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Questions for Departure

October 9, 2012 — 2 Comments

Today marks the start of my Fulbright. For the next nine months I will be living and working in Sri Lanka.

My monthly stipend of 125,000 Sri Lankan Rupees ($976). The average household income is Rs. 36451 ($704). So I will be earning roughly 38% more than the average family every month.

I’m curious to learn what kind of life this buys someone in Sri Lanka, and I’m especially interested in seeing how someone lives off of the average wage.

This nation’s economy was stalled for nearly 30 years, due to their civil war. Since the war was ended in 2009 the country has begun to flourish once more; tourists have begun to explore the island while the global garment trade has embraced Sri Lanka. For 2012 the country is expected to grow at 7.2%, which ranks among the top growth economies in the world. Growth can easily be assumed to be a wholly positive event, but economic growth presents unique challenges. Sri Lanka is especially vulnerable to energy shocks, as it imports all of its oil; many Americans know the pain they feel as the price of petrol increases, imagine if your income was 10% of what it currently is.

As a nation develops stresses begin to emerge within its social fabric. One of my great takeaways from China was that as a country develops the divide between rich and poor grows at an exponential rate, and this can lead to a great deal of social unrest. Growth at this rate presents many challenges for governments, from containing inflation to constructing infrastructure.

Sri Lanka has a number of things going for it. It claims one of the highest literacy rates in South East Asia (over 90%), along with some of the highest Human Development Index scores. Sri Lanka also has some of the lowest infant mortality rates in the developing world, due in large part to its extensive network of publicly funded hospitals. All doctors are required to spend at least one day a week working in these institutions.

From the reports I’ve read it seems that Sri Lanka is a fairly equitable society on the rise, I look forward to investigating this for myself.

In contextualizing China’s recent growth, many in the nation refer to historical precedent. For a great deal of the world’s history, China was the largest economy in the world. India and China combined made up roughly half of the world’s GDP. To many in China, the last two centuries were an economic anomaly which is on its way to being corrected.

Ceylon, the Pearl of the Orient is reestablishing itself. Once one of the wealthiest nations in the world, it was said a man could walk across the island with just the clothes of his back and not just survive, but thrive off of the local vegetation. Historical evidence suggests that Sri Lanka traded with the Egyptians as early as 1500 BC. Some of the most prized spices in the world originated on this island: cinnamon, cardamom, and citronella. And many other spices flourished in this tropical climate, such as rubber. It might be difficult to imagine today, but for the vast majority of global history wars were fought over the spice trade. To this day Sri Lanka produces over 90% of the world’s cinnamon.

I’m beginning this Fulbright with many questions, and if experience has taught me anything I’m sure that my time in Sri Lanka will raise more questions than it answers.

What’s a Fulbright?

August 31, 2012 — Leave a comment

When I tell people I’ve received a Fulbright there has been two common responses:

  • Congratulations! That’s awesome, where are you going?
  • What’s a Fulbright?

The latter is more common than the former, which is quite surprising to me. So here is my attempt to answer what the Fulbright is, and I’ll try to answer this question again once I’ve completed my grant.

What is it?

The Fulbright is America’s premier international exchange program. Every year hundreds of Americans go abroad to research, learn, and teach English, and citizens of other countries come to America to do the same. It’s soft diplomacy at its finest, and the primary aim of the program is to increase mutual understanding between Americans and other nations’ citizens.

What do Fulbrighters do? 

Essentially, the Fulbright program offers two types of grants, teaching and learning. The fellowship allows both recent graduates and scholars to travel abroad to conduct research, it also sends recent graduates to teach English and scholars to teach in their field of expertise. There are grants available for Graduate School, and to learn critical languages. There’s even a grant in conjunction with MTV to research music.

Where do Fulbrighters go?

The Fulbright program operates in over 155 countries across the world. To date, more than 307,000 Fulbrights have been awarded.

Why is it called the Fulbright?

The program is named after Senator William J. Fulbright, who introduced legislation in 1946 to create this program.

How is it funded?

In it’s inception, in 1945, the program was funded by the sale of U.S. military assets after the end of the second world war. The U.S. government forgave the debts of foreign nations in exchange for funding this international exchange program (this offers some insight as to why there are so many grants for Germany).

The program cost more than $323.3 million in 2010, and its primary funding source is an appropriation from Congress; though host countries contribute to the funding of this program as well.

How do you get one?

There is an extensive application process for the Fulbright program, and I will only speak to the English Teaching Assistantships – as that is the grant I received. During my junior year at Fordham, I was in China, so my application process was a bit different than others. In the second semester I had a few Skype meetings with Fordham’s Office of Prestigious Fellowships, and I began narrowing down the countries I wanted to apply for. There are many tips for various components of the application, let me know if you have any questions.

I began narrowing down the countries where ETAs are granted. As I’m not fluent in Spanish, South America was out. I have a strong interest in emerging markets and economic development, so I wasn’t too keen on applying to a country in Europe. So that pretty much left Africa and Asia.

