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A Look Back With Former Rutgers Fulbright Fellows

Rutgers Former Fulbright Scholars
Seven past Rutgers Fulbright fellows share their stories about how the grant and their world travels shaped their lives.

For the 12th consecutive year, Rutgers University-New Brunswick is on The Chronicle of Higher Education’s annual list of Top-Producers of Fulbright U.S. Student Grants. 

It’s a distinction shared over the last decade by only 16 of our nation’s most elite institutions – including Harvard, Princeton, and Yale universities.

Out of 1,118 candidates Rutgers sent forth for consideration in the last 12 years, 193 exceptional students have been recognized with the honor, traveling to over 35 different host countries, from Macedonia to Macau, from Sweden to Sri Lanka, from Ecuador to Egypt. Fulbright grants cover the cost of a student’s travel, housing and living expenses for a year in the country where they will be teaching or studying or conducting research – providing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Rutgers students to broaden their horizons and jump-start their careers.  

Rutgers Today talked with seven past Rutgers Fulbright fellows to find out how the grant and their world travels shaped their lives. Here are their responses.

 

Camille Ungco

Rutgers Class of 2015
Fulbright English teaching assistant, Indonesia, 2015
PhD student and Community Partner Fellow, University of Washington's College of Education, Seattle

Camille Ungco with her students in Indonesia
Courtesy of Camille Ungco

“I was 22 when I moved away from New Jersey to begin my Fulbright in Indonesia. That is how old my mom was when she immigrated from the Philippines to work as nurse in New York City, and it is the same age that my dad was when he moved from the Philippines to briefly work in Jakarta before finally settling in New Jersey. My Fulbright experience gave me a glimpse of my parents' respective immigration experiences. I can never fully understand what their journeys and adjustments were like, but I now carry a deeper gratitude for all the choices they made to support me in being able to experience a Fulbright.

“I taught in a community with students and families who had very similar cultural, political, and linguistic experiences as me and my family. I never had this opportunity while growing up in Edison, NJ, where Filipino and other Southeast Asian communities were only beginning to settle. After my Fulbright, I made a commitment to myself that I would thoughtfully seek out and learn from communities who represent the identities of my family, which is why I moved to Las Vegas, NV, to teach and complete my master's, and moved to Seattle, WA, where I’m working on my doctorate in education.

“My Fulbright experience taught me how to be critical of my identity as an educator who is a second-generation Asian American and committed to teaching in communities of color, both abroad and in the U.S.  The experience pushed me to think hard about who has access to opportunities like this or teachers like me and the other fellows. As a public school teacher and now a graduate student, I strive to be aware of how language, immigration status, and more can impact students' access to the opportunities they want.” 

Alexander Lopez-Perez

Rutgers Class of 2018, GSE Class of 2020
Fulbright English teaching assistant, Indonesia, 2018
English, film and creative writing teacher, Bound Brook High School

Alexander Lopez-Perez, left, in Indonesia with a fellow teacher
Courtesy of Alexander Lopez-Perez

“I did not travel at all before college. As an incoming freshman, I imagined that any time abroad for me was unnecessary, inaccessible, and even indulgent. I think the pressure of being the first to attend college in my family made me hyper focus on graduation and academic requirements.

“Through the Fulbright program, I was able to host a radio show with Radio Republic Indonesia (the country's public radio station), support students who wanted to create a community meal and educational space, and eventually lead the in-country orientation for future Fulbrighters with the American Indonesian Exchange Foundation. During this time, I also worked alongside wonderful teachers who taught me how rich a school community can become when the focus of a healthy classroom space is centered on strong neighborhood involvement. 

“The Fulbright has inspired me to promote international exchange at my school, wherein I serve as a liaison for the American Field Service. Reflecting now, I believe my interests and priorities have evolved to include a greater understanding of community and centering learning on exploration and self-confidence. I would never have reached this place without the kind of personal growth I gained from being a Fulbrighter.”

Charles Hornstra

Rutgers Class of 2011
Fulbright English teaching assistant, Malaysia, 2012
Regional Education Advising Coordinator, EducationUSA, 
Mainland Southeast Asia and China, Australia, New Zealand, and Samoa  

Charles Hornstra with his students in Malaysia
Courtesy of Charles Hornstra

“I knew the Fulbright program was prestigious, and it was an honor to be accepted, but I didn’t know it would be something I attributed my growth and success to almost a decade later. One door opened another after my Fulbright year, and although it felt by chance, in reality it goes back to the day I accepted the grant and stepped foot on the plane leaving for Asia.

“Participating in Fulbright introduced me to a tight-knit community that valued academic excellence, cultural exchange, and mutual understanding between people of different nations. Fellow Fulbrighters from the Malaysia 2012 ETA cohort became a support network and lifelong friends thanks to the truly unique experience we had an opportunity to share together.

“Although ETAs technically taught English for the duration of the grant year, it was not only about this one task. In Malaysia, ETAs were placed in communities that had limited interaction with a foreigner – especially an American foreigner. I helped students with their English language skills and overall confidence. But they helped me to learn about local culture, traditions, and way of life. The smiles, laughs and funny moments exchanged were the true teaching moments that have lived in my memory since. I left a piece of my heart in Malaysia after my grant year ended – a major factor in why I returned to the Southeast Asia region professionally a few years later.

