Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012
When she was a graduate student in VCU’s Creative Writing Program, Tarfia Faizullah wrote poems about the birangona, women who were raped and tortured during Bangladesh’s Liberation War, which ended in 1971. The poems were skillful and often moving, and they attracted attention beyond campus. In fact, “Interview with a Birangona” received the 2009 Cohen Award from Ploughshares, the highly regarded literary journal, as the best poem the journal published during the previous year – an especially impressive honor for a student.
Still, Faizullah felt as though she could only go but so far with the work. She worried about authenticity and depth. Even with assiduous research, she could not get as close to the experiences of the women as she wanted.
So Faizullah applied for and secured a Fulbright Fellowship to travel to Bangladesh in 2010 and more intimately study the topic that had captured her attention. She spent months speaking with the women and their families, hearing their stories and immersing herself in the country and its culture. She grew to know the women as full human beings with diverse personalities and different ways of dealing with their ordeals.
She was surprised by how much she subsequently wrote about the birangona, both in Bangladesh and upon her return to the United States, as well as about other aspects of the country, her visits there and her experience as a Bangladeshi-American. The resulting poems have appeared in top literary publications, such as the Mid-American Review and the Massachusetts Review, and form the bulk of her book-length, for-now-unpublished manuscript, “Seam.”
Faizullah said her poems became more complex and encompassing after the Fulbright. The women became more three-dimensional to her and “the writing had to change to honor that.”
“My time there completely changed my writing,” Faizullah said. “It made it clearer and a lot more honest. It made me consider things very differently than I ever had before.”
Faizullah is one of 17 VCU students or alumni to receive Fulbright student scholar grants in the past three years. Six recent VCU graduates received Fulbrights for the upcoming academic year. In addition, 12 VCU faculty members and researchers have earned Fulbrights in the past three years, including four for 2012-13.
The Fulbright Program is America’s flagship international education exchange program and one of the most prestigious academic grant opportunities in the world. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the Fulbright provides funding for graduate study, advanced research, university teaching and teaching in elementary and secondary schools.
Faizullah’s evolution in her field is not uncommon among Fulbright recipients. Although students and professors experience the Fulbright at different stages in their careers, both groups find that the grant can prove life-altering.
Robert Trumble, a professor of management in the VCU School of Business, traveled to India on a Fulbright in 2004 to study global outsourcing and to teach at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore. He next will journey to Ireland in August on a second Fulbright, this time to conduct research in the area of human resource management practices by international firms and to work with faculty and administrators on graduate programs at Dublin City University.
Like Faizullah, Trumble found that his time abroad changed his perspective about a subject that he already knew well. He had studied and written about outsourcing previously, but living in Bangalore and visiting some of the facilities where Indians handled tasks outsourced to them by American companies – in one facility, Indian accountants filled income tax returns for Americans – he realized that he had underestimated the strength and breadth of it.
“It hit me that this was an even bigger deal than I thought it was,” Trumble said. “If I had not been there, it never would have crossed my mind that some of this was going on.”
It is part of the transformative magic of traveling and living with a topic, of being allowed to focus intensely on a subject that you feel passionate about.
“When you go to a place and see something in person that you’ve been studying, there are all sorts of cues that you get,” Trumble said. “Then you start to internalize what you’re studying and to think about it in a new way.”
Julie Charbonnier, part of the newest crop of VCU students to receive Fulbrights, hopes to encounter that sense of revelation during her stay in Spain this year. Charbonnier received a master’s degree in biology from VCU this summer – her thesis focused on amphibians in Panama – and will pursue her Ph.D. in integrative life sciences back at VCU following her Spain trip. She is building her potential Ph.D. proposal around climate-change issues in Southern Spain, a known climate-change hot spot, and she knew her research would hit a ceiling without on-the-ground work in the country.
While abroad, Charbonnier will collaborate with a Spanish scientist to investigate the ecological consequences of climate change on amphibians in Southern Spain. She also will build upon previous outreach education experience and partner with a Spanish organization and local schools to increase awareness of amphibian conservation.
Charbonnier said she appreciates the cachet that comes attached to the Fulbright. She feels a certain amount of pressure to be productive and influential – pressure she does not mind – but she also knows that the Fulbright imprimatur will open doors for her research and conservation efforts.
