Congratulations to Fulbright ETA to Mexico, Katie Freund! Here are some of her thoughts on the Fulbright program and its application process:
What do you hope to get out of the opportunity that Fulbright affords you?
My hope is that my Fulbright experience will offer me the chance to get to know another culture from the inside out. I spent an amazing semester abroad in Chile, and while I loved the freedom I got to travel and get to know my host family, I missed being involved in the community to the same extent that I am at home. My hope is that living and teaching in Mexico, as well as working on a community development or research project of some type, will let me understand the Mexican people on an even deeper level. I hope to make close connections with the community and classrooms I work with, and I hope to further use my Spanish to bridge cultural gaps, learn about the incredible depth of culture in Mexico, and form relationships that will not only last for the time that I am there, but in whatever career I pursue after my time as a Fulbright.
How and why did you choose your recommenders, and what is your relationship with them like?
I think the most important thing is always to look at the advice Fulbright gives you. I believe the ETA website specifically recommended choosing one or two recommenders who know you in an academic setting, and one who knows you from some other aspect of your life. The academic side was fairly easy for me, because I have a really close relationship with my Hispanic Studies thesis/major advisor and long-time professor, and she could also fill out my language evaluation form. My other professor recommender was also from Hispanic Studies, because I felt that she could speak to my knowledge of culture and my ability with the language, and quite frankly I think that although my Economics professors understand my academic abilities, they couldn’t speak as well to how I would act in country. If I had a professor or advisor from my abroad experience who spoke high quality English, I would have had them write one because they could have spoken to my time in another country, but unfortunately, I didn’t. My last recommender was the director of a non-profit organization in Nicaragua whom I have worked with both remotely and in-country over the past four years, who could speak specifically to my skills as a leader, as an English teacher in a Latin American country, and as part of a community organization abroad. She was pretty much a no-brainer, because that experience translates directly to what I’ll be doing in Mexico.
How did you choose your country?
I went back and forth for a while on if I wanted to stick to places where I would use my Spanish or if I wanted to try my luck at a different region of the world. At the end of the day, however, I decided that my Spanish ability made me uniquely qualified to go to a Latin American country, and would provide a much more meaningful experience. From there I was deciding between Mexico and Colombia, which are the countries that award the most ETA grants each year for the region. That part was practical, because I didn’t have a specific country in mind and I wanted to give myself the best chances for getting accepted. And then it was pretty much just a pros/cons list. I had a really tough time deciding between the two, but eventually decided that going to Mexico would be more valuable in terms of a future career in the US. I also already love Colombian culture and know that I really want to go there someday, but I have more preconceived notions about Mexico, and I wanted to challenge those by actually getting to know the country and the people there. I think that the whole point of Fulbright is cultural exchange and working on mutual understanding, and I believe that I will accomplish more in that field in Mexico.
What did you realize about yourself throughout this process?
A couple of things, some big and some little. I realized how much I dislike writing about myself… the essay process was enjoyable because I got to talk about some of the things I’m really passionate about, but the personal stuff was a little more difficult. I have trouble expressing how I became who I am without second-guessing how it sounds, but you kind of just have to go with it in the essay. I also realized how much I’m willing to dedicate to getting something I really want. I am generally a last-minute person with almost everything, but I started working on this application really early and went in to talk to the PSAs and had friends read my essays and had meetings before my interview. I really did my research and made sure I was showing the best possible version of myself every step of the way, and I did it because I cared so much about getting it. I think if you’re going to apply to something like this, you can’t do it half way. You have to believe that you’re qualified before anyone else will believe it.
What are you most proud of in your application?
Although I haven’t read them, I’m most proud of whatever my recommenders said about me that made me worth accepting. I think those recommendations are the result of relationships I have been working on throughout my entire college experience, and so in that way, the application is really something I have been working up to for four years. Also the fact that I made it through the interview, which was about 15 minutes of questions all in Spanish, with a whole panel of interviewers. And I felt pretty good about it. I’m proud that I could work through that nervousness and still answer the questions intelligently and completely, and without stumbling too much over the language.
If you could do it all again, what would you change about the process?
I would have prepared more for the interview in terms of practicing answers to easy questions. I was really worried about having to speak in Spanish and so I forgot to actually plan out what I would say to certain things, like “Why do you want to go to Mexico?” which should have been a no-brainer. But luckily it worked out anyway. Also I would have loved to get my decisions sooner, but there’s not much to be done about that.
What is the most important piece of advice you would give to future Fulbright applicants?
Go with your gut, first of all. I spent a lot of time agonizing over where to go, what to say, and trying to over-prepare, and it was helpful for some things. But really, if you go with what you know you love and who you know you are, that’s more important. If Fulbright is something you’re truly passionate about, it will come through in what you write and what you say. That being said, don’t apply to teach if you don’t love teaching. Don’t apply to do research if you’re not obsessed with your project. I think that comes through as well, and like I said, if you don’t believe you’re qualified for what you’re applying for, no one else will. Also explore all of the options! There’s a lot of cool random programs beyond ETA and general research, like the National Geographic grant and some other business programs, etc… I really think there’s something for everyone and the application is so worth it. Just be true to yourself, and if you’re applying, give it all you’ve got.