Students and alumni who have earned the prestigious fellowships are informal ambassadors who are transformed by the experience.
By Kris Dreessen
Watch a series of videos from Fulbrighters about their experience: go.geneseo.edu/fulbright
Rachel Britton ’18 always appreciated nature, but it took an undergraduate study abroad program in Iceland to truly feel a part of it. Exploring ancient island rock formations and the literature they inspired changed her life.
“I was in these massive canyons and I felt so small, but at the same time I could touch something 13 million years old,” she says. The Icelandic language, Britton says, is the most beautiful she’s heard — melodic, poetic and complex. Her appreciation evolved into career aspirations — to translate Icelandic literature into English.
Now at the University of Iceland as a U.S. Student Fulbright winner, she is spending the year learning Icelandic and creating an interactive digital map of Icelandic locations that are tied to literature. She is also helping to produce a book of multilingual poems written by immigrants to Iceland.
Britton is one of the most recent Geneseo alumni to receive a U.S. Student Fulbright fellowship. The fellowship provides opportunities for young professionals to pursue international graduate study, advanced research, or English teaching assistantships, all with meaningful cultural exchange.
The U.S. Student Fulbright award is one of the most prestigious and competitive fellowships in the world, and Geneseo boasts a remarkable distinction: For the past three years, the College has been named a Top Producer of Student Fulbright awards by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. It was the first dedicated SUNY institution to be named a Top Producer.
“The College’s success with the U.S. Student Fulbright program is indicative of our efforts to inspire students to be globally aware citizens,” says President Denise A. Battles. “None of this would be possible without the dedication of the faculty and staff, who support our talented students and alumni in securing these highly sought-after and renowned awards.”
Since 1985, 41 Geneseo students and alums have earned Fulbrights, serving as informal ambassadors and immersing themselves in communities all over the world.
“Part of our success is that Geneseo students are whip-smart, adventurous souls who are excited about the world and want to engage in international experiences,” says Michael Mills, director of national fellowships and scholarships. “They are not one thing. They are three or four things. They excel in academics, they study abroad, they are socially conscious and with varied interests. It makes them very strong candidates.”
MEET A FEW OF GENESEO’S FULBRIGHT ALUMNI FOR A VIEW OF HOW THEIR EXPERIENCES TAUGHT THEM, TRANSFORMED THEM AND CONNECTED THEM TO A WIDER WORLD:
Faculty and staff mentoring
Andrew Fox ’85, Geneseo’s first Fulbrighter, found his passion for examining how glaciers shape the landscape during his undergraduate studies. He was able to advance his geological research in New Zealand, he says, thanks to Richard Young, Distinguished Service Professor emeritus of geological sciences. Young went “above and beyond,” Fox says, suggesting he apply, guiding him in his application and networking with professional contacts at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. Fox ultimately earned a master’s degree from the university, and later a doctorate in the United States. Fox is currently a lead consultant and project manager at the Timmons Group for many planning, system implementation, and integration projects for state, federal and local governments that involve the use of geographic information system (GIS) technology. He first learned about GIS — a computer system for capturing, storing, checking and displaying data related to positions on the earth’s surface — in a class at Geneseo.
The College’s number of Fulbright winners, he says, “reflects not only the quality of students but also faculty and staff.” Faculty and staff members have shared countless hours and expertise helping students develop their applications for Fulbright and other fellowships and continue to serve on the College’s Fulbright committee.
“I’ve spent an extraordinary amount of time in the campus Starbucks. I called it my second office,” says Cynthia Klima, associate professor of German, who has helped dozens of students flesh out their Fulbright applications. “These students are tremendously invested in their future and what they want for themselves. I’m happy to help them reach it.”
The College recognized the need for a full-time fellowship director and hired Mills in 2015. There were only five student Fulbright applications in the year Mills arrived. By 2019, there were 12 semifinalists, and seven Fulbrights were awarded. This year, in 2020, the College had a record-breaking 14 semifinalists and eight award winners. Twenty-nine of Geneseo’s 41 awards have come since 2016.
“We have built a culture here over time,” says Mills, “and many of our Fulbright recipients become mentors for others who wish to apply.”
Finding common culture and a path for the future
Matt McClure ’16 so enjoyed his Fulbright role teaching English at a private Buddhist school in South Korea in 2018-2019 that he stayed. He now lives in Seoul, sharpening his Korean and instructing for a company that teaches Korean corporate employees, managers and executives the more complex points of English that come with conversations doing international business. He’s also on the dance floor.
