Unleashing Their Potential
SBU graduates share how their time overseas as Fulbright fellows exceeded expectations
By Liza N. Burby
Road to the Fulbright
Applying to become a Fulbrighter is an intense process that requires two essays and three interviews, including with SBU’s Fulbright Campus Committee, the National Screening Committee and International Fulbright Commission. The alumni featured here said their application successes were made possible with encouragement and support from Jennifer Green (SBU’s former director of fellowships) through a grueling application process that continues to help them professionally. Yakov Landau ’17 credited it for strengthening his graduate school applications. “I’ve gotten the knack of writing these kinds of applications, and I think that’s a really useful skill to have in academia,” he said.
When five Stony Brook University Fulbright scholars set off across the globe, they had a plan to learn the language of their host country, make meaningful connections and expand their horizons. What they didn’t expect was the degree to which those experiences would be life-changing — not only in shaping their careers, but also in how they see the world and their place in it. Through the support and encouragement of SBU’s Fellowships Advising and Professional Development office they were able to unleash their potentials as teachers, research scientists, journalists and social workers.
The Fulbright U.S. Student Program is an academic cultural exchange that grants American students funding for research, study or teaching assistantships in more than 155 countries for an academic year. It’s designed to increase mutual understanding between Americans and people in other countries. Recipients immerse themselves in the language and culture of their host country by working with professionals there, often living with host families or in other accommodations through a housing allowance — one SBU graduate lived in a former puppet theater in Ecuador. Here, these Fulbright scholars share the lessons they brought home with them from their time abroad.
A Perfect Fit
MICHELLE CHIARAPPA ’14 was a linguistics major in the TESOL program, with minors in Italian and Spanish, when in her first year she was inspired by a Fulbright student who spoke about the program to one of her classes. “I loved what she had to say about the goals of the grants and the cultural exchange, so I kept it in the back of my mind all throughout my college experience,” said Chiarappa.
In her senior year, she felt that all the experiences she had in her programs, including a Turkish linguistics class, made the Fulbright a perfect fit. Chiarappa earned an English teaching assistant award to Turkey in 2015. She stayed in the city of Eskisehir, known for its vibrant university community, and rented an apartment with another Fulbrighter. While there, she taught university students, many just a few years younger than she was. Chiarappa said that changed the course of her career, since her original plan was to become an elementary school teacher.
“But getting that experience teaching university students pushed me toward high school instead,” said Chiarappa, 29, who now teaches English as a New Language (ENL) students in Richmond Hill High School in Queens, New York. “I really do love working with older students because I feel like I can be a mentor.”
For Chiarappa, the opportunity to travel around Turkey, where there were more than 100 Fulbright students, was a standout experience. “We were dispersed all throughout the country and able to spend two weeks together in the capital of Ankara for orientation before we moved out into our cities,” she said. “We all got to know each other really well and spent the entire year just bouncing around to the different cities during weekends and school holidays, visiting our friends and exploring. I miss that tremendously.” She said she also misses the hospitality of the Turkish people, as well as the slower pace of life.
“Our co-workers were so eager to show us around our university and the city, as well as to invite us over to meet their families and friends,” she said. “They taught us to cook Turkish food and make Turkish coffee. And when we met people in shops or restaurants, there were so many times when the owners and their families sat down to talk with us because they were excited to meet foreigners who were not only living in their country, but also learning their language and enjoying their culture so much.”
She said another benefit of living abroad that influences her current career was the empathy she gained being in a country where she knew just enough Turkish to get by, but not enough to avoid some challenging situations, like dealing with the building superintendent and traveling mishaps like missed buses.
“Being an ENL teacher and teaching students who are immigrating here, I wanted to make sure I had that experience for myself,” said Chiarappa, who grew up in New York. “I wanted to make sure I had an opportunity to really understand what it feels like to live somewhere else and be out of your comfort zone. Now, when my students are struggling with homesickness, language barriers or whatever problems accompany living in a different country, I feel like I’m much better equipped to help them through that.”
A ‘Big Change Moment’
After he landed in India in 2018 to work with a noted researcher, YAKOV LANDAU ’17 learned that sometimes your specific plans can take a complete left turn for the better — an advantage that guides him in his doctorate program at California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Landau, 33, a physics and math major at SBU, wanted to spend a year doing research in theoretical physics before committing to graduate school. Things didn’t initially fall into place. He didn’t get accepted to his choice of graduate schools, or Sweden, his first choice for Fulbright. Then, when he earned a Fulbright open-study research award to the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai, India, the adviser he’d hoped to work with was inaccessible.
