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Polly Woodbury, the first person of color to win a Fulbright fellowship through Western, is currently teaching English in Thailand. // Photo courtesy of Polly Woodbury

Following in the path led by her mother, Polly Woodbury, Western alumna, has headed to Thailand under a Fulbright fellowship to teach English in the same country her mother first learned it, she said. 

Woodbury, born and raised in Tacoma, is the product of a French father and Cambodian mother, which makes her the first person of color to win a Fulbright fellowship through Western.

Given it’s 2015, that shouldn’t be the case, Nate Panelo said, coordinator of the Ethnic Student Center.

"She is the only person of color from Western to receive the fellowship, which says a lot about our community," said Panelo.

Woodbury's mother was also a Cambodian refugee in the Khmer Rouge period, and was a major influence on her choice to travel to that area of the world again.

Woodbury graduated from Western in spring 2014 with a major in psychology and communications, and minoring in political science and diversity in higher education, she said in a video call from Thailand.

The Fulbright awards students with about $20,000 to teach English in a foreign country of their choice, said Tom Moore, director of Western’s fellowships office. Fellowships such as Fulbright are grants applied for by graduate students, while scholarships are for undergraduates, Moore said.

Woodbury is the first student from the ESC to work with the fellowships office, and hopefully will lead the way for others to follow in her path, Panelo said. 

Moore began reaching out to the ESC last year with help from Elena Pereyra, an Academic Support Coordinator there. The two encouraged her to apply, Woodbury said. 

Woodbury was doubtful hat she actually might win when she put in her application in October of 2014, she said. Her doubts proved to be mistaken as she received news she was accepted on April 1, 2015.

“I thought, ‘Is this a cruel April Fool’s joke?’,” she said.

While applying for the Fulbright, Woodbury lacked confidence because she wasn’t sure her background was what the judges were looking for. When she found out she won she felt empowered, Woodbury said. 

Woodbury felt good about the essays she wrote, who she is and the accomplishments she’s made, she said.

Accepting the fellowship, Woodbury planned on teaching in Cambodia so that she might be surrounded by her family’s culture, she said.

However, Woodbury later discovered that Cambodia didn’t have the program she is in. When looking for another country, Thailand stuck out as an obvious choice, she said.

“I knew I wanted to be in Southeast Asia, so I was looking at countries that would be most similar to Cambodia in regards of culture,” Woodbury said.

Along with the culture, she chose Thailand because of her mom’s history in the country, Woodbury said. Woodbury arrived in Thailand at the end of September.

Woodbury will finish her program in September 2016, she said.

Woodbury will finish her program in September 2016, but plans on staying another month in Cambodia, she said. She also wants to apply for the Rhodes fellowship, which is due in October 2016.

“I’d like to have that already submitted and completely done by the time I’m back in America,” Woodbury said.

The Rhodes fully pays for a student’s tuition and housing while they receive their master’s or Ph.D..

The award is a step in the right direction, but she doesn’t think one person is enough and that there’s more work to be done, she said.

“I get ecstatic to hear what she’s doing or where she’s going. She made a huge impact on our community,” Panelo said. “I’m really, really proud of her.”


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