“It’s a historical program,” Charbonnier said. “It makes people more willing to work with you and to help you.”
Judy Richardson, a professor emerita from the School of Education, found that aspect to be critical during her Fulbright in Macedonia in 2008. Richardson, who was located in the city of Tetovo, found a sharply divided political climate that caused some professors to be suspicious of her and resistant to her entreaties to collaborate to develop a student-teaching program for students from two universities in the city.
However, Richardson called the country’s U.S. embassy with her problem and soon the professors were eager to help her. Richardson had traveled to Macedonia on several occasions before 2008, but she said her time spent there on the Fulbright was dramatically more productive and rewarding than any previous trip. The support she received from the U.S. government, and the embassy in particular, opened up avenues, allowing her to be ambitious.
“That support helped me to make some of the kind of innovative changes that I wanted to make,” said Richardson, who has returned to Macedonia three times since her Fulbright trip, building on the work that she started.
Charbonnier is excited that the Fulbright allows some latitude for its research recipients instead of rigidly enforcing pre-ordained targets and expectations. She knows that her goals might need revising as her time in Spain progresses. Her interests could change as she spends time in the country and the conditions and possibilities come into greater focus.
“No one is breathing down your neck,” Charbonnier said. “Your project can change and morph and that is one of the aspects of the program that appealed to me.”
Faizullah said it was critical to the ultimate success of her experience.
“Time was one of the great gifts of the Fulbright,” Faizullah said. “I had to find these women and meet with them and develop a relationship with them. I could not have done that without all that time.”
Glenna Barlow, who received a master’s degree in art history from VCU in 2011, reveled in the opportunity to investigate her interest – and to be surprised by it – when she traveled to India on a Fulbright during the 2011-12 academic year. Her research focus is ephemeral folk art created for festivals in India, so she traveled extensively between August and November – “festival season” in India – attending festivals, studying giant displays of deities, taking notes, watching and recording performances, snapping hundreds of photographs and participating in prayer ceremonies.
Barlow’s tour of Indian festivals represents the kind of deep dive into the field that the Fulbright empowers. However, in addition to the research benefits, her Fulbright stint also simply strengthened Barlow’s love for India and its culture.
“India is a wonderful place and I’ve fallen in love with its charms and gotten accustomed to its idiosyncrasies – although it always has a few surprises,” Barlow said near the end of her time there. “I’m grateful that I’ve had such rich experiences here, that I’ve been able to pick up a modest amount of Hindi and, most of all, that I now have many friends and honorary families all over this beautiful country.”
Like research, teaching offers an opportunity to deeply experience a new country and culture and to change personal perceptions. Trumble said he often saw business issues in a new way after class sessions with Indian graduate students. Richardson said she found renewed motivation working with students who faced a gauntlet of political and cultural obstacles.
“I was most affected by how wonderful the students were, how important their education was to them and how they valued their educations in a way that many Americans don’t,” Richardson said.
Bruce Jun Park taught English to middle school boys in South Korea during his Fulbright experience in 2011-12. Park, who earned a psychology degree with a minor in chemistry at VCU, was born and raised in Fairfax. Although both of his parents emigrated from South Korea when they were in high school, he had never traveled overseas before his Fulbright trip. In addition to teaching, he volunteered in local hospitals.
Park, who aspires to be an academic physician, learned a great deal from his time working with children and volunteering in a medical climate outside of the U.S. He also learned to wade through the trials and demands of an extended stay in another country, gaining confidence in the process.
"South Korea has easily been the most challenging, rewarding and life-changing experience of my life," Park said. "I’ve learned to be more independent, patient and assertive.”
Trumble, like Park, did not travel much before his twenties. In fact, until he was 21-years-old, he had never been more than 150 miles from his Ohio home. He marvels at the lessons he’s learned abroad in the years since then, having taken advantage of opportunities like the Fulbright to examine his research and other interests outside of his customary surroundings.
“When you travel, you see so many different ways of looking at something,” Trumble said. “You end up questioning yourself and everything else.”
All six Fulbright student recipients this year applied for the Fulbright through the National Scholarship Office (NSO), which is based in The Honors College. The NSO assists VCU students and alumni who wish to compete for prestigious national and international scholarships. For more information, visit http://www.honors.vcu.edu/nationalscholar/index.html.