But for Landau, these disappointments turned out to be “a really big change moment for me.” TIFR has a world-class research group in theoretical physics. When he needed someone new to work with, on the advice of his SBU undergraduate advisers, Landau made sure to cross paths with Shiraz Minwalla, a theoretical physicist and renowned string theorist. Landau attended Minwalla’s string theory course and asked if he had a research project for him.
“He did, and working with him just absolutely changed my trajectory,” said Landau. “Seeing how far he could leverage physical intuition to see through intricate problems is what made me turn back from mathematical physics to more physically grounded theoretical physics.” As a result of this interaction, Landau is now pursuing research understanding gravity through the lens of quantum field theory at Caltech. He won the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship in 2021.
What stood out for Landau about doing research in Mumbai is the tight-knit community of grad students and postdocs at TIFR. “I’ve never seen anything like this anywhere in the world,” he said, explaining that professors, postdocs, and new students would all gather in the cafeteria for lunch. “They’d sit there for hours chatting, and actual physics papers came out of these lunchtime conversations. It was serious play — simultaneously laid-back and really intense.”
Landau, who spent 11 months in India, said the Fulbright experience changed how he sees the world. “Having that first-person experience of living somewhere that’s so radically different from everything you’ve been used to really gives you context for the scope of human experiences today,” he said, adding that he also took time to travel within India, including to Rajasthan, Kerala, and the Himalayas, as well as on a seven-day journey on camelback through the desert. “In some of the villages, the kids there had never seen a white person. It’s that remote,” he said. “Part of this is like a snapshot of how most of humanity must have lived for most of human history. These really small, isolated villages gave me a different way to frame the human experience.”
A Different World View
As a journalism major, JESSICA OPATICH ’17 didn’t think a Fulbright was something she could do. But Jonathan Sanders, an associate professor in journalism who was a Fulbright scholar, encouraged her to apply. One of her role models in the field, Margaret Brennan, was also a Fulbright, so she decided it was a good path to take.
Opatich had been working as a reporter at the local NPR station. Recognizing that radio is still a primary means of communication in other parts of the world, she researched what she could do with that and earned a Fulbright research award to Ghana, which has a robust radio infrastructure, to study the impact of community radio.
She said her experience of coming from a melded family background — she was adopted from Paraguay by a Polish American father and Italian mother but grew up on the South Shore of Long Island — gave her a different perspective she thought would be helpful in adapting overseas. One of her goals was to build meaningful relationships, particularly with queer activists in Ghana, where a new anti-LGBT bill will make it a crime to be gay, bisexual or transgender.
“It was difficult to see how people often had to hide their identity. It hurt my heart to know that I had friends worrying about getting beaten and outed,” said Opatich, 29, who lived in an apartment in Accra, the capital. She noted that while she was worried for her own safety as a queer woman, she had some protection as an American.
She immersed herself in the culture and community. “It was common to walk around and nod good morning to everyone you passed along the way,” she recalled. “I miss these small interactions that were filled with warmth. I shopped at buzzing markets, swam at scenic beaches, hiked mist-covered mountains, and watched forest elephants bathe in the watering holes of Mole National Park. I learned some Twi, Ga, Ewe and Ghanaian Pidgin English, and I’ll still text friends with some of the phrases I remember.”
Opatich met her goals not only to further her career, but also to build meaningful and sustainable relationships in Ghana.
“Seeing the incredible work that’s done by activists, whether it’s local community women or indigenous leaders, just knowing that they exist in these spaces brings me such joy and hope to know that those people continue to do the work,” she said. “And it changes how I support them, uplifting their voices and their work and sharing their stories.”
That understanding informs Opatich’s journalism career, she said, ensuring that the stories told don’t reflect stereotypes, a key component of her current role as an associate producer on the booking team at CBS Morning News. “Anytime we’re putting someone on, whether they’re an expert or even just a witness, we’re making choices about who we talk to,” she said. “I get to be a part of those decisions and be really thoughtful about the conversations I have with people every day from across the country.”
