By MAX BROWN
Eight Drake seniors are semifinalists for the 2019-20 Fulbright US student program. This program provides winners with a federal grant to teach English or conduct research for a year in a country of their choice. Thirty-five Drake students have received Fulbright scholarships since 2000, and this year shows a sharp increase for semifinalists.
Ashley Blazek, a public relations major, describes the application process as a long and extensive process.
“I don’t think anyone will ever really understand just what a grind this application process is,” Blazek said. “The application consisted of two essays, one page, 12-pt font, single-spaced, a campus committee interview that challenges and strengthens your writing, three letters of recommendation and a lot of biographical information. The essays were a statement of grant purpose and a personal statement. They were the most challenging part of the application, and I don’t think I’ve ever made more drafts to any two documents than I did to these essays. I’m talking at least 15 drafts of each.”
Hallie O’Neill, a writing and anthropology/sociology double major, had a similar experience with the application process.
“This application process has been like nothing I’ve ever experienced before—it’s so extensive,” O’Neill said. “I started at the beginning of my junior year, although you don’t usually need to start until the summer before senior year. The head-start was helpful for me because I studied abroad during the fall of my senior year, so most of my work had to be done before I left. The two essays I submitted with my application have gone through at least 15 drafts each, so a lot of eyes have contributed to this process.”
Fulbright applicants, in addition to a good academic record, must have a large body of volunteer experience and experience abroad. Kelanie Crosswait, an international relations major with minors in economics, Arabic and psychology, believes that her wealth of experience working abroad has made her stand out as an applicant.
“I have had many international experiences, including experience in Middle Eastern countries, as well as Arabic language proficiency,” Crosswait said. “Along with interning at a nonprofit organization in the Palestinian Territories, I have worked with Syrian refugees at a camp in Greece, taken intensive Arabic courses in Morocco and traveled and studied in Egypt.”
Crosswait applied to the Fulbright program because she said teaching is one of her lifelong passions.
“I had heard about the Fulbright program a few times throughout my college career, but my decision to apply came after an internship in the Palestinian Territories where I realized I have a passion for teaching English,” Crosswait said. “When I was working with my students, I felt more engaged than I have while in any other job position I have held, and I felt so much pride when I saw them excel.”
If Crosswait gets a grant, she will be returning to the Palestinian territories to teach English.
“I am inspired by the resilience and tenacity of the Palestinian people, and I greatly enjoyed teaching English to Palestinian youth and adults … the teaching of conversational English to youth and adults is something that appealed to me as I want to leave students with skills they can apply in their day-to-day lives, careers and other endeavors,” Crosswait said.
O’Neill’s plan for the grant is to teach English in the Czech Republic. Her interest in this location comes from her personal heritage.
“I chose the Czech Republic partly because I have strong family ties to that country,” O’Neill said. “I come from a small, very culturally Czech town, and my two great-grandmas still speak Czech to us sometimes. I grew up with Bohemian influences around me, and I thought it would be cool to revisit those roots and learn more about the people who first settled my hometown.”
She was also drawn to the position because it will give her experience in the exact career she is seeking.
“I was also drawn to the CR because they offered a position in a high school classroom, and that’s the age I’m most interested in teaching and collaborating with,” O’Neill said. “To add on to that, I visited the CR a few years ago and absolutely fell in love with it. The culture, the history, the people, and even the language just drew me in. I knew that it was a place I could see myself living in for ten months. I want to become more confident at the front of a classroom. I’ve recently started to consider a career in education, and I think this experience will be valuable to that growth. I believe that working with students from a different cultural background will strengthen my ability to communicate with and understand other people, and that’s a skill I’ll utilize throughout my entire life.”
Blazek and O’Neill both stated that they could not have succeeded in the program without help from Drake, particularly post-graduate scholarship coordinator Karen Leroux.
“Professor Leroux has been immensely helpful throughout this process—I certainly couldn’t have done it without her support,” O’Neill said.
Blazek similarly wished to praise Leroux for her help in the application process.
“She cares so much about student success and pushing them to reach their potential,” Blazek said. “Her patience and compassion are remarkable.”
Crosswait stands out from fellow semifinalists at Drake in that she applied to the program independently and thus did not receive formal mentorship from any faculty.
Both Blazek and O’Neill encourage all students who have the opportunity to apply for Fulbright or a similar program to do so, even with the understanding that they might not be accepted.
“Semi-finalist status aside, the entire application process has taught me a lot, and for those planning to apply to graduate school or something similar, it’s perfect practice,” O’Neill said.
“It’s a lot of work, but just go for it,”Blazek said. “Even if I don’t receive the grant, I learned so much from professors and mentors through this process. I’m a better writer, critical thinker, and better able to take criticism because of this application journey.”
Blazek does, however, advise students that the process is a major commitment.
“Show yourself grace and patience in the application process,” Blazek said. “It will require some sacrifices of time, if you’re like me, there may even be some tears, and some moments of self-doubt in the process, but know that this scholarship/grant does not define you or your worth, and you have absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain by going for it.”
Finalists for the program will be chosen and notified later this spring.