Monday, May 25, 2009

Fulbright: Research and Language Study

Sabaah El-Khier and Bonjour from Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia on a gorgeous May afternoon. While the beautiful warm weather is enticing me to make a trip to the beach today, I thought before I went, I would write a post for the Georgia Tech Fellowship Blog to discuss a bit the Fulbright program as well as my research experience. My name is Thomas Earnest (INTA ’07), and I am currently in Tunisia studying the country’s economic development narrative. For my blog post, I wanted to focus on two aspects of my Fulbright experiences that might be helpful to prospective applicants: (1) language acquisition while on your Fulbright; (2) completing research overseas, especially what to do with all your work at the end of your grant.

Living in Tunisia, I have the valuable (and sometimes challenging) experience of living in a bilingual country where French and Arabic are used almost interchangeably--sometimes a sentence will be composed, for example, of an Arabic subject, a French verb, and an Arabic adjective or adverb. This process, coupled with the fact that Tunisia is one of the few remaining countries in the world where the common populace has barely any knowledge of the English language, has made my Fulbright experience almost as much about enhancing language skills as it has been about actual field research. So if you are excited about or wanting to practice or learn a foreign language, then the Fulbright experience is definitely one to consider.

And the great part is, depending on where you choose to do your research, the Fulbright grant will pay up to six months of in-country language study before you begin your research through the Critical Language Enhancement Award (CLEA), a supplemental grant available through Fulbright for students pursuing research in areas of the world where “critical-need” languages are spoken. Examples include Arabic, Farsi, Russian, Korean, Hindi, and Bengali, just to name a few. Iif you are interested in a part of the world where few Americans speak the language, you’re probably eligible for the CLEA award. And I highly, highly recommend your applying for this supplemental grant for the obvious reason that you are getting up to six months of (free) language training, a personal advantage but also extremely helpful for conducting your research in your host country’s native language. However, there is a more subtle reason that has a long-term benefit on your research. With the typical Fulbright grant period lasting nine or ten months, by the time you truly get settled and comfortable in your new surroundings and academic environment, it's almost time to leave. However, with the CLEA program you get to spend your first months getting settled both personally and within your academic research environment while you complete language study; and when it is time for the research portion of your grant to kick in, you are completely settled and ready to hit the ground running with your work. You maximize your research time this way, and undoubtedly your final research product will reap the rewards from these extra months in the country.

The second topic I wanted to discuss is actually completing research during your Fulbright. If you are considering applying for a Fulbright, you probably suspect researching abroad is an experience unlike anything you may have had at home (or at least, it has been for me here in Tunisia researching in the Arab world), but know that it is an extremely rewarding, intellectually stimulating experience as well as a time of personal, professional, and academic growth. In your host country, you learn to operate in new professional, cultural, and societal norms and sometimes are forced to revisit your research proposal if you find it needs to be reworked to be more flexible. Overall though, it’s a pretty awesome experience when you realize that the success or failure of your research experience rests completely on your shoulders. You created this proposal, secured funding, and now that you are in country, it is your sole responsibility to see the work through to its end.

To give you a brief look into my research experience, I arrived in Tunis is September 2008 with plans to create a documentary film on the Tunisian development narrative, after completing my CLEA grant. I had some experience in documentary films in college and wanted to get on the streets and really examine the current state of Tunisia’s development. It is a country that on the surface looks to be head and shoulders above many of its neighbors; however, I had become skeptical of these lauded successes and wanted to explore them in depth through film. Unfortunately though, when I arrived in Tunis, I realized my project may have been a bit too ambitious because I met resistance and caution to my idea of filming. People here are wary and hesitant to put their faces and voices before a camera--especially if discussing the government or its policies. Naturally, this setback was a disappointment; but committed to the essence of my research, I returned to my proposal and began to rework and refine my ideas. It was an evolving process that spanned the initial weeks and even first couple months of my grant period. In the end, though I believe my research is stronger, more focused, and has a more realistic and attainable end-point.

So here I am now, eight-months after I arrived in Tunisia, with the end of my Fulbright experience quickly approaching (my grant ends in August, but I am considering extending my stay in country following my Fulbright). The question on my mind now (and one you may be considering for yourselves as a current applicant) is what do I do now that I have this wealth of research at the conclusion of my Fulbright grant? It is an important question because you have invested an entire year of your life into a research experience, and you want to share your findings with others. Do you write an article for publication? Submit an abstract to a conference to present your findings? Write an opinion piece for a newspaper? Submit your findings to a journal as research notes? The right answer or answers may be unique to your project, but it an important thing to consider before and during your research.

For me, I’m still working through ideas to decide which avenue is best for my research and am looking into working on an article and/or an op-ed for submission, but I have already taken a couple of opportunities to share my work that may be of interest to you. In mid-April, I attended a conference at the Université de Gafsa in Southern Tunisia to present some of my initial findings. This experience was my first time to present research in an official academic setting, and I think a similar experience would be perfect for any Fulbright researcher. I also recently traveled to Amman, Jordan for the annual regional Fulbright Enrichment seminar, which was a chance for Fulbright researchers in the Middle East and North Africa to come together, share their research, exchange best practices, and receive training on research methods. I am also planning a presentation for late July when I will present my final research findings at the Centre d’Études Maghrébines à Tunis to an audience of foreign and domestic members of the academic community in Tunis to share my research as well as receive feedback before I begin preparing my work for its final format (and hopeful) publication.

As I now realize that my entry has spanned over two pages in a word document and not wanting to risk loosing your attention, I will end here for now. But my hope is that this article will be a helpful resource for any prospective applicants or anyone curious about what Tech grads are doing overseas. Please feel free to contact me at thomasdearnest (at) mac (dot) com if you have any questions. Go Jackets!

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