February 16, 2022

On November 4, 2021, World Learning celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Fulbright Program through the Fulbright Specialist Program (FSP) Alumni Forum, a virtual event that brought together four Fulbright Specialist alumni to present their work in a diverse range of fields and highlight how Fulbrighters are leading the way to build connections in a complex and changing world.

In case you missed the global watch party, you can view the recorded event below or read on to learn how alumni presenters are fostering intercultural connections and key conversations.

Connecting Through Our Fears

W. Jesse Weins, 2018 Fulbright Specialist to Bhutan

As we all navigate a complex and changing world, fear of the unknown is central to our human experience. Arizona State University lecturer W. Jesse Weins knows this all too well, as he had his own initial fears about serving as a Fulbright Specialist at the Jigme Singye Wangchuck School of Law in Bhutan, where he was tasked with developing coursework and delivering an Oral Advocacy course to the Himalayan nation’s first-ever class of law students.

He quickly realized that the students he would teach had their own fears. Many of them feared that they couldn’t become the effective public advocates they sought out to be, or struggled with public speaking. He thought of Bhutan itself, too, connecting its peoples’ concern to preserve their culture and independence as a small country nestled between India and China to the concerns of Native Americans within his home state of South Dakota working to preserve similar autonomy. These are “wholly different countries and cultures, but the same fears and concerns,” he observed.

During the Forum, Weins emphasized that it’s these shared experiences of fear that can build bridges around the world, whether during our travels or closer to home. “I’d like to suggest that our fears can actually help us to connect across cultures,” he said. “Because we all have them: worries, anxieties, fears — both individual and collective issues — communicating our fears to each other actually humanizes us in each other’s eyes.”

Every Courageous Conversation Matters

Anu Taranath, 2015 Fulbright Specialist to India

Anu Taranath is no stranger to a difficult conversation. As a professor at the University of Washington specializing in global literature, identity, race, and equity, and as a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) consultant, difficult conversations are central to her everyday work. She even wrote a book, “Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World” that would land on Oprah Winfrey’s “26 Best Travel Books of All Time,” to provide travelers with tools for navigating discomfort, difference, and inequality while abroad. As a Fulbright Specialist at Azim Premji University in India, Taranath led seminars and workshops on integrating a critical humanities perspective into the university’s curriculum and pedagogy.

During the Forum, Taranath took the audience on a journey through her own personal experiences leading study abroad programs in India, where she and her students met with a group of local women. Taranath described feeling so overwhelmed by the weight of their challenges that she struggled to remain present in conversation with one woman. “Why, why is the world so unjust?” she wondered, later expressing regret over her inability to move past her own mental and emotional response that ultimately hindered her ability to connect with this woman sharing her story.

For Taranath, the experience emphasized that while these difficult conversations can be uncomfortable, we must grapple with those discomforts and dig in to really learn about one another. “If we are so uncomfortable thinking and talking about sensitive issues,” she said, “how will we ever cultivate the courage to actually dream and make change?”

In sharing several prompts with the audience to help them reflect on their own difficult conversations abroad, Taranath encouraged the audience to create more space for compassion, connection, and justice, both at home and when traveling abroad. While this might bring about difficult conversations, they are crucial to connection, giving us “more space to imagine, create, and shepherd in real justice and right action.”

Why Social Capital Matters During Shocks and Disasters

Daniel Aldrich, 2018 Fulbright Specialist to Trinidad &Tobago and 2012 Fulbright U.S. Scholar to Japan

What keeps us resilient in the face of major disasters and shocks like earthquakes, tsunamis, or pandemics? This is a question Daniel Aldrich, a Fulbright Specialist at the University of the Southern Caribbean in Trinidad & Tobago, began to explore after his own home was damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

An award-winning author of five books, professor of political science, public policy, and urban affairs, and director of the Security and Resilience Studies program at Northeastern University, Aldrich’s work and research focus on countering violent extremism and improving people’s resilience after experiencing disasters and shocks.

During the Forum, Aldrich introduced this body of research to help the audience better understand people’s decisions following a major disaster and how those decisions are impacted by the types of relationships they maintain. For example, his research team found that those with a range of ties to different members of their communities are more inclined to heed disaster warnings and evacuate safely and that these ties also help them rebuild after a major shock. “The reality is that it’s our networks, the people that we know, that determine how we survive and thrive during shocks and disasters,” Aldrich explained.

Ultimately, Aldrich’s message is that these community ties are not static, and we all have a role to play in building a resilient community by learning who our neighbors are, developing more and better urban spaces, and getting involved in our local community. Ultimately, Aldrich said, “building a more resilient future will come from being connected to our neighbors and our friends.”

Beyond Research Findings: Process and Capacity Building

Lisa Dale, 2019 Fulbright Specialist to Rwanda

Fulbright Specialists are leaders and experts in their field, and many alumni are engaged in research on critical challenges like climate change that face our world. After serving as a Fulbright Specialist at the University of Rwanda in 2019, Lisa Dale was able to return to Rwanda earlier this year to conduct research among small-scale farmers in southeastern Rwanda. Dale, a lecturer in Columbia University’s Sustainable Development program, studies adaptive capacity building, or the ability of individuals or communities to adapt to climate change.

After receiving nearly a hundred applications in response to her job posting for a local research assistant, Dale realized that she also had the opportunity to use the process of conducting field research to engage in “capacity building in real time.”

Dale explained how she worked with her team of student researchers to build tangible work experience and research skills as they conducted field research for her project. They, in turn, benefited her research by serving as cultural brokers and helping to create a more familiar and comfortable environment for interviewees. “They were able to learn things, [and] I learned so much from them,” Dale explained. “So, the very process of doing this research built capacity and expanded their skill base far more immediately and more measurably than any of my research findings could possibly hope to accomplish.”

To take a look back at the year-long 75th Anniversary celebration, catch up with Fulbright news, and read about Fulbrighters who are making an impact in their communities and around the world, visit fulbright75.org.