Tuesday, December 6, 2016

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Illustration: Tracy Sabin Illustration: Tracy Sabin

Meet, Play, Learn

Fulbright students take on the world.
By Michael James Mahin

The Malaysians have a saying: sama sama.

It means “you’re welcome” or “more to you,” but those English words don’t convey the full sense of the phrase.

Not only is sama sama an expression of gratitude, it is also an acknowledgement of the connectedness of life based on mutual acceptance and generosity.

The same belief in human connection lies at the heart of the prestigious Fulbright U.S. Student and the Fulbright U.S. Scholar programs, international educational exchanges sponsored by the government to increase mutual understanding between Americans and people of other lands.

Since 2005, 31 SDSU students have received Fulbright awards and in 2010, SDSU sent the largest group ever. The coveted Fulbright year gives young people an opportunity to engross themselves in a foreign culture while exchanging ideas through study, teaching and research.

Cultural immersion

Aaron Pratts came to appreciate the concept of sama sama during his time as a Fulbright student. “This saying embodies what I learned in Malaysia,” Pratts said. “Sama sama places the focus back on giving thanks, rather than receiving it.”

In 2007, Pratt spent seven months in the small rural village of Besut, providing educational assistance to nearly 800 Malaysian teachers and students.

In addition to helping with math, science and the school band, Pratt made a concerted effort to reach out to the surrounding community. “I wanted to immerse myself in this world. More than anything, I remember the hospitality, kindness and generosity. I drank it in, literally, along with lots of traditional Malaysian teh tarik, or pulled tea.”

Pratt’s love of culture and travel led him to his current position as an officer for the ISEP (International Student Exchange Program), an organization whose mission parallels that of the Fulbright program. He now helps others grow by going abroad.

“The Fulbright taught me how to embrace the world outside of the safe haven of my friends, my home and my country,” Pratts said. “It was a wonderful opportunity to experience life in a rich and unique cultural setting, while also making a valuable contribution to the educational development of some bright young students.”

The world is your mirror

Tonya Warren’s Fulbright experience taught her to see the world, but also to perceive herself.

As a legally emancipated 14-year-old growing up in Boston’s inner city, she never imagined that she’d be awarded a Fulbright to study in Taiwan. But despite her difficult situation, Warren persisted. At the age of 18, without a high school diploma, she enrolled in community college and eventually won a spot at SDSU.

Initially introduced to Eastern philosophy through the martial arts, Warren became interested in Buddhism’s emphasis on the power of the mind. “After looking at studies on meditation and neuroplasticity and habituation, I thought that Buddhism’s focus on the role of the mind in perception might be applied to maladaptive behaviors such as drug addiction.”

In 2007, Warren was accepted into the Humanistic Buddhism Monastic Life Program in Tai-wan’s Fo Guan Shan Monastery. To her amazement, the monastery was running a Buddhist drug rehabilitation program at the nearby Mingde prison. “I was staying at a monastery that was doing the very thing I was interested in!”

At the conclusion of the program, Warren resolved to return to Mingde. And she did, with a Fulbright in one hand and a plan of action in the other. She is currently a leading candidate for a prestigious Taiwanese government scholarship.

“If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that the world is your mirror,” Warren reflected. “If you are angry, you see anger in others. If you are compassionate, you see compassion. It is only by looking inside that you can begin to change the world outside.”

A deep-hearted hello

When Paul Alexander’s Fulbright took him to Syria in 2006, he couldn’t help but be wary. “I hate to admit it, but when I first arrived I wouldn’t tell anyone I was from the United States because I was scared of ending up on the 6 o’clock news with a hood over my head.”

But the reality of his experience was very different from what public perception and the media had led him to expect.

Studying Arabic literature and the history of the Crusades, Alexander saw similarities between the historical treatment of African Americans in the United States, and the demonization of Arabs by the media in the wake of 9/11. As African-American literature had improved understanding of black culture in the U.S., so Alexander thought that “Arabic literature could be an important tool for dispelling racial and cultural bias, and improving cross-cultural awareness between the West and the Middle East.”

When Alexander finally began telling people he was from the United States, he was moved by their response. “It was always, ahlan wa-sahlan, which translates to ‘a deep-hearted hello and welcome.’ They weren’t judging me, or hating me. They were welcoming me.”

