Ripple Effects 1.4: Fulbright Impact and Access

Christie Gilson (R) taking notes at board meeting next to another board member.
Dr. Gilson taking notes at a J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board meeting
"...I want you to understand that in the United States because disability is a part of our diversity, if you have a disability when you apply it is a positive...it is not a negative."

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Welcome to Ripple Effects: Travelers with Disabilities Abroad, a podcast brought to you by Mobility International USA, where we hear the powerful and vivid stories from people with disabilities going abroad and the positive impact these experiences have on shifting ideas, for everyone, of what is possible.

For our first podcast series we will hear from people who are blind or low vision as part of #BlindAbroad, a campaign from the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange project sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. We hope the heart of their stories resonates with you the listeners to empower more people with disabilities to go abroad.

I’m Monica Malhotra, a Project Coordinator with Mobility International USA and your host for Ripple Effects.

Episode Transcript:

Monica: We are honored to have Dr. Christie Gilson join us today. Dr. Gilson was appointed by President Obama in 2012 to the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. She is an accomplished teacher, public speaker, and disability rights advocate. She was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to study higher education for students with disabilities in Hong Kong in 2006 and has been teaching in the field for the last seven years.

Dr. Gilson, who is blind, has taught English to blind adults in China and has mentored youth with disabilities in Germany, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Spain, Taiwan, and the United States.

So let’s get ready to hear from Dr. Gilson as she speaks about her Fulbright experience and why you should also apply for a Fulbright scholarship. 

Monica: Hi Christie! Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

Christie: Hi Monica. It’s great to talk with you. Thank you for the opportunity.

Monica: So the Fulbright Program is a great opportunity for everyone, including people with disabilities. That’s why I thought this would be a great episode. Particularly hearing from you, as someone who is blind, was awarded the Fulbright, and also who reviews Fulbright applications. So to begin, can you tell us more about your position with the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, which you’ve been a member of since 2012?

Christie:  Monica, it’s a wonderful opportunity that I’ve been given by the President of the United States, Barack Obama, to serve on this 12-member board and what we are charged to do is to oversee the implementation of the Fulbright Program throughout the world. So we have the opportunity to visit with each other and with officials from the U.S. Department of State and other ancillary agencies and hear from them about how Fulbright’s are going, both for students as well as faculties and professionals. And this would include students coming to the US and students going abroad. Or faculty or professionals for that matter. And then of course the whole point of Fulbright is an exchange of ideas between peoples of different nations so that we can avoid or minimize wars and other kinds of conflicts.

Monica: And you were awarded the Fulbright scholarship to study higher education for students with disabilities in Hong Kong. What inspired you to apply for this scholarship and why did you feel it was necessary to go abroad for your particular studies?

Christie: OK, well, one can justify anything if one has strong enough desire. Since I was a little child my father has been telling me stories about being abroad and one of the places he was able to visit during R&R from his time in the Vietnam War, was to go to Hong Kong. He talked to me about the silk, and the people, and the smells, and all these very vivid memories that I’ve had since childhood. And I’ve been interested and fascinated by other cultures from a very early age. So when it came to the time of my doctoral program where I had to write a dissertation, I had hoped that I would get this Fulbright, I applied for it. And as you and I’m sure your listeners know, there is a long gap from when you apply and when you hear back. So I had applied by the due date for students, I believe even still, and at that time was around October 1st, to get everything sent from the university to the first committees that start seeing your particular application materials.

So I applied and was waiting to hear and I got I believe the next April a letter saying you were selected as a grantee but we don’t have enough money, so basically the very high likelihood is that you will not get a grant. So hearing that I wrote a whole different literature review and study proposal, and then in August of that same year, I received an email from IIE, which is the organization that administers Fulbright for students and also for scholars, not in all cases. And they said we have money to offer you a grant. And this is a Friday afternoon, and so I couldn’t believe it. You know, jumped up and down, squealed, did all those non-grown up things that you do when you get great news like that. And then I said, OK, I’ve got to think about it, I’ve got to pray about it. Because I didn’t want to just accept it and be silly and not think about any, you know, potential downsides. So, that was Friday night. I want to think about it until Monday. And I asked my parents, and some good friends, and others who had had Fulbright’s before, what they thought about me going, what would be positives and negatives of that.

