Fulbridge is happy to feature the organization Fulbright Salam which highlights and encourages Muslim experiences in the Fulbright program. Parul Srivastava, a 2020-2021 Researcher to the U.S.A, talked with Isra Hussain, a 2018-2019 Fulbright Combined Research Grantee, (part-time researcher and ETA) in the University of Vienna, Austria, and Arwa Juanita, a 2017-2018 Fulbright FLTA at Bowling Green State University, U.S.A who co-founded Fulbright Salam.
1. Why did you choose to apply for a Fulbright, and what countries did you opt for?
Isra: After having worked with research teams in both U.S. and abroad, I was excited for the opportunity to conduct independent research abroad on a topic that mattered to me. I designed a project that would study policy and private sector responses to refugee integration, and upon further research, decided to apply for a Fulbright grant in Austria given Vienna’s history of city-level responses to migration. The Fulbright program in Austria also offered a unique, combined research grant opportunity – while I applied to the program through my research proposal, I was also staffed as a part-time English Teaching Assistant during my time abroad.
Arwa: I chose to apply for a Fulbright Scholarship because I was at a point in my life where I wanted to try out something new in terms of expanding my personal and professional horizon. Since I am from Austria, I had only one option, which was the United States, and it was desirable for me to live there for a little while.
2. What were some highlights of your Fulbright grant year? What were some challenges?
Isra: There were so many highlights to my Fulbright grant year! As a part-time ETA in Vienna, most of my students were children of immigrants. As a child of immigrants in the U.S. myself, I had the opportunity to facilitate conversations on identity, multiculturalism, and immigration in the classroom, which ultimately informed my research in the city. Towards the end of my grant, I was invited to present my research as a panellist at the Oxford Migration Studies Society Conference, as well as a guest lecturer in an undergraduate class at the University of Salzburg’s Division of Political Science and Sociology. Both opportunities allowed me to lead discussions on migration research and comparisons between different city/state responses with others interested in the field. Apart from that, I ran in several half marathons and took ballroom dance classes in Vienna – incredible experiences overall!
One challenge throughout the grant, however, was having my identity and background challenged by almost everyone I met. I don’t fit the typical mold of what others perceive as an American, and because of this, had to reconcile my ideas about identity and stereotypes. This ended up being a blessing in disguise though — not only was I challenging the perception of Americans abroad, but I also felt encouraged to better understand my views on my identity as a first-generation American abroad.
Arwa: The highlights were definitely all the people I have met during my Fulbright year, be it my students, my cohort or people I have met in public places. Coming from Austria, I found it quite interesting how easy it is to start a conversation with strangers. I travelled a lot this year, so I had the privilege of collecting many memories.
One of the most amazing things was that I was able to explore the definition of being a Muslim in the States and compare it with what I know about being an Austrian Muslim woman. Before arriving in the United States, it would not have occurred to me that our experiences would be this different. I was surprised by the fact that I can pray wherever, whenever, without being bothered; this is something that I still do not dare to do in Austria because I am too afraid of getting harassed.
The biggest challenge for me was the culture shock. Initially, I believed that the Austrian and US-American culture would not be very different, but it turned out that I was completely wrong. It was hard to adapt to the food options I had or the lack of public transport and also the fact that I did not have unlimited access to health care and that was something that worried me a little bit.
3. How did you initially get the idea for Fulbright Salam?
Isra: When Arwa and I first met in Vienna, we reflected on each of our unique experiences on Fulbright – her time as an FLTA at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, and my time as a combined research grantee at the University of Vienna. We realized that our identities as Muslims abroad fuelled many of our unique experiences, especially in a time of rising global Islamophobia and misconceptions about Islam. Inspired by the work of other affinity groups at the time, such as Fulbright Noir and Fulbright Prism, we decided to start a similar organization to highlight the experiences of Muslim students and scholars on cultural exchange. It was crucial for us to show that POC do not only deal with homesickness and adjusting to life in a new country, but also with structural discrimination that has become a part of our daily lives.
4. What does Fulbright Salam do? What is its mission, and how does it accomplish that?
Team Salam: Fulbright Salam is an independent, grassroots initiative that provides a platform to showcase the diversity of cultures, interests, and experiences of Muslim Fulbrighters (current and alumni).
Through sharing stories, successes, and obstacles of Muslim Fulbrighters, we aim to (more accurately) represent the unique, yet similar, aspects of Muslim identities and experiences, thereby empowering fellow Muslims to pursue international exchange through the Fulbright program.
While we started as a basic social media page, our work now spans across planning webinars and conferences, collaborating with official Fulbright entities and other grassroots diversity groups, and hopefully aiding in the recruitment of more diverse applicants to the Fulbright Program.
5. Did you face any challenges when you started Fulbright Salam?
Team Salam: We faced some challenges for sure – it can be difficult getting a platform like this off the ground and is also challenging to spread the word. Another task has been balancing the work it takes to launch and maintain a forum like this while working full-time jobs – the balance between volunteering for a cause you care about, versus working or studying full-time, can be challenging to manage. Having said that, we have received immense support from other Fulbright diversity affinity groups, and some Fulbright commissions have also shared stories and information over their social media channels. Despite the challenges, we have felt incredibly supported!
6. How have you seen Fulbright Salam evolve since it first started, and what plans do you have for Fulbright Salam in the future?
Team Salam: For sure – our platform began as a basic social media page, to an avenue for events and intersectional collaborations.
These collaborations are based on the formation of the Fulbright Diversity Collective, which is the collection of student diversity affinity groups (think Fulbright Noir, Fulbright Latinx, Fulbright Prism, and others). We have a lot of plans moving forward and have already fulfilled one by welcoming our newest board member, Zuka’a Joudeh, who was an ETA in German in 2019-2020. She is already such a great addition to the team! Apart from that, we’re looking forward to collaborating with other diversity groups and showcasing the intersectional identities and unique experiences of Fulbrighters.
7. What advice do you have for current or former Fulbrighters thinking of starting their organization?
Team Salam: One major component in starting an organization such as Fulbright Salam is understanding the bandwidth of all involved members.
Though it is exciting, it is also a reality that many of us working towards diversity causes are often spread too thin across commitments and responsibilities! That being said, we recommend using the support of fellow Fulbright Alumni and the other diversity affinity groups – the support makes such a difference, and also allows you to meet incredible people fighting the good fight!