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Fulbright Experience Changes Scholars

erin larson '14

Erin Larson '14

March 2015 | by Ted Stephens III '01, '04

Just days before boarding a plane in January, Erin Larson '14 knew she would spend the next several months of her life teaching English someplace on the Southeast Asian island of Malaysia.

But that's all she knew.

"I don't even know where I'll be living, or what language I'll need to learn and speak yet," she said from her home in Mokena, Ill. "It is most definitely scary, but absolutely exciting. I'm ready for this new adventure."

As St. Ambrose University's newest Fulbright Scholar, she has spent the last year researching the educational and political system of Malaysia, the people and their culture, and getting advice from the other seven Fulbright Scholars who have been selected from St. Ambrose over the past nine years.

"When I was applying for the program, Munir Sayegh '11, who traveled to Egypt on his Fulbright, told me to propose an experience that I would be deeply passionate about-and one that would be completely new to me," Larson said. "As I have traveled to places like India and Ecuador through St. Ambrose programs, I have been the beneficiary of the rich cultures and traditions of people I never expected to come face to face with. Now, I hope to extend that to others."

Barbara Pitz, PhD, professor of English and St. Ambrose's Fulbright application adviser, has been guiding young Ambrosians through the process for more than a decade. She said the Fulbright program, the oldest and most prestigious international exchange program in the US, offers recipients a truly life-changing experience.

"These students are throwing themselves into new, unchartered cultures-often following the customs of the country in dress, in diet and in everyday life," Pitz said. "They get a whole different perspective."

A former Fulbright senior lecturer herself, Pitz taught American and British literature in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. She said the program has the ability to change students, merely by going through the application process.

"Most of the students haven't written research or grant proposals before," she said. "I get to work alongside them as they discover what it is they want to do and help them match that to a country that can best put those dreams into practice."

Samantha (Lee) Barkley '10 is an industrial engineering graduate who traveled to Trinidad and Tobago to research the continuity of care for HIV patients and determine the effectiveness of a new electronic medical records system. She said the Fulbright became far less about the day-to-day work and more about the cultural experiences she encountered.

"Everything I did there had to do with how people in the clinics adapted to change," she said. "I came home understanding better how I adapted, too. A lot of the problems we think we have are really ‘first-world problems.' Too often we don't understand what it is like to deal with a water shortage, no electricity, or an incurable disease. The ways I approach my life, my work and my relationships today are different because of Fulbright."

Larson expects to come home changed as well. "I hope I can give to others as much as I'm certain will be given to me just by being there," she said.

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