Fulbridge is happy to feature the organization Fulbright Latinx, that highlights and encourages Latinx experiences in the Fulbright program. Parul Srivastava, a 2020-2021 Researcher to the U.S.A talked with Vanessa Diaz, a 2016-2017 ETA in Jordan, Elena Perez, a 2017-2018 Researcher to Galápagos, Ecuador and Genesis Garcia 2017-2018 ETA in Portugal, who founded Fulbright Latinx.
1. Why did you choose to apply for a Fulbright and what countries did you opt for?
Vanessa: In 2014, I studied in Qatar as a Gilman Scholar, and since then I was interested in returning back to the Middle East and was looking for opportunities to do so. I was encouraged to apply for Fulbright from a mentor and Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) staff member. During my semester in Qatar, I learned to design in Arabic and English and became enamoured with designing with Arabic. I chose Jordan because their spoken dialect is the closest to Modern Standard Arabic, which is what you learn in textbooks. Since I was interested in designing with Arabic, it seemed like I could easily integrate my knowledge of textbook Arabic, while understanding the spoken language. In addition, I also cultivated an interest in youth development through working with non-profit organizations and AmeriCorps, which helped me gain the skills needed to apply for the English Teaching Assistant grant with Fulbright.
Elena: I had learned that many Galápagos residents were not aware of the research being conducted on their islands, a disconnect between research institutions and their surrounding communities that, unfortunately, occurs often. I had the opportunity to address this issue and work to bridge this gap when I was awarded a Fulbright Research Grant in 2017. I worked with shark researchers, marine plastics scientists, local fishers, community elders, the Galápagos National Park and local youth to identify opportunities to bring science to the community and involve the community in the local research in Galápagos, Ecuador.
Genesis: Though I was only an alternate ETA to Spain for the Fulbright program in 2015, I still ended up moving to Madrid as an ETA for a different program. However, my dream has always been to live in Portugal. With just one visit to Lisbon during my junior year semester abroad, I became enamoured with Portugal and promised myself I would find a way to fully experience living there. In 2017-2018, I achieved my goal when granted a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to Portugal, allowing me to live in the country, advance my career as an educator, and, unexpectedly, fuel my passion for finding the intersection between social justice education and international education.
2. What were some highlights of your Fulbright grant year? What were some challenges?
Vanessa: One of the highlights of my grant year was working with 7 high school students on their projects for the 2017 English Language Olympics. Our team was called the Unicorns of Equilibrium, advocating for creative lesson plan implementation in the classroom. The projects involved working on the weekends at local coffee shops, raising money through bake sales, volunteering in the community, brainstorming, researching, and putting together the presentation materials for submission.
It was a lot of work for the students, but I was happy to be there to support, and cheerlead them on to presenting at the competition itself. Some of the challenges during my grant year was working with middle school kids. I think middle school requires a different approach and it was difficult for me to adjust from students in 5th through 7th grade to students in 8th grade.
Elena: Fulbright allowed me to learn from my “failures” and tackle challenges creatively and it seemed that for every challenge I faced, I was met with an equal number of amazing humans willing to support me, and I have been fortunate enough to develop strong friendships during my time in Galápagos.
I have many memorable moments from my Fulbright experience, from teaching local youth how to monitor plastic pollution on beaches, to learning from local elders to better understand what they used before plastics became ubiquitous on the islands. However, coordinating the Shark Day event for local youth was the most inspiring, because I witnessed the entire community come together to create a meaningful and educational event for island youth. I collaborated with the Galápagos National Park, shark scientists, NGOs, local fishers, local tour operators, visiting students and the greater island community to create a successful event — it takes a village! I then had the opportunity to join the resident shark scientist on an excursion, where a local fisher took us and 10 Shark Day raffle winners into the field to see, first-hand, how researchers study sharks. #ganando!
Genesis: Having lived in a city my whole life, you can imagine my surprise when I realized that my ETA placement was not in Lisbon–the city that stole my heart–but a very small city (I would call it a town, personally) in the north of Portugal. Not only was Barcelos tiny, but it was also closer to Galicia, a northern region of Spain than it was to Lisbon. It also rained. A LOT. Challenges, however, aren’t always bad, as living in Barcelos certainly taught me the value of slowing down and being genuinely present.