Alexander’s story is a metaphor for what he took away from his Fulbright experience—the diversity that makes our country great should be seen as a microcosm of the diverse world we live in. “The ability to welcome all people with open arms and mutual understanding is a lesson the entire world should heed.”

Fish Out of Water

When fish and wildlife biologist Carey Galst says, “Adaptation is the key to survival,” she’s not just talking about the Darwinian survival of the fittest.

“To me, being an environmentalist doesn’t mean eliminating human impact, but rather finding a symbiotic, middle ground that is mutually beneficial to all life. Functioning ecosystems require adaptive behavior from every organism involved.”

Galst, who traveled in 2007 to Balneario Camboriu in Santa Catarina, Brazil, to study the rocky reef fish, began her “adaptation” immediately. When peers told her she would never be able to fulfill the program’s language requirement, she set about learning Portuguese. After 7 months of intensive study, she passed the proficiency exam and was on her way.

But her adaptation wasn't yet complete. Early in Galst's stay, a bureaucratic snafu threatened to send her home. She reacted with annoyance.

“I just thought the whole thing was petty and stupid. This wasn’t how we do it in the U.S. Why can’t it be like home? And then it struck me. I wasn’t at home. I was in Brazil and if I was going to survive, I needed to adapt to where I was, and not expect them to adapt to me.”

At that moment Galst stopped fighting the system, and decided to work with it. No longer was Brazil a set of obstacles to be overcome, but rather a culture to be experienced. 

“Every part of my Fulbright required adaptation. Whether I was trying to acquire the necessary research materials, or learning the language, I had to be ready to change with the circumstances and to accept, rather than deny, the experiences that were being offered to me. The truth is, many of life’s best moments cannot be planned.”

Galst should know. While in Brazil, one of those unplanned experiences introduced her to her husband. But her Fulbright was ending and with it, her time in Brazil. Galst and her future husband adapted.

Over the next year, long telephone conversations and return visits to Brazil led to marriage and her husband’s relocation to the United States. “We adapted to our circumstances and we made it work. Needless to say, as amazing as the Fulbright was for me professionally, it’s what it did for me personally that has changed my life.”

We’re all connected

2008 Fulbright recipient Alexandra Arreola refuses to “struggle.” “I don’t like that word very much. I prefer challenge.” As the first in her family to attend college in the U.S., and the first to enroll in a graduate degree program, Arreola has faced challenges. But the challenges of other, less fortunate women are the ones that move her.

While an undergraduate student, Arreola became involved in a research project on the prevention of HIV/AIDS among sex workers and drug users in Tijuana. Her Fulbright expanded this initial project into a study of the psychosocial factors affecting women with HIV/AIDS in Brazil.

“Women in Latin America are being infected at increasing rates. It’s preventable with education and access to information. In our supposedly globalized world, this shouldn’t be so difficult, but it is.”

Arreola believes public health research is essential to our collective future. “People might ask, ‘what do the poor in Brazil have to do with me?’ The truth is we’re all connected. Epidemics often start with the most vulnerable, those without access to health services and education. It is critical to study and improve the well-being of vulnerable groups in order to protect the health of the whole population. Not only is it practical, it’s humane.”

Arreola is currently completing a master’s degree in public health at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Rio de Janeiro and plans to obtain a Ph.D. in anthropology with an emphasis on culture, gender and sexuality.

Finding a way abroad

The competition for Fulbrights means that only a small percentage of applicants receive the coveted award. But SDSU offers many other pathways for students to study abroad.

Last year, more than 1,600 SDSU students participated in study abroad programs in more than three dozen countries, encouraged by faculty and administrators who view international study as a high value learning experience.

And SDSU has expanded its global reach over the past decade. Twenty five of its degree programs require some international experience for graduation. In 2000, just one did.

But the impact of studying abroad can’t be measured in academic terms alone, as Alexandra Arreola discovered.

“When my Fulbright was over, I was scared to leave Brazil,” she recalled. “I thought it was the place that made me happy. But it wasn’t. It was ‘me’ that made me happy. I’d learned to be me, in every moment, in any situation, in every place. That’s what my Fulbright taught me.”