Every month, Fulbridge interviews Fulbrighters around the world (both current grantees and alumni) to get a sense of what life is like in different placements. We also feature projects that Fulbrighters start during their grant period. This month, Megan Gleason, a 2018-2019 ETA in Latvia, spoke with Phillip Wenturine, a 2016-2017 ETA in Portugal, about his project “Pessoas of Portugal” (Portraits of Portugal).
1. Why Portugal?
I basically spun the map, picked Portugal, and said “why not?” I have always loved travel, and so for my Master’s Degree, I knew I wanted to study abroad. I found a creative writing program that let me study in Portugal for my residencies. Once I arrived, I fell in love with the country. It’s incredible! The people, the food, the landscapes: everything. When I finished my studies, I taught in Jacksonville, FL but I missed Portugal so terribly. So that’s when I decided to apply for a Fulbright there. I felt my time in Portugal was not complete – I had more to learn from the country, and more to give back to the country as well.
2. As a 2016-2017 ETA, you started a project called “Pessoas of Portugal” (Portraits of Portugal), based on the photo blog “Humans of New York.” How did you come up with your project?
I was originally planning to write an anthology of short stories, each story being a non-fiction narrative of life in a different city in Portugal. However, after talking with students, I realized each student had such an interesting story and they knew such interesting people. I thought this could be a way to record people versus places. We called it ‘Pessoas of Portugal’ – like [the photoblog] ‘Humans of New York’ with a Portuguese spin. [The students and I] would travel around Portugal interviewing various people and capturing their stories, taking photos to best represent their image. Then, we would work as a class to edit the stories, and translate them from Portuguese to English. Students learned communication skills, multimedia design skills, and it brought the community together. Some students even got to present with me at various conferences, presenting in English for the first time. It was magic!
What makes this project much different from ‘Humans of New York’ is that I added in a pen pal piece. I paired up my current students in Portugal with my former students back in the States as well as friends and former colleagues, and using Facebook they were able to chat and learn about each other as well as get in contact with the people they read about on ‘Pessoas of Portugal.’ It was an amazing language and cultural exchange!
3. What were some of the challenges you had in starting your project?
It is not typical for the Portuguese to open up. Many would often decline being interviewed or photographed. The language barrier was also a challenge – when translating from Portuguese to English, we wanted to get the intended emotion, the intended heart of the story correct.
4. What advice would you give to Fulbrighters interested in starting their own side projects?
I would advise Fulbrighters to think about what they do best at home, and do that in whatever city they are in. For me, I love writing, so I decided to find students who were passionate about writing and learning English, and use that as a tool to engage the community around me. If you love sports, create a sports team. If you love coffee, host a weekly coffee and conversation group. Don’t limit it to just students. Get the whole community involved! Half of the purpose of being a Fulbrighter is to just be present in your community and advertise that you are an American willing to exchange culture. Get to know your local barista or bartender; eat regularly at the same restaurant and make your presence known. Be proactive in talking to strangers. The opportunities are limitless when you go in with an open mind.
“Half of the purpose of being a Fulbrighter is to just be present in your community and advertise that you are […] willing to exchange culture.”
5. When people look at your project, what do you hope they see?
I hope they see a bunch of humans and stories that are inspiring, making them see humanity in a different way. The main objective is to showcase that while people may be separated by borders, we really are not so different when we take the time to get to know each other. And of course, I hope it makes them want to visit Portugal… and become as awestruck by the country as I still am today!
Originally from Tallahassee, Florida, Phillip attended the University of North Florida for undergraduate studies, and holds a Master’s in Creative Writing from Eastern Kentucky University. An ETA in Santarem, Portugal from 2016-2017, he now serves as the head of college counseling at an American high school in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Post-Fulbright, he has continued to travel the world, recently hitting country #48.