manipulate language to garner support. Studying Austrian politics could help Americans understand the growing influence of radical parties across the world, she said.
National and worldwide divisions have become even more stark amidst the pandemic and protests.
“These are negative issues highlighting that interconnectedness,” Plimpton said. “But we still continue to be one of the world’s global leaders, people still look to the United States as a role model. We’re supposed to be a beacon of human rights and democracy.
“We need to get to that place. If we can show that we’re able to learn from our mistakes, that we can make the changes that need to be made, then other countries will hopefully follow our example.”
With a bit of sadness, Alex Strasser declined a Fulbright research grant.
Instead, he’s accepted a job at a Boston venture capital firm that funds innovation in medical treatment and bio-research. The company has devoted its entire staff to the development of a COVID-19 vaccine.
And that, Strasser said, is where he belongs.
“It was a hard choice, but I’m so excited about the opportunity to be on the frontier of developing a vaccine,” said Strasser, a men’s swim team member who majored in chemistry at Davidson.
His Fulbright grant would have supported his proposed ovarian cancer research at Heinrich Heine University Dusseldorf in Germany. The uncertainty of the pandemic’s path and its impact on international travel convinced him that it wasn’t the right time.
The past few months of the pandemic and protests reinforced his decision.
“I need to educate myself and others on how we’re going to make this world better and more fair,” Strasser said. “My focus right now needs to be scientific. I see the disparities, and how COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting Black Americans and other minorities.
“We have no idea, from week to week, where this pandemic is heading. I want to do everything I can to help develop the treatment. I want to contribute in a meaningful way. This lets me lend my skills and what I’ve learned at Davidson to work on solving a pandemic crisis.”
Davidson students and alumni have long been recognized as top candidates by the prestigious Fulbright program. It’s the largest U.S. exchange program, awarding about 2,000 grants each year for academic study, research and teaching in more than 140 countries worldwide.
As of June 2020, 2020-2021 Fulbright finalists and alternates included:
Catherine Cartier ’20, an Arab Studies and History major from Portage, Michigan, was promoted from alternate to finalist for a research grant to Morocco.
Olivia Conley ’20, a Hispanic Studies major from Decatur, Georgia, was offered an English Teaching Assistant grant for Spain.
Alexander Idonije ’20, a Political Science major from Duluth, Minnesota, was offered an English Teaching Assistant grant for Taiwan.
Alisha Kendrick-Pradhan ’20, a Sociology major from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, was offered a research grant for Ecuador.
Eldina Kucevic ’20, a Political Science major from Andover, New Jersey, was offered an English Teaching Assistant grant for Taiwan.
Jason Lu ’20, a Mathematics and Russian Language & Literature major from Renton, Washington, was offered an English Teaching Assistant grant for Tajikistan.
Eric Matherly ’19 of Danville, Kentucky, who majored in Russian Language & Literature, was offered an English Teaching Assistant grant for Ukraine.
AJ Naddaff ’19 of Dedham, Massachusetts, who majored in Political Science and Arab Studies, was offered a research grant for Jordan.
Maria (Mara) Papakostas ’20, a Political Science and East Asian Studies major from Dallas, Texas, was offered an English Teaching Assistant grant for Taiwan.
Caroline Phan’20, a Biology major from Clemmons, North Carolina, was offered a research grant for Columbia.
Audrey Plimpton ’20, a Political Science and German Studies major from Ormond Beach, Florida, received a Fulbright Combined Award (research and teaching) for Austria.
Emma Slater ’19 of Charlotte, Vermont, who majored in Arab Studies, was offered an English Teaching Assistant grant for Algeria.
Alexander Strasser ’20, a Chemistry major from Greensboro, North Carolina, was promoted from alternate to finalist for a research grant to Germany.
Elizabeth (Kenzie) Bell ’20, an Education and Community Studies major from Swannanoa, North Carolina, was named an alternate for an English Teaching Assistant grant to Bulgaria.
Rebecca (Becky) Contreras ’19 of Falls Church, Virginia, who majored in Political Science and Latin American Studies, was named an alternate for an English Teaching Assistant grant to Columbia.
Ryland Pitts ’20, a Political Science and Russian Studies major of Diosd, Hungary, was named an alternate for a research grant to Lithuania.
For more information about the Fulbright U.S. Student Program application process at Davidson, contact Gaylena Merritt, senior assistant director for fellowships and scholarships.
- July 8, 2020
- Center for Interdisciplinary Studies
- Career Development
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