By Lauren Odomirok
Originally built to serve as a general store in 1848, the Carolina Inn embraced a new mission when Hanson Pinkney Helper purchased and converted the building into a small hotel in 1855. Today, the Inn greets travelers of a different sort. Davidsonians who wish to journey abroad via a Fulbright Scholarship pass through its doors and into the airy, bookshelf-lined offi ce of Scott Denham, Dana Professor of German Studies, director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, and Davidson’s Fulbright
Distinguished for decades as a prestigious international exchange program, the Fulbright scholarship was named for its fervent proponent, J. William Fulbright, the longest-ever chair of the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee. He imagined a program that would use World War II reparations and foreign loan repayments made to the U.S. to fund “the promotion of international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture, and science.” President Truman signed the legislation into law in 1946.
Today, Fulbright is the most widely recognized and prestigious international exchange program in the world, supported for more than half a century through an annual appropriation from the U. S. Congress and by partner nations.
Since its inception the program has provided an all-expenses-paid opportunity for more than 310,000 recipients to research or teach abroad for an academic year in fields ranging from art to zoology. The Fulbright Program offers more than 8,000 grants each year to U.S. and foreign students, scholars, teachers, artists, scientists, and professionals. Nearly 80 awards have been granted to Davidsonians, with four or five winners during each of the past few years.
The number of applicants has risen to an all-time record of 39 this year, thanks to aggressive recruiting by Denham of outstanding, qualified students as early as their first year. His decade of service as the college’s Fulbright Program Adviser and thorough knowledge of the process and experience with both successful and unsuccessful applications puts him in a good position to help students.
There are several categories of Fulbright scholarships, but graduating students at Davidson apply primarily for English Teaching Assistantships (ETA). About half as many apply for Fulbright Research Grants. The program also offers support to faculty members, and several Davidson professors have received those.
No matter the type of grant, Denham noted that the Fulbright Program is above all a cultural exchange program, sending American students abroad and bringing students in other countries to America to foster international understanding. The extended time in a foreign land can change lives. “To me, the Fulbright means connecting students to the world in eye-opening and transformative new ways,” said Denham.
Following are stories from five Davidson alumni whose Fulbright experiences illustrate the veracity of Denham’s statement.
Fulbright Scholarships: Connecting Students to the World
Maddie Koch ’11
Maddie Koch ’11 majored and minored in French and Arabic at Davidson. A summer in Morocco forged her determination to return to that country after graduation, and a Fulbright scholarship allowed her to do it.
Fulbright students have limited choice about their post, but Koch was delighted to be assigned to teach at a public university in Fes. she and a few other Fulbright students in that city shared a charming house inside the ancient, walled medina section of town, and enjoyed getting to know neighborhood shopkeepers and café owners.
But her teaching experience turned out to be an unanticipated adventure. Koch was assigned to teach all by herself English grammar and composition, and a course in American political rhetoric. she was not surprised at having to develop her own curriculum and lesson plans, but never expected she would be assigned an enormous teaching load. “I had 565 students in a huge amphitheatre for one class,” she recalled. “A Fulbright administrator told me it was the most students any Fulbright ETA taught anywhere in the world that year!”
The Fulbright organization encourages scholars to conduct some sort of community service in addition to their main job, and Koch also taught a group of orphans, and some blind students. she also gained a valuable global perspective by living as a minority, and discussing American foreign affairs in an Arab land. Koch is overwhelmingly grateful for the experience, and increasingly determined to pursue a career in international relations.
Not very many people could suffer a major intestinal disease abroad and still speak kindly of the country and program that gave it to them! But Professor of Political science Ken Menkhaus recalls the year he spent in Somalia in the late 1980s through a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation award as a moving and transformative life experience.
Working toward his Ph.D. in international studies at the University of South Carolina, Menkhaus lived in the remote and impoverished Juba Valley, sitting under mango trees by a river interviewing local elders and villagers about the troubled history of their land. As he gained more knowledge about Somalia’s politics and culture, he also coped with intense disease and a lack of electricity and clean water.
He was there at a crucial time as Somalia began to slip into a civil war that plunged the country into a 20-year crisis of state collapse. As war and famine unfurled, Menkhaus helped lead a famine needs assessment team for the international committee of the red cross into the war zone.
Throughout his career at Davidson he has continued to develop an expertise in Somalia and east Africa. He is now widely recognized as a valuable international adviser and analyst on affairs in the Horn of Africa. “It’s been an incredibly rich experience for me personally and professionally, and I have the Fulbright program to thank for that,” Menkhaus said.
Laura Malenas ’93
I n 1994, Laura Malenas ’93 received a Fulbright Fellowship and excitedly set off for the American university in Cairo, where she hoped to learn why the western broadcast news media focused almost solely on negative stereotypes of the Middle east. Having already studied in Aleppo, Syria, Malenas knew that Middle Easterners could be warm and welcoming people who “looked after their families, danced at weddings, wept at funerals, stressed about exams, and worried about their futures.”
