Talking Fulbridge with Zoë Gioja (Korea, 2014/15)

Talking Fulbridge with Zoë Gioja (Korea, 2014/15) in the latest episode of Net:work?: A Fulbrighter conversation.

Extract: Zoë Gioja on Fulbridge

Watch the full interview

Interview transcript

w4rner: This month’s conversation we are talking Fulbridge with Zoë Gioja, who went from the US to South Korea in 2014 on her Fulbright grant. Zoë, we’re going to start off by talking about you and Fulbridge. So you wanted grantees like yourself to be able to connect with each other digitally during their grant. Why not use another existing tool like Facebook, for example? 

The map was at the center of our vision from day one-- it aesthetically expressed the global Fulbright ethos, enabled us to foster the connections we wanted to, and also enabled us to differentiate ourselves from existing social media platforms

Zoë: Facebook simply didn’t have the functionality we needed, especially to support the three pillars: map, lesson catalog, blog. The map was at the center of our vision from day one-- it aesthetically expressed the global Fulbright ethos, enabled us to foster the connections we wanted to, and also enabled us to differentiate ourselves from existing social media platforms like Facebook. 

Screenshot of Fulbridge's map
The Fulbright map. Most of the action is happening in East Asia, where Zoë founded the website in 2014.

I was most excited about the potential that increased connections within the Fulbright community could bring for us educating and expanding each other’s knowledge

The goal of Fulbridge has always been about connections, but also about education. From the first time I had the idea back in January 2015, I was most excited about the potential that increased connections within the Fulbright community could bring for us educating and expanding each other’s knowledge. I’d had the idea while traveling on my winter break to Southeast Asia during my  grant in South Korea, and what I realized I wanted was to be able to meet up with another English Teaching Assistant (ETA)s placed in the country I was visiting. I thought it would be such a cool way to get a deeper perspective on the place I was visiting, if I could even visit their schools, and that way get a different perspective on their education system and English language education context. I just thought it would be a fantastic way to expand my knowledge, so that’s where the Fulbridge impetus came from. 

Screenshot of Fulbridge profile
Our host: a dot on the Fulbridge map!

The lesson catalog, map, and blog are all about this idea that connecting and learning about each other’s experiences to expand what we know. The content on our blog tends to focus not just on the grantee’s or alum’s experience, but also the country in which that experience took place, as a way to expand readers’ knowledge of the world, even in small ways. 

w4rner: You’ve certainly expanded my knowledge as a reader following that Fulbridge blog. Like for example there were those students (ETAs) in South Korea who traveled to meet another grantee in another country. 

Photo of Korean ETAs
South Korea ETAs used Fulbridge one year after launch to find Taiwan ETAs on the Fulbridge map, and visit them and their schools during winter break
Photo of Korean and Taiwanese ETAs
They even got to meet the Taiwan ETAs’ co-teachers. Check out more teaching exchange stories

Zoë: Yeah, absolutely. I think that was one of my favorite examples not just of the blog but also of Fulbridge becoming a reality. Those people you referred to were friends of mine during my grant, they had renewed their grant in South Korea whereas I had gone back to the US, and they got to live out the Fulbridge use case that I had wanted to have happen. They used the Fulbridge map to go to Taiwan and visit ETAs there who they didn’t have any prior connection with, and they got to visit their school and meet their co-teachers and stay over. It sounded like an amazing experience, after being in South Korea and teaching there, to then go and see what the situation was like in Taiwan, and even be a guest in these lessons and meet everyone. I was a little envious for sure. 

There are also lots of stories I’ll hear even years later of people using the Fulbridge map to get key information when they’re in a difficult decision situation when they’re an accepted grantee and they’re trying to figure out some pre-departure stuff, or if things go wrong and they need need to figure things out... I always love hearing those stories. 

w4rner: It’s been awesome to follow those, and I think it’s something that Fulbrighters are really craving, is being able to connect IRL with other Fulbrighters. But we are using a digital strategy to make these connections happen, and I commend you for being about five years ahead of the curve on this. 

In 2019, the Fulbrighter network was formally rolled out globally. In the past I’ve written about the fact that I think connecting in real life should be priority #1 on the platform. I was really excited when I saw that Fulbrighter Network was partnering with Fulbridge, and that you personally have been brought on as a consultant on some of these aspects. So I guess I’ve gotta to ask you, what is the future for Fulbridge? Why not continue forging ahead with the path you were on? 

Fulbridge has always been led by current and recent grantees, so that’s a big part of what we bring to the table. It’s that volunteer-based team of grantees and alums all around the world that really defines the Fulbridge ethos

Zoë: That’s the question, right. Fulbrighter Network and Fulbridge have overlapping goals. We’ve been talking about this for a long time. We decided that rather than do these things independently, and dividing and conquering perhaps at the cost of the overall vision that we’re both trying to make a reality, we decided we’re both better off joining forces and really bringing our own unique strengths together. Fulbridge has always been led by current and recent grantees, so that’s a big part of what we bring to the table. It’s that volunteer-based team of grantees and alums all around the world that really defines the Fulbridge ethos.

w4rner: It’s great that the Fulbright ethos of collaboration has been in action on Fulbridge since day 1, and I think it’s awesome that you’re trying to bring that to the Fulbrighter network. So what specific ways can your target audience--which is current and recent grantees-- engage with the Fulbridge community within the Fulbrighter network now? 