Probably the biggest one for me was that I had a guide dog. And so the other thing that I did right away that Friday evening was to call miusa.org. And I spoke with some very helpful staff, as all of the staff are at MIUSA. And asked what do I do, what are some resources in Hong Kong, and so on. And I was immediately connected with blind people (I happen to be blind) in Hong Kong. And I knew from previous time that I had spent abroad that you’re going to get the most truthful, most experienced answers from people who have your similar disability about things like what do I do about the dog, what do I do about finding help, and that kind of thing. So I talked to blind people in Hong Kong and got some really, really good ideas. So, suffice to say, everybody said go for it, go for it! And so I did. And that was August of 2005, and Fulbright for me, this isn’t the typical grant cycle, but for me it was basically mid-January of 2006 to, I think I was going to end in October or November 2006, I asked to be extended to December 2006, and I was granted that. No, this was . . . I travelled to Asia and Europe and Canada and Mexico before, but for those of us who take traditional Fulbrights, I guess to me I think if you haven’t lived somewhere for like more than 5-6 months, I’d say even 10 months, you know, it is one thing to travel somewhere, but it is another completely different thing to live somewhere for a long time. So I had lived in Germany for about 10 months in the mid-1990s, and this was my second long-term stay abroad.

Monica: So since you went on your Fulbright a few years ago now, it is easier to look back and see how your Fulbright experience impacted you both personally and professionally. So what would you say are some of the biggest ways having the Fulbright scholarship benefitted you today.

Christie: You know, when people ask that question I have to first assess how long of a time period I need to answer it, because there are so many ways that these scholarships and these times abroad change us, and I believe in the vast majority of cases, strengthen us. I guess one of the most profound lessons that I learned from this particular Fulbright was that I’m really pretty strong. So it is hard being abroad and sometimes it is lonely. For example if you choose to not just choose to not just hang around with other ex-pats, that is, other Americans, if you choose to try to cultivate mostly friendships with people from the host country, and that’s what I try to do. Certainly if you share a language or you have quite a bit of facility in language of the host country, then it is a lot better. But speaking as a blind person, when you struggle in a language and you can’t see facial expressions, and you’re trying to interpret a new culture, it’s . . . hard. And it can be very frustrating at times. Knowing that I made it through that for, gosh, 11 and a half months, by myself, I didn’t, you know, have a parent or anyone else go with me, made it so that when I finished my doctorate and went on the job search and my first position post-doc was a position in Pennsylvania and I was from Illinois, I thought this was easy compared to crossing the Pacific. So that level of strength that one gains, that level of confidence in yourself and knowing that oh yeah, I can, given the right supports, I can be dropped into a new country and thrive. Not right away, maybe. It takes a while but I could do that. Other lessons that I learned from my Fulbright in Hong Kong specifically would be things like . . . well, I already said I’m from the Midwest and we practically worship the idea of independence. You have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you have to be, you know, the sort of Lone Ranger-Cowboy, like . . . and if you’re disabled you have a . . . it’s not as strong as a taboo but it’s pretty strong; you have to apologize for needing help. At least that’s what I was taught to do. And what I learned from some wonderful women in Hong Kong, we are interdependent.

So this whole idea of independent living is culturally bound. And other places do it differently. Now there are all kinds of goods and bads that come with that perspective too, but there was a woman in Hong Kong who made friends with me almost right away. I’ve got to find someone to do my laundry, because, yes, blind people can do their laundry, but did I want to spend a lot of my time as a doc student-researcher doing laundry? No. Did I want to go out wearing clothes that I might not have known were stained, that kind of thing? No. So I wanted a sighted person to make sure I looked OK. And she said oh, I’ll just do it for you. And I’m like, I have to pay you, I have to pay you! And she said, no, no, I’m your Hong Kong mother and I’ll just do it for you. And I think of her and remember her example to this very day.

Monica: We want to take this time to promote our #BlindAbroad campaign, where our aim is to increase awareness to people who are blind or low vision on the benefits of going abroad. With a big thanks to our sponsors at the U.S. Department of State. You can learn more about the #BlindAbroad campaign by going to our website: miusa.org. And also make sure to follow us on twitter @MobilityINTL and #BlindAbroad. We’d love to see your comments and let others read your messages too.

Monica: Some people hear the word Fulbright and get a little bit intimidated with the idea of applying for such a prestigious scholarship. So what tips for future applicants do you have to make sure everyone knows that this is possible for them?