At this point I went nation by nation and narrowed down the nations I was most interested in to Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan. ETAs are not granted in China, save for Hong Kong and Macau. Why these countries you might ask? It was some combination of cultural intrique, economic prospects, transitory factors, and gut feeling.

I eventually settled on Sri Lanka as the country to which I was going to apply, and I spent that summer writing my applications essays. When applying to an ETA you have to write two essays, and are limited to one page per essay. One essay, your Statement of General Purpose is where you answer the following questions:

  • Why do you wish to undertake an ETA opportunity?
  • Why are you applying to this specific country?
  • What do you bring to the classroom that will enrich the learning experience of English language learners overseas?
  • What specific ideas do you have for engaging with students and helping them to learn English?
  • What specific qualifications, training, or experiences do you have to prepare you to serve as an ETA?
  • How do you expect to benefit from the assignment?
  • What plans do you have for civic engagement outside the classroom?
The Personal Statement is where you explain who you are and what makes you a good fit for this program, and to be a representative of America abroad.
By October of my senior year at Fordham I had submitted these two essays, three letters of recommendation, and my academic transcripts. A few weeks later I was interviewed by a board of advisors at Fordham.
Around January I received an email telling me I had made the second, and final round of consideration for the grant. But it wasn’t until April that I was actually awarded the Grant. At that point I had to make a decision, take a job in banking (for which I had signed a contract in November) or take the Fulbright. It was a tough decision, but I’m glad to be pursuing the Fulbright!

What have Fulbrighters gone on to do?

  • 10 Fulbright alumni have been elected to the United States Congress
  • 43 Fulbright alumni from eleven countries are recipients of the Nobel Prize
  • 60 Fulbright alumni are recipients of the Pulitzer Prize
  • 22 Fulbright alumni are recipients of MacArthur Foundation “genius” awards
  • 14 Fulbright alumni are recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Many have gone on to reach the highest ranks of government and business; this includes:

 

A government shelling civilian hospitals, providing the false hope of ‘No Fire Zones’, and corralling 130,000 people in one square mile.

I’ve just finished watching Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, and am in a state of shock. This documentary sheds light on the final weeks of Sri Lanka’s Civil War – as the Government crushed the Tamil Tigers (LTTE).

A UN Panel believes that at least 40,000 civilians were killed in the final weeks of Sri Lanka’s civil war. International observers were forced to leave the Tamil occupied regions of the country, while civilians were deliberatley targeted by both the Government and Opposition forces.

The LTTE are the pioneers of the suicide bomb, and the nations of Sri Lanka was plagued by civil war for a quarter century. It is difficult for me to fully judge the government’s actions  when contextualized – though nothing can justify the bombing of civilian hospitals in a designated no fire zone.

I am thrilled to find that on July 27, 2012 the Sri Lankan Government announced it will begin conducting formal investigations into alleged human right violations (Indian Express). This is due to pressure on the Government from the international community, and it is expected that their report will be filed within 6 to 18 months.

With this investigation, I hope the nation of Sri Lanka will take another crucial step towards resolving this conflict.

Update: Thanks to a reader for sharing the Sri Lankan Government response to this documentary:

The week long orientation for Fulbright ETAs to Sub-Saharan Africa and South and Central Asia provided me with an overview of what the next year of my life will look like. For those of you unfamiliar with the program you can reference the transcript of Secretary Clinton’s welcome address to the Fulbright Program:

Every year 8,000 scholarly exchanges are made between 155 countries and America. There is a network of 300,000 Fulbrights, since the program’s inception.

When I accepted my grant I knew only that I’d be moving to Sri Lanka for nine months of my life to teach English. This orientation went a long way to reassuring me about this chapter of my life. Ambassador Ronald McMullen opened the orientation with his nine keys to preparing for life in a new country:

  1. Language – learning a few key phrases can go a long way towards gaining acceptance
  2. Incumbent – when going into a new office move around furniture to give people a visual reminder of the change
  3. Books – read one novel about the country and one guidebook
  4. Music – music is universal, learning some of the most popular songs in the country you’re traveling too will help you adjust
  5. Maps – getting a sense of where in the world you’re going is hugely invaluable
  6. Food – make sure to prep your stomach to the challenges which may be ahead
  7. Security – let the local Embassy know where you’ll be, so they can alert you to any potential developments
  8. School – learn about the local schools, the universities people attend
  9. Sports – sports are universal, but you should learn the local sports (be it curling, cricket, or soccer)

 

The rest of the conference was split between networking with Fulbright Alumni and the Sri Lankan Fulbright Commission and sessions preparing us to teach English.

Most of the Fulbrighters were told where in the country they would be placed. While I have yet to find out my physical location, however I did find out that I’ve been placed with Sarvodaya – the largest NGO in Sri Lanka.

It was a pleasure meeting my counterparts who will be teaching in countries across the world. In general, they were among the most thoughtful and worldly people I’ve ever met. I had a great time getting to know them over the course of a week, and I look forward to seeing some of them in Nepal for the Fulbright ETA conference in November.

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A picture from the Fulbright dinner cruise – June 21, 2012