“Malaysia was a laid-back place. Whether I was invited to share a conversation over a cup of tea with my Malaysian neighbors to debate politics, or I found myself traveling with fellow Fulbrighters to the depths of the jungle to see a Rainforest Music Festival, I learned to appreciate every experience as it was presented. I wasn’t like this when I left America. I learned to embrace the differences, and I learned to appreciate them. My Fulbright experience had a profound impact on my life that has shaped who I am today. It has helped me to value international education and exchange, which is where I now focus my career and passion.”

Dawn Angelicca Barcelona

Rutgers Class of 2014
Fulbright English teaching assistant, South Korea, 2014-16
Technical recruiter, Benchling, San Francisco

Dawn Angelicca Barcelona in traditional South Korean dress
Courtesy of Dawn Angelicca Barcelona

“During my Fulbright grant in South Korea, I taught at a brand-new elementary school in a province that had recently been incorporated in 2012. Initially, I taught only three students. Over two months, the school grew rapidly to 300 students and on any given day new students were placed in my classes, sometimes in the middle of my lessons. Teaching at this school was fast-paced, and I learned to adjust quickly to the changing class size and created lessons that were inclusive of differing levels of English knowledge.

“I am currently a technical recruiter at a startup in San Francisco, and I’ve seen there are a lot of parallels between teaching and recruiting. I don’t have a background in tech and learning a new industry felt like learning Korean for the first time! Difficult and foreign at first, but became more comfortable to navigate as I learned more. As a recruiter, I keep pace with quickly changing candidate deadlines and adjust my recruiting strategy based on industry news, which can vary day by day.

“As a teacher, I gave context to my students about why learning English could be useful to them in the future (So they could have pen pals in other countries and be able to travel comfortably to English-speaking countries). As a recruiter, I listen to what candidates envision for their careers long-term and help them visualize how my company can help them reach their professional goals.”

Kaitlyn McGruther

Rutgers Class of 2009
Fulbright English teaching assistant, Taiwan, 2009
English teacher, Haddon Heights High School

Kaitlyn McGruther with her students in Taiwan
Courtesy of Kaitlyn McGruther

“This experience had a profound impact on my life and career. I taught English at Taiping Elementary School, which is in the southernmost district of Kaohsiung City, Taiwan. I fell in the love with the students, my co-teacher, and the school community.  I spent hours planning creative and fun lessons to enhance their English curriculum.

“During this time, I became very interested in educational equity. While I was exposed to elementary schools in more affluent areas of the city, Taiping Elementary School was in an industrial, working-class area of the city. The experiences of my students, as well as their interests, were informed and influenced by their environment and access to resources and experiences.

“My exposure to educational inequity in Taiwan and my passion for creating authentic and interesting classroom lessons lead me to join Teach for America and dedicate my life to the fight for equity and opportunity in education. I worked as an ESL and English teacher and literacy coach in low-income and/or diverse settings for the last 10 years. I love the creative problem-solving and human connection that my work allows me. I am beyond grateful for my experience in Taiwan as it continues to fuel my life's work.” 

Andrew Spath

Rutgers Class of 2017, Doctorate in political science
Fulbright Fellow, Jordan, 2012-13
Fulbright Doctoral Dissertation Research Award, Jordan, 2013-14
Senior Professorial Lecturer, School of International Service, American University

Andrew Spath with his wife Johanna and son Eli
Courtesy of Andrew Spath

“The two years I was on Fulbright fellowships in the Middle East were some of the most formative of my professional development and helped to launch my career. The grant was critical for consolidating Arabic language proficiency at the Qasid Institute while doing research for my doctoral dissertation.  The research included interviews with officials and activists alongside archival research at the national library and Jordanian Arabic and English newspapers. I also had the opportunity to contribute to projects at the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies and the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan.

“On the personal side of things, the Fulbright was truly a family affair shared with my wife, Johanna, and son, Eli, who turned 1 the week we arrived in Amman. We returned in 2014 as a family of four after my second son was born during our second year in Jordan. Growing our young family during this experience abroad made it a most meaningful experience.

“As a professor of international affairs and Middle East politics, there are direct links between my Fulbright fellowship and the teaching and advising I do now. The cultural exposure and research experience informs how I teach my classes and help students pursue their own opportunities abroad.”

Lauren M. Seyler

Rutgers Class of 2015, Doctorate in Oceanography
Fulbright Fellow, Station Biological De Roscoff, Sorbonne University, 2014-15
Assistant Professor, Biology Program, School of Natural and Mathematical Sciences, Stockton University

Lauren M. Seyler in an old stone cottage in France
Courtesy of Lauren M. Seyler

 “My time in France was invaluable to me. It probably sounds cliché, but it really changed my life. It was my first time across the Atlantic, my first time living alone without a roommate or partner, in a country where I was not fluent in the language and more than a little clueless about the customs. But I gradually learned my way, and even got good enough at speaking French to give directions or chat with the woman cutting my hair about my research.

“I fell in love with France from the moment I got off the plane in Paris and on the train to Roscoff. It was so different than anything I had ever seen before. When people talked, it sounded like singing. I’ll never forget the first time I met everyone in the lab: People started coming in, and someone would introduce me, and I would get greeted with a kiss on both cheeks. It was so intimate and familiar – being kissed by total strangers!  At first, I didn’t know how to feel about it, but gradually I grew to love it, and now I miss those sweet gestures, that closeness among people who have just met.

“I’ll always cherish the sensory experience of Roscoff: the old cottages and farmhouses and boats in the bay, the church bells chiming every evening, the scent of sea salt and wood smoke and fresh bread from my favorite bakery, the taste of buckwheat crepes and dry cider. When my husband got to visit me over Christmas, it was like showing him around my hometown. We both hope to go back someday with our children and share the magic of that town with them."