Christie: OK, well. I’ll speak with two hats. Right now I have donned my Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board hat. We want to certainly uphold the name of the Fulbright grant as the very prestigious opportunity. And it is. It is indeed the flagship exchange program of the United States. On the other hand, I can tell you that everyone on our board and everyone on the board . . . since I’ve been on in 2012, are very committed to diversity. And that means socio-economic, that means ethnicity, that means religious background, that means culture, that means your sexual orientation, your gender, and that means disability. In fact, I was directed by someone from the White House staff, that the reason I was appointed was to make sure that the programs were accessible to people with disabilities. And so, I first would like anyone who has even had a little inkling in the back of your minds about Fulbright to just apply. It’s free to apply. You might get it. For people from other countries who are listening to this podcast, I want you to understand that in the United States because disability is a part of our diversity that you have a disability when you apply is a positive. It is not a negative. So, if you have a disability and want to apply for a Fulbright, first of all you are very welcome to do so. Second of all it will not make it less likely that you get the grant. I promise you that, because I’ve talked to people who make the decisions. Ultimately the board makes the final decisions. So, disclosing your disability on the application is a good thing because then the various agencies that coordinate to make sure your Fulbright experience is successful will know that you have some needs and it is our obligation to accommodate your needs. Now not everything you might think you want, and the way we accommodate disabilities in the states is different than other countries. But we will talk with the individual who is applying and make sure their needs are addressed in some very reasonable way. Like people who need personal care attendants that is addressed, people who are deaf and need interpreters, that is addressed. As a blind person I needed a Braille printer and I got one and it was sent to Hong Kong for free. So these are the kinds of examples of things. People with psychiatric disabilities are very welcome to apply. People with any kind of disability, visible or not.

OK, so I covered that, so in terms of applying for a Fulbright, these are . . . now I’m not speaking as a board member any more. I think the most important thing you need to do to increase your odds of getting a grant is to look at the iie.org website and see about the countries you’re interested in. And they have acceptance rates or . . . they have, for example, if you apply to Britain, you better be in the top 1% of the cream of the crop of Fulbrighters because it is an extremely competitive country. But if you are applying to some developing country that many Americans, unfortunately, have probably never heard of, you might be one of just a couple and there might be enough slots for you. So, you need to look at the countries and the rates of how many people apply versus how many slots there are for grants. That’s the most important thing in my opinion. If you are going to a country where the language is not English and you are studying the language of the host country, you need to be honest about your level of proficiency and know that many critical languages that the US State Department has identified as ones we want to help people to learn, many of these like Russian or Chinese or Arabic or Urdu or others, the US will pay for you for free to attend some classes to get you a more advanced level of proficiency. So know your language, work on the language, if it’s different than English. Then in terms of writing your essays and so on, these are my own personal biases as I review applications, so I can’t say that these are what everyone looks for, but I have heard other people who oversee and who decide who gets the grants, talk of these matters. Be confident in who you are, but be humble. So, tow that line, you know, explain what your experience is, explain your passion, but make sure to talk not only about how you can help others but how you can learn from the country you want to go to. So make sure it is an exchange of information, it’s an exchange of learning, it’s an exchange of teaching that you want to happen in your grant. I would really discourage you from saying something like, well, "we do everything the right way and other places don’t and I just want to show our right way to them." You know, that kind of thing.

Oh, and this is the professor in me coming out: proofread your work. A lot. Because, you know, when you are looking through many, many applications and some are riddled with errors, you’re going to say, that person isn’t very meticulous and I wonder how carefully they thought about doing this grant and whether it is realistic or not.

Monica: Christie, we’d like to end with your Ripple Effect message for anybody listening and of course for future Fulbright applicants.

Christie: I have two ideas that I want to make sure to articulate. The first one is that as people with disabilities unfortunately many of us still have been told “you can’t” or “you’re not able” or “it might be better if you just do something else instead,” and the Fulbright is an excellent opportunity for you to prove those naysayers wrong. So I would encourage anyone who wants to but has some doubts about your abilities or some of those negative messages that we have to encounter, unfortunately, all too often. Take this opportunity. Reach out and grab it. And pull it to your chest and say I want to do this. And don’t let go of it until you do. The second message that I want to make sure that folks hear from me is I believe in you, you are stronger than you think, and yes, some things will go wrong and you’ll find, you know, “oh, what do I do?” I’ve been lost on a street and not knowing where I am, you know. That’s pretty scary when your language skills are rusty in the language. I’ve been in the airport in mainland China and I can count to ten and say thank you; that’s about my level of Mandarin proficiency. And I know that someone told me that they changed the gate number on the flight and I was there alone. Now that’s when you pray real hard. And I survived just fine. The sense of adventure you would experience, you will experience is tremendous and you’ll make it through the tough times because we all have before you and we will after you. So believe in yourself and take this as an opportunity to prove people who don’t believe in you wrong.

Monica: That’s perfect, Christie. I just want to thank you so much for your time today and for sharing your message with us.

Christie: Well it’s my pleasure again. Thank you Monica, for inviting me.

Monica: For additional information on the Fulbright Program for Applicants with Disabilities, make sure to check out the webinar Christie and I recorded that's available on Fulbright's website at us.fulbrightonline.org under their Resources section for Recorded Webinars. 

 I’m Monica Malhotra, your host for Ripple Effects: Travelers with Disabilities Abroad. Thank you for listening and make sure to visit us at miusa.org to learn more about Mobility International USA and our mission to advance disability rights and leadership globally.