Other challenges I faced were the language barrier (being fluent in Spanish only helps so much, surprisingly ) and navigating my identity as a queer Latina in such a small, traditional space. I was often the first American anyone had ever met and many had no idea where or what Guatemala was. Explaining my existence over and over again, why I was in Barcelos, why half my head was shaved, why I spoke Spanish, why I looked the way I looked was exhausting, to say the least.
I’m very privileged to say there were far more highlights during my grant than challenges, most of which came from my role as an English Teaching Assistant. Though I was first frustrated with the lack of guidance I was given by my school, I took the autonomy as an opportunity to design an entire English curriculum from scratch and took great liberty with incorporating social justice and anti-racist content and pedagogy into my teaching. My Portuguese English students did a phenomenal job grappling with the critical issues I threw at them, even in their second language! I was also lucky to have been placed at a university, which made building rapport with my students very easy. I’m still good friends with some of my former students now!
3. How did you initially get the idea for Fulbright Latinx?
Team Latinx: The idea for Fulbright Latinx was inspired by a fellow Fulbright Alumni Ambassador who started Fulbright Noir– an affinity group that supports Black Fulbrighters. Elena approached me (Vanessa) during our Alumni Ambassador Orientation and asked if I wanted to team up to create our own group that addressed the lack of Latinx representation in the Fulbright program. We both talked about this issue within our own cohorts and decided to grab the Instagram handle before it was gone. Months later, we began working together on a regular basis, meeting and discussing social media strategies to create an online community that would encourage Latinx Fulbrighters to apply for the Fulbright Program by featuring past alumni on our page. Eventually, Genesis reached out and let us know her interest in helping out and joining the team. We have been working together as a team ever since and balance each other’s strengths really well.
4. What does Fulbright Latinx do? What is its mission and how does it accomplish that?
Team Latinx: Latinx is an online community that uses Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Fulbrighter to bring resources, application tips, Live discussions, events, and feature Latinx Fulbright alumni in order to inspire future Latinx candidates to apply. We often collaborate with other Fulbright affinity groups on diversity panels, promoting each other’s content, and helping bridge the intersectionality of the identities’ that people hold. With the help of other Fulbright alumni action groups, we began our own Peer Mentorship program that will pair mentors with a Latinx Fulbrighter in order to help future grantees with their transition to start their Fulbright grant and future candidates with brainstorming ideas for their applications.
Fulbright Latinx is an inclusive community that bridges the relationships between past, present, and potential Latinx Fulbrighters. Our mission is to highlight and celebrate our unique, yet similar, experiences, and inspire more Latinx candidates to apply to the Fulbright Program. We aim to paint a more accurate representation of our intersectional community to reshape global perceptions of leadership by elevating Latinx leaders that reflect the diversity of the world we live in. We hope that by bringing forth our voices and increasing our visibility, Fulbright Latinx can offer a space where members of our “Comunidad” see a reflection of themselves and are empowered to embark on a Fulbright journey of their own.
5. Did you face any challenges when you started Fulbright Latinx?
Team Latinx: There was a bit of resistance from the Fulbright Program initially because we were not shy in sharing statistics about the lack of diversity of Fulbright grantees in recent years. Fulbright has now set a special place for us, understanding our impact as alumni for the incoming applicants, but holding off from supporting us financially so we can operate with independence and not be censored.
6. How have you seen Fulbright Latinx evolve since it first started, and what plans do you have for Fulbright Latinx in the future?
Team Latinx: We have 1,100+ followers on Instagram, which we did not expect at all. We hope to continue to build programs, like the peer mentorship program, that can be sustainable for future applicants. We also plan to continually host virtual meetups, LIVE interviews with alumni, and contribute to a resource database to support BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ abroad.
7. What advice do you have for current or former Fulbrighters thinking of starting their own organization?
Team Latinx: Make sure you have the capacity and the consistency to lay down the proper foundations for the organization you are trying to create. If what you create is successful, there will be people relying on you. Remember to collaborate with others because teamwork makes the dreamwork. Reach out to organizations that already exist. Sometimes there is a lot of reinventing the wheel or duplicating efforts when sometimes the work would be more effective or efficient when supporting the efforts of organizations that are already in place.
8. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Team Latinx: Thank you for reaching out to us to learn more about Fulbright Latinx! And we hope Latinx Fulbrighters will contact us to share their Fulbright Latinx experience — your stories allow Latinx candidates to see that Fulbright is an achievable goal, inspiring and motivating them to apply for the Fulbright Program!