When LUIS TOBON ’17 was applying to be a Fulbright English teaching assistant, his goal was to return to his Colombian roots. He moved from the South American country to New York when he was 11. But during the application process, he learned that just being born in Colombia didn’t qualify him to teach there. Green helped him to find another Spanish-speaking country where he could continue the bilingual work he was doing as a high school teacher in Brooklyn. He chose neighboring Ecuador and was placed in Alangasí, a parish on the outskirts of the capital Quito, in 2018. But Colombia found him anyway.
For one thing, Tobon noticed that although the Ecuadorians understood he was a U.S. Fulbright and spoke English, they saw him as Colombian. So while his mission from the State Department was to create a cultural exchange and bridge gaps, he noted that “I was able to fulfill some of those missions, but not in the way that I thought.”
When Tobon had to find his own housing, he wound up in an Airbnb owned by husband-and-wife puppeteers who’d remodeled their building to serve as a puppet theater, museum, workshop and trio of apartments. The wife was Colombian. They struck a deal for lower rent in exchange for English lessons twice a week, and soon Tobon was teaching her friend.
Meanwhile, at the local school in Alangasí, there were 200 students in grades eight through 13. Tobon taught all six grades three long days a week. The experience of teaching both young students and adults helped him to expand his teaching philosophy, which he said he brings to his 10th-grade English classroom today at Rhinebeck High School in New York.
“It’s very different than teaching here, where you’re surrounded by English all day and always getting that reinforcement,” he said. “My philosophy of teaching English had to change to include more reinforcement in the classroom, as well as to create motivation for them to expose themselves to English outside of the classroom.”
That’s why Tobon created a community exchange project with 15 eighth- and ninth- graders with whom he made a 48-minute documentary about what it’s like to be Ecuadorian. As a former SBU marching band member, he also taught them drum line skills for the video.
Tobon was in Ecuador from October 2018 to June 2019 and left three weeks early for job interviews in New York. But he did finally make it to Colombia — and to the Amazon and Machu Picchu. “Just being able to travel has expanded my global awareness,” said Tobon, 26, who completed his master’s in teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) in 2021. “The fact that the grant allowed for me to travel was an amazing opportunity.”
A Home on the Other Side of the World
JESSICA McKAY ’18, a social work major, applied for the English teaching Fulbright in 2017 with South Korea as her destination of choice. She was interested in social and education policy and thought the nation’s progressive policies would be a good opportunity for her to utilize her social work skills. She was also interested in learning Korean.
Meeting those goals was at first challenging, since for McKay, now 25, the experience was not only her first post-graduation job; it was also her first time in Asia. “Being so far away from home and not knowing the language fluently could be isolating,” she said.
But those challenges were offset by her host family in Sejong City, who as deacons gave her the opportunity to host English workshops for children at their church. She also met a tutor through an online program called “Say,” which pairs Korean elders with people like McKay who want to learn Korean.
“I also became involved with a nonprofit that paired people who wanted to teach English to people who’d fled from North Korea,” said McKay, who wound up tutoring three women and learning enough Korean so that, although not fluent, she was able to manage during her time there.
In addition, she taught at two elementary schools in Sejong five days a week. All these opportunities, she said, linked her to the Korean community. “The best part of it was feeling connected to a place that I’d never been to before and finding a home on the other side of the world,” she said. “I still stay in contact with my host family, my co-teacher and my Korean tutor, and it’s really nice to know there are people I love and care about there.”
Another important connection, she said, are the other post-grad students she met. “Fulbright Korea is a larger cohort, so I did it with 80 other Americans and built some of the most important friendships in my life,” she said, adding that she currently shares a Brooklyn apartment with two of these friends.
McKay, a data analyst and researcher at the Financial Health Network in New York, earned her master’s degree in social work with a focus in social and economic development and research in 2020. She said not only did her Fulbright shape her perspective on how she thinks about economic development and help her to meet the professional aspirations she set out with, it was also life-changing.
“Being an expat living in another country and having to navigate a completely new system gave me a lot of empathy for people in the U.S. who try to build a life here,” she said. “I was given a glimpse of that experience in Korea. I feel like that’s something I really carry with me.”
The value of all these Fulbright experiences can’t be overstated, according to Green. “For awardees, this opportunity helps to solidify their existing educational and professional plans,” she said. “For most of these students, a Fulbright year encouraged them to consider paths that they didn’t even know were within the realm of possibility. Either way, Fulbright was an integral part of their development, both personally and professionally.”
Please visit the Fulbright website to learn more about the Stony Brook program.
Liza N. Burby is a freelance writer and features editor for Stony Brook University Magazine, as well as a journalism professor.