McClure loves swing dancing, and Seoul is a world hub for the U.S. style, with more than 20 active social clubs. McClure has participated in too many to count.
“Swing dancing breaks down barriers that you regularly have with strangers,” he says. “It’s a social dance, and every dance is most likely with someone new. The style is super improvisational, so you and your partner create something unique with every song. It connects people without words.”
McClure discovered the pastime with the Geneseo Swing Dance Club, and it played a significant role in his Fulbright application. Swing dance, he says, is the main way he could join a foreign community. As a double major in comparative literature and French at Geneseo, McClure studied abroad in Canada and Vietnam and volunteered in Haiti with a development organization. After graduation, he taught English in Nicaragua and served as an intern at Siena Italian Studies in Italy, living with host families, sharing U.S. culture, cooking and joining the local swing dance scene.
“I have experienced a lot of grassroots, one-on-one connections across cultures, languages and countries and felt the power of welcoming people in cultural exchange,” he says. “I know its importance. It can change the course of people’s lives in big and small ways.”
That has become McClure’s research interest. He hopes to stay in Korea, become fluent in Korean and pursue academic research in Korea on the impact and process of informal learning within grassroots and social organizations like swing dance communities.
Creative leadership and community
Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship recipient Hannah Hunter Chhan ’14 spent 2015 in Jengka, Malaysia, helping high-schoolers build confidence using English. She and her roommate, another Fulbright fellow, were the first foreigners to live in the small town.
As the first English assistant at the school as well, Chhan had the freedom and responsibility to develop her own lessons. A childhood and special education major, she says she drew on all her college experience and skills — and her students’ interests in things like top U.S. pop songs — to be fun and effective. Students learned song lyrics together and discussed their meaning.
She also started a club in which students researched the meaning of songs and made their own videos, acting out the lyrics.
Chhan felt welcome in Jengka from the first day.
“My new friends accepted somebody from a completely different part of the world and invited me into their families and their homes,” she says. “They treated me like a neighbor. I got to learn so much about them and they about me. It made me feel like I have another home. With them, we created another community.”
Chhan had previously taught in Thailand, where she helped set up a Geneseo student-teaching partnership at her school. She returned there following her Fulbright year in Malaysia and has been a teacher at NIST International School in Bangkok for three years.
“Fulbright lit the spark in me to continue my education and pursue my master’s degree n education, and it gave me an experience that proved I could do this. I could live and teach abroad and make a lifelong career this way,” says Chhan. “Once I was over here, it opened up a whole new world of connections. It opened my eyes to an international career.”
Earning a Fulbright award comes with a lot of responsibility, says Kiaya Rose Dilsner-Lopez ’17. You become an informal ambassador of the United States.
During her time as an English teaching assistant at a university in Lavras, Brazil, she experienced the kind of connections many of Geneseo’s Fulbrighters say they have had with individuals and within communities. Those grassroots connections are a foundation, they say, for the cultural understanding at the heart of the Fulbright program’s mission.
“I was very conscious about the way I was acting and the way I presented the country because I was the first native English speaker that some people had met,” Dilsner-Lopez says. “It is important to be open and intentional with your words, thoughts and actions, as you are part of a collective. All of our actions can help create change and impact another person.”
You may never know the impact you have, she says — or you may learn years down the road, as she did.
During her Fulbright year, Dilsner-Lopez helped teach classes associated with English language and culture at the university. She felt it was important, she says, to be her authentic self in the community and was open about identifying as a queer woman. It inspired conversations among her students, some of whom have since told her they are now open about how they identify, too. It is a reminder, she says, “that being brave and your full self really does allow other people to do the same.”
At Geneseo, Dilsner-Lopez majored in English literature and Spanish, minored in Africana studies, and participated in the Edgar Fellows honors program. She sought a Fulbright, she says, because “it was important to me to take what I learned at Geneseo and apply it to an international context. There are important responsibilities inherent in identifying as part of a global citizenry.”
Fulbright recipients say that the experience abroad changed them. Dilsner-Lopez says the Brazilian phrase in Portuguese, “jeitinho,” best represents part of her own transformation.
“It is called ‘the way,’” she says. “It is based on the idea that when there are obstacles in your path, you find a way to push through them. You have to keep your head up and keep moving forward. My Fulbright experience helped me build my resilience and has allowed me to recognize that I always have been open to new life experiences because everything can be useful if you allow it to be.”