Eleven alumni receive Fulbright and Austrian scholarships| September 24, 2009
Before he took off to be an English teaching assistant in Slovakia, recent William & Mary graduate and history major Michael Blaakman '09 remarked that "[r]eceiving a Fulbright scholarship has brought both excitement for and terror about the unknown."
For Blaakman that unknown is the Eastern European city of Kosice, where he will teach English conversation and a course entitled "Politics and Culture in the Contemporary U.S." while at the same time studying history in a nation that is less than two decades old.
Blaakman is one of eight William & Mary alumni who were selected this year to receive scholarships from the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, which will send them everywhere from the Dominican Republic to Korea, where they will conduct research projects and act as teaching assistants in local universities. Three alumni also received Austrian Teaching Fulbright Scholarships.
Although most of the eight alumni going abroad this year on Fulbright Scholarships and the three traveling to Austria are acting as English Teaching Assistants, other projects include research into gender and public health in the Dominican Republic and one entitled "Resource Mothers: Education for Change in the Dominican Republic."
Lisa Grimes ‘89, who coordinates the Fulbright Scholarships through the Charles Center said that the program is one of her "very favorite scholarships to work with" in no small part because of the people who apply for these grants.
According to Grimes, the program is defined by "more of an interest and active curiosity about another country, another language, and being involved in a community rather than ‘I'm just going to go sit in a library and write my research paper.'" Grimes also remarked that the students who were accepted into the year-long study program for the coming academic year fit that model very well. "They want people who are active in the community... and we see that across the board in this group," she said.
Blaakman said he has a deep interest in the community he was entering into, and more specifically in how the people of Slovakia define themselves as a nation. The scholar, who is self-described as "never being more than three yards from a history book" says he was drawn to Slovakia because it is a comparatively new nation, only coming into being in 1993 after the fall of the Soviet Union.
"American national identity is deeply rooted in an awareness of--even a reverence for--the past," said Blaakman "How does national identity work when it cannot draw upon a coherent narrative of national history?"
Fellow Fulbright Scholar Joanna Stephens '09 is bound for the Ivory Coast where she will study the transmission of HIV from mother to child. Stephens will be doing research at sites in the Ivory Coast through her affiliation with the non-governmental organization PATH, which works on maternal and infant nutrition. She shares Blaakman's expectation of the unexpected and is looking forward to it, saying "you learn so much about yourself when you're put into situations you're not used to." The international relations major said that, like Blaakman, she is deeply interested in the community she will be working with, only instead of working with the nation's history she will be studying programs that are helping the sub-Saharan nation confront the crippling AIDS epidemic it has been battling since the mid-80s.
Stephens said that she has been interested in doing global health work ever since a visit to the South African hospital her father worked in brought home the horrible reality of the challenge doctors face around the world in fighting this disease. Stephens will spend three months in Morocco on a Rotary Cultural Ambassadorial Scholarship getting her French "up to scratch" before her Fulbright Scholarship takes her to the town of Abidjan in the Ivory Coast. There she will work with HIV positive mothers in local village clinics to prevent mother to child transmission through breast milk, which she says poses a whole host of social and cultural issues.
According to Stephens "there's been a really big push among governments and non-governmental organizations to get women to exclusively breastfeed" not only because a mixed diet will make a baby's digestive tract more susceptible to the virus but because "that way you're not stigmatizing the women who have HIV."
Stephens said that recently "women who have HIV [will] feed their babies differently, and the rest of the community comes to know that that's a sign of HIV, and those women become vulnerable to stigmatization ... so there's been a push to get women to exclusively breastfeed whether they're HIV positive or not."
Stephens says that, like Blaakman, she is fully prepared to immerse herself in a complete unknown. "My point of view will definitely change as I work with the realities on the ground," she remarked on her expectations. "I'm going into all of this with a very flexible mind view just because I know that what may seem realistic in the United States once I get to the Ivory Coast might be very difficult to achieve." Nevertheless Stephens said that she's looking forward to the challenge. "I think it's going to be really exciting," She said "I've heard amazing things about Abidjan."
Since its inception almost 60 years ago the Fulbright Scholars Program has sent approximately 111,000 students from the United States to countries around the world, with about 71 of those coming from William & Mary.