Her research soon engaged her in discussions with journalists from CNN, ABC News, Reuters, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. She found herself asking, “Why do you always show the worst possible thing that you could show? Why do you always take pictures of donkeys and pyramids when that’s tourist stuff?”
She learned the journalists were competing for precious seconds of TV time, and had to convey information in the most dramatic way possible. Moreover, she discovered that journalists in Cairo had to deal with Egyptian government censorship, inept and corrupt government officials, and routine technological barriers that hindered their ability to provide accurate news coverage.
Malenas recalled, “At the time the official line was ‘Oh, we don’t censor!’ but all foreign journalists had to have a person from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs travel with them. A person who said things like ‘don’t take pictures of that’ or ‘don’t show garbage in the street.’”
The most alarming aspects of the situation for Malenas was the idea that U.S. government officials were watching the same coverage, and perhaps making their policy decisions based on those reports. Malenas became so concerned about the issues of fear and distrust between the U.S. and the Arab world that she joined the foreign service and is now in Muscat, Oman, working to foster international understanding.
Joe Robinson ’62
Perhaps no government or political entity has ever been quite as skilled at fostering misunderstanding, fear, and raw hatred among people as Hitler and the Nazis. When former New York Philharmonic oboist Joe Robinson ’62 received a Fulbright
Fellowship in 1962 to study the extent of the German federal government’s support for the arts, he got more than he expected. His host parents had been Nazi Youth leaders before WWII . The self-described young, southern fraternity boy who had abstained from alcohol for moral reasons while at college wondered if that meant they had the devil in them. They wondered, since he was from the South, if he was a racist.
He came to realize during the month he lived with his host family that they were not Nazi fanatics, and they also shed a stereotypical view of Americans. Robinson and his host father bonded over their shared love of music. Robinson said the man was “one of the most admirable, wonderful, liberal in the best sense of the word people I ever met in my life.”
Already a talented oboe player, Robinson performed on several occasions while abroad. During his spring break, he drove to Paris to seek out Marcel Tabuteau, the most important oboe player and teacher of the first half of the twentieth century. He located Tabuteau’s apartment and wrote him a note that said, “Dear Mr. Tabuteau, I am a Davidson College English major in Europe on the Fulbright scholarship, and I play the oboe.” Robinson said he would like to return later “to shake your hand.”
Intrigued by the prospect of meeting a young player who also had the linguistic skill to help him write a method book, Tabuteau took Robinson on as a student. Robinson recalled that he gave Tabuteau a bottle of scotch as payment. “So for a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label, I got the lessons that made my career possible,” Robinson said.
Tom Frist ’67
Tom Frist ’67, the son of a Presbyterian minister, decided to travel to India to study the similarities and differences between the Christian and Hindu mystical experience for his Fulbright year in 1967.
He interviewed prominent Indian religious personalities throughout the country—one of them living in a cave in the Himalayas. “I found that a lot of the techniques are very similar in all religions, but that the final experience is very different. With
most Hindus, it’s a monistic religion, so you and the Creator are one. And that’s certainly not the case in Christianity,” he said.
One particular day that year had a profound impact on the rest of his life. He was visiting monasteries in Rishikesh—one of the holiest places in Hinduism, where the Ganges River flows from the Himalayas onto the plain. Frist recalled, “I was heading toward the walking bridge that crosses the Ganges to head into the mountains. There were a few dozen poor, deformed people with leprosy there, begging by the bridge. It made me wonder why in such a holy place no one was taking care of these people. I vowed one day to try to do something to help.”
Frist’s experience that day eventually led to work setting up feeding programs in Vietnam for refugees, including those with leprosy, to research on leprosy in Tanzania and Brazil, to founding organizations for people with leprosy and other disabling conditions in Brazil, to writing books on leprosy, and to becoming the president of the American Leprosy Missions and of the international Federation of Anti-Leprosy Associations.
Laura Bergner ’09
Laura Bergner ’09 is currently part-way into her Fulbright Fellowship experience, pursuing a master’s degree in conservation genetics at the University of Otago in New Zealand. She had won another prestigious post-graduate prize—the Watson Fellowship—as a Davidson senior. Her Watson proposal concerned bat ecology and conservation, and that led to an interest in conservation techniques in New Zealand. She focused on the practice of translocation of endangered, flightless kakapo birds to offshore islands to protect them from increasing predation on the mainland.
The practice protects the kakapo, but can lead to harmful inbreeding in the small, highly managed bird populations. Bergner is now using a Fulbright Fellowship to research genetics of the kakapo. In addition to her work in the lab, she often visits schools to teach children about it. She said, “The kakapo is quite a high profile species here, and it’s great that most people have heard of them. It’s a good way to begin talking to people about science and the importance of research in general.”
Lauren Odomirok ’11 is a reporter with Lake Norman publications.