In this blog post, our American ETA alumna and Fulbright Ambassador, Vanessa, shares more about her experiences leading to her applying for the Fulbright program to Jordan, as well as some key advice for anyone who wishes to apply.
Marhaba! My name is Vanessa Diaz and I am a 2019 Fulbright Alumni Ambassador. I was a Gilman Scholar to Doha, Qatar in 2014 for a spring semester in Graphic Design. In 2016-2017, I was awarded a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to Jordan, where I taught over 300 5th-8th grade students at a private Christian school in Amman. My classes focused on using games and activities to motivate students to practice reading, writing, and speaking the English language. As an additional help to my students, I also served as a coach and mentor to 7 high school students who worked on research and community service projects for the 2017 English Language Olympics. Outside of the classroom, I volunteered with ReClaim Childhood as an assistant coaching aid, providing a safe space for refugee girls to play sports in an organized after-school program.
On my weekends, I would travel to Jerash to the Gaza refugee camp with a fellow Fulbright researcher, where we would volunteer with Hopes for Women in Education (HFWE) and teach adolescent girls beginner English lessons. I also donated my design work for this nonprofit, creating wayfinding and main entrance signs to help physically locate this women’s center within the camp. HFWE focuses on providing opportunities and the necessary skills for Palestinian women to become financially independent, as well as open doors to opportunities to advance their careers and studies. After my Fulbright grant in 2017, I traveled to Lebanon for the summer to take an Arabic Type Design Course at the American University of Beirut. I learned about the foundation of ancient Arabic calligraphy techniques and applied those to create a modern and new Arabic type design. It had been a dream of mine, even before Jordan, and I was lucky to have had the opportunity. It was one of the best experiences of my life.
While in Jordan, I had “Latinx” privilege because of the way I looked. Because my family is from Colombia, I have middle-eastern features and was always mistaken for either Jordanian or Lebanese. For me, it was never a problem because it did make life in Jordan a lot easier. I mention privilege because some of my colleagues always stood out as foreigners to taxi drivers, or business owners and would unfortunately get over charged, harassed, or treated differently. To my students, many would find it difficult to understand how someone who looked like me would be American, and many thought I might be lying. My presence in Jordan, as a Latinx and as a person who looks “Arab,” it was such an important lesson for my students and the community to learn about my culture, how I was raised, and the simple fact that I am from the United States. Not everyone in the U.S will look the same, nor will they have been raised the same. Fortunately, because I do speak Spanish, I was able to speak conversational Arabic with a “not-so-foreign ” accent because of my second language.
It had been a dream of mine, even before Jordan, and I was lucky to have had the opportunity. It was one of the best experiences of my life.
As a Fulbright Alumni Ambassador, I travel all over the U.S to conferences and universities to talk about what opportunities exist within the Fulbright Program that best fit any individual. The Fulbright Ambassador program targets either universities that don’t have a Fulbright Program Advisor or institutions that have a low number of applications to send over an Ambassador to to give a presentation about Fulbright and their unique experience. As an ambassador, I’ve traveled to Atlanta, Georgia presenting to Morehouse College, Georgia State University, Georgia College, and the 2019 TESOL Conference; Chicago, Illinois presenting to Dominican University and tabling at the 2019 HACU Conference; and Washington, D.C for Advocacy Day to lobby on Capitol Hill and speak with Congressmen and Representatives about the importance of Fulbright. My email fills up with students asking me questions mostly about their Fulbright application to Jordan or to the West Bank. I prefer to schedule video chats to better answer their questions and address any new concerns, as they come up in conversation.
When talking to students asking very specific questions about my experience, I am able to talk about it first hand, versus just sending them to the website. For students who never thought it was possible, it makes a huge difference to make a person believe they too can apply to the Fulbright Program. There are plenty of myths floating around about Fulbright and my mission is to make sure people are well-informed of the opportunities that many Americans have–whether fresh out of college or in their mid-level careers. The main idea as an ambassador is to make sure the application becomes more equitable and accessible for everyone.
I remember the first time someone mentioned Fulbright to me, it was my mentor at the time who worked in the Global Education Office at my alma mater, Virginia Commonwealth University. She always saw me actively involved in extracurriculars, whether it was President of a Latin dance organization, or as a Student Ambassador, giving campus tours to parents and students. One day, she talked to me about what Fulbright was and said that I would make a great candidate. She encouraged me to apply. I had just returned from my study abroad to Qatar, so thinking of what part of the world to travel to was easy – the Middle East. I talked to the Fulbright Program Advisor about my interest in applying, but he said it was too late to apply, since there were only 3 weeks until the national deadline. With my naivety and young spirit, I didn’t let this deadline stop me. ‘All I needed to get was 3 recommendations, school transcripts, write 2 essays, and choose which country to go to’, I thought. In those three weeks, I worked hard to get all my materials ready to submit and had made my decision to apply to Bahrain. I chose Bahrain for a terrible reason – because their application rates in the previous years were low, so I thought I would have a good chance to get in. After the first initial notification in December, I received an email that I was not accepted. Not to my surprise, I was rejected. Everything I did was the opposite of what I would recommend for anyone to do. Don’t apply last minute and don’t base your country's decision off of a statistic that you think will make your chances higher. Even though I didn’t get in, I made sure to go through the necessary steps with my university to ensure my application was strong and had high chances of succeeding. With blood, sweat, tears, and lots of editing, I was lucky enough to have made it on my second try, and was accepted in 2016-2017 to go to Jordan.
Since my Fulbright grant ended, I believe to have been an ambassador, long before I was officially named one. I always mentioned Fulbright to people and asked about their own interests to tell them which program would be best for them. For me, it only took one person to inform me about it. I feel passionate about the Fulbright Program because of the flexibility in which it allows you to perform projects, integrate yourself into a different culture, and motivates you to teach others about the complexities of the American identity by simply being present.
Stereotypes exist when there is a lack of knowledge on another culture. To the outside, Americans are homogenized, tall blonde hair and blue eyed people. The Fulbright Ambassadors are there to ensure we begin to accurately represent the diverse fabric of people that make up this melting pot that is the United States. By encouraging more people to apply, especially those in marginalized communities, minorities, and/ or people of color, we can begin to bring an undivided accessibility to the Fulbright Program application in order to increase the types of applications that are received. This cultural exchange program was founded on the idea to promote mutual understanding between two countries and sending over their top academics, researchers, leaders, creatives, thinkers, etc.
As a Fulbright Alumni Ambassador, I hope to expand our own projection of what it means to be American by presenting at various universities around the U.S, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), and Tribal Colleges and Universities (TBUs), just to name a few. We need to let the world know there are Americans who speak three languages, there are Americans who are blind, those who are gender non-conforming, and those that were born outside the U.S. I encourage everyone to apply, both people that want to travel to the U.S, and those who want to travel elsewhere. That motivation–that’s what the Fulbright Ambassador program is all about.
We want to thank Vanessa for contributing this insightful blog post for our website, and hope it acts as an inspiration for anyone who dreams of becoming a Fulbrighter one day. Vanessa has been featured in different podcasts including a recent episode in ECA's podcast "Voices of Exchange" which you can listen to here: