Alex Peterson: “How I became a Fulbright summer student”
When I began my application to the US-UK Fulbright Summer Institute in London, I tackled it the same way I had always completed applications. In my case, this meant avoiding any indication that I had flaws, even on questions directly asking about them.
“What are your three greatest weakness?” I smirked, knowing I could simply answer the question with things I’m actually proud of and just make them sound like I thought they were weaknesses.
“Too ambitious, don’t get enough sleep, weird sense of humor.”
I soon scheduled a meeting with Emily Smith of the Office of Merit Scholarships, Fellowships and Awards, asking if she would offer me some advice on my personal statement. We began by reviewing my rough draft.
“This is impressive, Alex, you’ve got a lot of great information in here.”
“Thanks! I have a lot of exper–”
“But this tells me nothing about who you are. This part is a personal statement after all, not a second resume.”
Throughout the ensuing conversation, it became brutally apparent to me — only four students in the country would be accepted, and impressive resumes were a dime a dozen. I needed to illustrate a compelling picture of myself as a valuable addition to a community of people, willing to be genuine and honest. In addition to substantially revising my personal statement, I quickly revisited the earlier question regarding my weaknesses:
“Valuing external validation more than I should, avoiding collaboration when I believe I can do something well by myself, poorly balancing work and leisure.”
When I finally finished the application process I felt a new sense of peace uncharacteristic of other admissions processes. I wasn’t wondering if I made myself look good enough. This is me.
Within a few months, I received the thrilling news. I would soon be studying Middle Eastern Politics at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies with two of the world’s leading professionals in the field!
Once I arrived, I was surprised by how much independence I would be given. I would simply be living in my own room, responsible for attending classes each day and attending Fulbright-organized weekend trips around England, no nightly curfew or check-in, and a stipend of British cash provided by the Fulbright program to spend as I saw fit. Even the final essay for my class was entirely optional! This lack of structure was both disconcerting and invigorating; the quality of experience abroad was entirely up to me.
I immediately sought close friendships with my cohort members. As an ideological conservative with political aspirations, I began to casually ask the group questions about their opinions on US politics. Without too much surprise, I quickly discovered I was going to have few, if any, friends on this trip with similar views as me. In a city like London, I knew this disparity would be even more pronounced. During political conversations, I had to ensure that I substantiated every claim with honest data. I had to be fully willing to consider opposing points of view, and many days I spent ruminating on arguments presented by my peers in my classes and cohort. Through this, I grew a heightened sense of appreciation for honest discourse and actually grew closer to my friends, as we prioritized mutual respect even in the midst of disagreement.
My Middle Eastern Politics class lasted roughly five hours each day, covering topics from agriculture and income inequality in Egypt to the Iranian Revolution’s effects on the modern state. Having been interested in better understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict long before this program, I was also pleased to know that we would be devoting eight hours of class time to the topic. I even had the opportunity to discuss ISIS, Islam’s role in Middle Eastern government, and more with my professors during lunch. One day, we even Skyped a prominent activist who had a noted role in the Tunisian Revolution in 2010.
Naturally, with such a comprehensive and enthralling environment for intellectual growth, I knew that I would again grapple with my workaholic side. I understood, however, that I could not let this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity become simply coursework; sometimes I should instead choose the River Thames and Buckingham Palace over more time with my books. And while I can’t say I have overcome this weakness of mine entirely, I feel that I took an important first step toward knowing when to simply enjoy the places, people and circumstances around me.
One of my favorite Fulbright outings happened towards the end of the program. We were scheduled to meet students from a different Fulbright institution at a fancy restaurant in London called Dans le Noir. This would be no ordinary dinner though; we would be dining in utter and complete darkness. How would we navigate regular social cues when we couldn’t see our own hand in front of our faces, let alone one another? How would we avoid eating something disgusting?
The evening began as one might expect:
“Oh my gosh, I think this is a tentacle!” shrieked one of my cohort members.
“Ew! Don’t get it near me!” hollered another.
I was ready to convert any apprehension of mine into excitement. “I’ll take it!” I promptly announced. A moist slimy-stiff stump soon met my hand in the darkness and I lifted the morsel into my mouth whole. Octopus or some other aqueous creature: it was decadent.
Hamda Yusuf, 2016 Charles B. Rangel Fellow & 2016 Fulbright Student
The Rangel Graduate Fellowship program aims to attract and prepare outstanding young people for careers in the Foreign Service in which they can help formulate, represent and implement U.S. foreign policy. Each year, the Rangel Program selects 20 outstanding Rangel Fellows in a highly competitive nationwide process and helps support them through two years of graduate study, internships and professional development activities, and entry into the Foreign Service. The Fulbright U.S. Student Program offers research, study and teaching opportunities in over 140 countries to recent graduates and graduate students annually.
Hamda Yusuf graduated in 2016 with a degree in International Studies and minors in German and African Studies. She is a Somali-American and calls both Hargeisa, Somalia and Seattle, Washington home. Hamda has been heavily involved with the Somali Student Association on campus and served as the Community Affairs Officer. Earlier in her undergraduate studies she was able to intern with Senator Maria Cantwell’s Seattle office where she focused on immigration and visa issues. During her time at UW she developed a passion for studying immigration pathways, cultural studies, and human rights.
These passions were a big motivation in her applying for both the Rangel Fellowship and the Fulbright-Austria Community Based Combined Grant for the 2016-2017 year. Having already participated in the Spring in Vienna study abroad program her sophomore year, Hamda felt well prepared to return to a city that she found both beautiful and perplexing. With the Fulbright grant, she will work as an English teaching assistant in an Austrian secondary school, attend classes at the University of Vienna, and work with an organization that finds better housing for refugees in Austria. If she manages to have any free time, she hopes to fulfill her dream of hiking parts of the Alps.
After her Fulbright year, Hamda plans to join the Rangel Fellowship Program and do her graduate studies at the New School’s Milano School of International Affairs in New York City where she will focus on conflict and security. Hamda hopes to eventually serve as a consular officer for the Foreign Service, where she will be able to work to promote security and increase understanding between nations. As a first-generation college student, Hamda wants to recognize her parents for always motivating her to be a positive force in the world.