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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Meet Western’s bright minds

Western grads extend Fulbright winning streak, share their experiences

All of the Fulbright teachers in Kayla Callanan’s cohort on their way to dinner together before they head out to their placements on August 4, 2019. // Photo courtesy of Kayla Callanan

By Mazey Servin

Western has been named a top national producer for the Fulbright U.S. Student fellowship competition, which gives winners for the 2019-20 academic year a chance to travel to other countries and take part in the three paths they offer to further their education. The recipients from Western this year — all women — are Iris Hubbard who is teaching in Taiwan, Kayla Callanan, Amy Boswell who is teaching in the Czech Republic, Natasha Hessami and Samara Almonte. 

There are three different pathways for students in the Fulbright program: research study grant, English teaching assistantship and a master’s program. Hessami now resides in Glasgow, Scotland, on the fellowship for a master’s degree program.

“It was a pretty rigorous process,” said Natasha Hessami, a Western alumna who received the Fulbright fellowship for the 2019-20 year. “I began about a year before the application was due and I searched through many countries and many programs.” 

The Fulbright program was established in 1945 when Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas introduced the program to the U.S. Congress. The Fulbright programs offer opportunities for students and young professionals to study internationally, conduct advanced research and teach at a university, or primary and secondary schools worldwide, according to the Fulbright Student Program.

“Eight out of the last 10 years we’ve been a top producer — one of the top producers in the category,” said Tom Moore, adviser for the Fellowship Office at Western. 

To be a top producer, the university has to have a designated amount of winners each year for each category, Moore said. For master’s institutions to become a top producer, there has to be three to four winners. This year Western had five. 

Steven VanderStaay, vice provost for undergraduate education, is a staunch supporter of the Fulbright Program. 

“Since we started that fellowships office, we have helped hundreds of students land research fellowships and study abroad fellowships,” VanderStaay said. “It’s kind of a hallmark of an excellent university nationwide.”

The Fulbright Program allowed Hessami to switch disciplines from an undergraduate degree in biochemistry and a minor in math to a master’s degree in social policy. 

“I felt like I was ready to leave the U.S. again and go try something new,” Hessami said. “I was really excited about how the Fulbright emphasized cultural and global exchange.”

Hessami said she would not be able to move to the U.K. without the Fulbright Program.

The program pays a stipend that covers room and board, flights and other necessities such as healthcare, according to Moore.

“I did not have the financial means to move to another country, nor did I have the financial means to pursue a master’s degree in the U.S., so it is the reason that I’m able to study,” Hessami said. “It has brought me a lot of friendships. I am roommates with a Brazilian postgraduate student and I’ve met other Americans through the Fulbright program who are here in the U.K.,” Hessami said.

Hessami said the program has had a huge impact on her. During the application process, Hessami’s plan was to just get her master’s degree and come back to the United States.

“I love it so much here I am staying, so I’m not coming back to the U.S. That’s been a huge impact,” Hessami said.

Being far away from home can be hard considering she was close with her family, however, Hassami said she has decided to stay in the U.K.

Hessami and her twin  were both leaving the U.S. to pursue graduate programs. “It was hard for us, both going far away from home, leaving my mom, dad and sister,” she said. “But you know, thanks to modern technology, I call my family all the time and FaceTime them all the time.”

Kayla Callanan, a Western alumna was also awarded the Fulbright fellowship, now resides in Cheongju, South Korea working for the English Teaching Assistantship.

These programs can give people the chance to experience a different culture, Moore said. 

“It can be difficult at times, but I am learning a lot about myself and the culture through the discomfort that I experience,” Callanan said. “My favorite part has been connecting with my students and finding ways for them to feel comfortable and happy when using English. My job has not been easy by any means, but I like the challenge.

Callanan said she hopes this experience can have an impact on her future classes that she teaches.  

“My impact in Korea, I hope that I make my students feel comfortable using English and that they feel confident in all that they do,” Callanan said. “Students often feel so much pressure to be perfect and I hope that my students know that it’s okay to fail and it’s okay to not be perfect at learning a second or third language.”

Callanan said she hopes her experience can have an impact on her future classes when she returns to the United States. 

Samara Almonte posing for a photo on June 11, 2019. She will be attending the English Teaching Apprenticeship program in Lima, Peru. // Photo courtesy of Samara Almonte

Samara Almonte, another Western alumna, was awarded the Fulbright fellowship for a teaching program. She is preparing for a March 8 trip to Lima, Peru for the English Teaching Assistantship.

“I applied because I had always wanted the opportunity to live in a new country and I figured after my undergraduate experience, I had the perfect excuse and time to leave,” Almonte said.

Almonte had to do a lot of background research about how she is going to change some aspects of her life to prepare for her experience in Peru.

According to Almonte, the preparation was pretty rigorous and nerve-wracking because the program includes finding somewhere to live long-term and trying to understand the place she will be living and teaching.

“It has been a roller coaster of emotions,” Almonte said. “I am very honored to be chosen, however, there are times when I worry about being so far away from my loved ones and for such an extended period of time.”

Almonte said she is not as nervous as she thought she would be because her first language is Spanish. She knows that Peru is going to be a different culture from her Mexican heritage, but she believes that there will be a sense of familiarity within Peruvian culture. 

Almonte hopes her family background can help the process and that she can represent the immigrant experience in the U.S. 

“I hope to bring a new perspective to the Fulbright as a first-generation Chicana college student,” Almonte said. “Although I was born and raised mostly in the United States, my background and worldview is heavily influenced by my Mexican heritage. Therefore, I believe not only will my future students in Peru learn English from someone who has lived most of her life in the United States, but also from someone who represents the immigrant experience in the U.S.”

Almonte said she was inspired by other women of color to be part of the Fulbright program.

“Le’Ana Freeman was the first person to introduce me to the program when she was awarded to teach English in India, and Maria Jose Palacios Figueroa was awarded a position in Brazil,” Almonte said. “They both inspired me by showing me that women of color can travel on their own and achieve such high and prestigious awards.”

While Hessami, Callanan, and Almonte responded for comments, the Western Front reached out to all recipients. 

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