What was your experience with the application process? What was most difficult? What was most rewarding?
I stumbled onto the Fellowships page only a few short weeks before the initial Fulbright deadline, so the application process was a bit daunting at first. In fact, Tim had mentioned to me that most people start preparing their Fulbright application months in advance, going through numerous drafts of their essays in preparation. I was more than a bit late to the party, so I had to write my essays and gather my recommendation letters in an alarmingly short amount of time. However, Tim wholeheartedly encouraged me to apply regardless, and he was of tremendous service to me throughout the process. I would highly recommend that any interested student set up a meeting with him; he has years of experience and a lot of useful advice, especially in regards to the essays.
The most difficult part of the whole process -- and the most rewarding -- was coming up with a "voice" for myself. It's important that students have a defined personality and perspective that come through on the application. The Fulbright Commission receives a huge number of applications from talented students nationwide, so it's extremely important that they understand how each specific student will contribute his or her individual talents to fit into that picture. Tim helped me to narrow my application's focus to my experience volunteering with Spanish speakers, at home and abroad, which was a common thread throughout my college career. I used my experiences as a way to build a kind of voice in my essays, and it was quite rewarding to be able to define, in writing, my uniqueness as a Fulbright candidate.
Why did you decide on Colombia and have you been happy with your decision?
I chose to apply for an ETA position in Colombia because I'd spent a semester abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, during my junior year of college. That might seem counterintuitive, but the people who became my closest friends in Buenos Aires were all Colombian natives who had left their country in search of better academic opportunities, so I learned a lot about Colombian culture during those six months. Colombian people are, on the whole, incredibly warm, optimistic and passionate people, so I began to fall in love with the country without having ever visited. When starting the Fulbright application process, I decided I wanted to experience that culture first-hand, as well as help to create more academic opportunities for Colombians in their own country. It's important for Fulbright to see that each candidate has a reason for applying to a specific country -- a link of some kind -- and this was mine. I couldn't be happier with my decision to apply to Colombia. The culture is just as inviting as it was when I experienced it in Buenos Aires. In the short span of a year, I've established a huge community of friends and co-workers of all different interests and walks of life, thanks to the incredible warmth and openness of everyone I've met.
What has it been like to work as an ETA? What types of activities or projects have you come up with that the students have enjoyed?
From what I understand, ETA responsibilities are entirely contingent upon the university to which each candidate is assigned. My experiences have been quite different from those of some of my fellow Colombia ETAs. I was assigned to work in a small university-level institution of about 150 students in Bogotá, the country's capital. The students are all studying to become bilingual professors or professors of English. As there is no prerequisite for level of English upon enrollment, there's a pretty vast range of abilities in the students with whom I work.
My job has been to create individual tutoring sessions for any student struggling with coursework, as well as to correct the thesis papers of graduating students and set up in-person thesis consultations as needed. Students, then, would come to me to set up tutoring sessions of one to two hours each, and every week we would meet in person to review their coursework and practice English. I had a lot of freedom to design grammar or pronunciation exercises as I saw fit, which was both difficult and rewarding. Some of the beginner students needed exercises focused on pronunciation of vowel sounds and basic reading comprehension, whereas the most advanced students benefitted from conversation practice and essay work. Most of my students -- beginner or advanced -- loved listening comprehension the most. NPR's Storycorps, an archive of short-recorded conversations between loved ones, was especially fun for us. I had students listen to the recording a few times and answer related conversation and comprehension questions that I created.
What has been the most fulfilling part of your time in Colombia? What have you learned about cultural differences and exchange?
The most fulfilling part of being in Colombia has been the realization that I can conquer any challenge that comes my way, whether personally or professionally. Living in Colombia has pushed me to the absolute limits of my comfort in terms of language -- I've had to learn how to communicate in Spanish in any context, whether that means at work, conversationally with friends, or to get things accomplished in emergency situations. In terms of friendships, I had to start from square one, as I didn't know many people livng in Colombia at the time I moved. It's been extremely fulfilling to go out to bars, restaurants, or various events around the city and be able to meet people and form lasting friendships (all in Spanish!) I've also been presented with challenging projects I wasn't sure I'd be able to accomplish at work, but I've proven to myself that I am capable of being an effective and qualified English teacher.
As far as cultural differences, there are certainly things I've missed about the States. In terms of gender equality, Colombia still needs a bit of work, and I often found it frustrating or uncomfortable to be yelled at by men on the streets or to come across "machista" points of view regarding the way women should act in society. Additionally, because there is still a lack of diversity in Colombia, people are generally not used to different skin and hair colors or manners of dress, and it is not seen as rude to stare at someone who doesn't look "normal." I've been stared at -- even pointed at, openly -- for being tall, pale and blonde. These things took a lot of getting used to, but I had to learn that no one intended to be personally offensive. In the end, it was good for me to experience that discomfort and the initial inability to fit in, since it gave me a much wider perspective and a chance to feel "other," something I've never felt in the States. Learning to cope with cultural differences made me understand that U.S. culture is no more "right" or "valid" than any other culture; it's just a different way of viewing things.
Have you traveled? Where have you visited?
I didn't travel outside of Colombia because I didn't have a lot of extra funds, but I traveled numerous times within the country. I visited the Caribbean coast on three different occasions, spending time in Santa Marta, Cartagena, Barranquilla and Colombia's desertic northwestern department, La Guajira. I spent two days in the country's beautiful national park, Tayrona, and even got to take a day trip to a white-sands Caribbean island called Barú.
What have been the greatest challenges for you in Colombia?
As I mentioned before, the greatest challenges for me in Colombia have been adjusting to cultural differences and attempting to overcome language barriers. Colombia is a developing nation; in Bogotá, especially, there is still a lot of poverty -- poverty beyond anything we might experience in the States -- a lot of underpaid and underfed blue-collar workers and street vendors, and a lot of work- or government-related protests that affect or even stop travel throughout the city. There are not as many air-quality regulations, so dirty buses cause intense air pollution in parts of the city. However, learning to adjust to these differences and understand the politics behind them was more than worth it. I not only came to love Colombia and the intense strength and optimism of its people, but I also learned to recognize and appreciate the privileges I've had in the States.
How will this experience prepare you for your next step? Do you know what you want to do next?
I was officially accepted to teach full-time as a professor of English at the university where I carried out my Fulbright grant. I'll be there for the next year teaching English III, Pronunciation, and Speech. If all goes according to plan, I see myself in Colombia for the next two years, after which time I intend to apply for law school to become an immigration or public service lawyer. My experience in Colombia has given me a worldview I couldn't have gained If I'd stayed in the States, and I've had Spanish language experience that allows me to finally say I'm fully bilingual. Additionally, the responsibilities and work experience I've been afforded by the Fulbright grant have given me the confidence and maturity I felt I lacked upon graduation, which has prepared me for three years of law school and a future career in law.