Zoë: If you click the “Grantees” tab, you can see what we do and then there’s a button that says “join our group,” and that leads you to our own live feed space within Fulbrighter. At the moment users are really utilizing that to introduce themselves, to get the word out about their own work, and that’s been cool to see the really exciting work that’s out there. 

We’re also using it to get the word out about our own opportunities and content. A few examples are the research workshop series we’re launching. There’s going to be a couple of those that we’re kicking off, and I’m really excited about that. We also have our own latest Spotlight posts and open volunteer positions. 

In fact we’re actually looking for current and recent grantees who would want to spearhead how to even better take advantage of that space, and so I’ll be posting a volunteer position about that soon (viewable here). 

w4rner: That’s really exciting. I really hope that people look into volunteering on this because it’s such a worthy way of offering something back to the Fulbright community. This series is collaborating with the Snapshots series and will be doing a Snapshot on you which I encourage people to check out as well. It sounds like there’s a really amazing path for Fulbridge to live within the Fulbrighter network. So I guess the question remains, will Fulbridge continue to have an independent presence as well, and if so why? 

Zoë: Right now, we’re focusing on a hybrid Fulbridge-within-Fulbrighter model, with Fulbridge’s site and presence still separate. That’s partly because some of the functionality we need still isn’t there yet in Fulbrighter. We have relevant text leading you to Fulbrighter (and vice versa within the Fulbrighter site). We’re open to possibility in the long run, bur right now, this separate-but-together existence is working well. 

Extract: Zoë Gioja on Fulbridge

"In joining forces with Fulbrighter… we want the dynamic energy to be preserved!”: Continue the Conversation with Zoë: Should Fulbridge maintain a separate presence, or fully integrate with Fulbrighter? Post your thoughts in the Comments below.

In joining forces with Fulbrighter, Fulbridge will be focusing on the demographic it’s always been most concerned with: current and those recently returned from their grants. We want to continue to serve and empower that demographic within the greater Fulbrighter Network community. Partly because the Fulbright community is so huge and multifaceted and diverse, with so many different interests. We want current and recently returned grantees to really feel like they have a hub, they have a place, where they can launch these exciting projects that they want to do, just like I was able to launch Fulbridge. We want that dynamic energy to be preserved. 

We want current and recently returned grantees to really feel like they have a hub, they have a place, where they can launch these exciting projects that they want to do. We want that dynamic energy to be preserved.

w4rner: I’m really excited with this episode to be able to bring on a fellow recent grantee. One thing that interested me about this is the fact that these are online communities that are trying to promote offline connections. This is a really common theme in my work, and I often get a slightly bemused response, because people are often like, “Hey, if you want people to connect in real life more, why are you obsessed with making apps and websites?” And so what is your answer to that? If you wanted to have Fulbrighters connect in real life, wouldn’t it be better to just not build a website for them? 

Zoë: That’s kind of what Fulbridge wanted from the very beginning, right. We wanted, perhaps even naively, to just provide this thing called the map, and then just have this tool that people could use to connect in real life. Of course it’s not that simple, there’s much more maintenance and cultivation that sites like this require. That’s the thing I think I’m most passionate about, if I had to choose, in terms of digital community engagement in general, is the potential for using this digital community as this hub to connect this global community. 

I think you need to have engagement strategies that are really focused on having people connect substantively. Whether that’s in the platform because they’re doing research collaborations, or whether that’s outside of the platform, so they can meet in real life. 

w4rner: Fulbrighter network can learn a lot from Fulbridge in terms of early on specializing in a core feature set that’s really focused on delivering some set of outcomes. Obviously people meeting up in real life is hard to measure-- as much as digital marketing folks would wish, it’s not an entirely analyzable phenomenon. Clearly part of your success is not over-stretching. You’ve mentioned to me before you haven’t had “cat picture functionality.” I think that’s been great for keeping users focused on the core goals. But on the other hand, you yourself want to make sure you have enough people on your platform and have been very diligent about digital outreach. So one interesting thing about that is that although you may not have cat pictures on your own platform, you have an active and energetic presence on Instagram. Do you feel like you have to play by the rules of the platform on you're on? If so, as Fulbrighter network looks to go onto existing social platforms, what is your advice for them about how to go about doing that? 

Extract: Zoë Gioja on Instagram

"If you’re going on Instagram to look at cat pictures, you might see some awesome content from Fulbrighter”: Continue the Conversation with Zoë: Should we post more more ‘cat pix’ (i.e. generic social media content) on FulbrighterNetwork, or should we try to stay more focussed on its more highbrow niche of international academe? Post your thoughts in the Comments below.

Zoë: One of the things I like about getting to use social media for Fulbridge is that it has the potential to get the great content we’re producing in our site beyond our site into the wider world. I think that’s one of the most exciting potentials for Fulbrighter. We’re starting to produce content like this series; why isn’t this series being promoted on social media? That would be amazing. Because I think that these conversations that Fulbrighters are having does have wider relevance even beyond the Fulbright community. And I think that people within the Fulbright community may miss some of this content if it’s not posted on, say, Instagram. If you’re going on Instagram to look at cat pictures, right, or see what your friends are up to, then you also happen to come across something posted by Fulbridge or Fulbrighter, and then you click on it and you read it. Replacing those kind of accidental discoveries I think is quite hard. 

I also think that the potential to directly engage users on some of these social media platforms is really exciting as well. I just want to give a shout out to our current Instagram coordinator Mailé Nguyễn who has done some amazing work with this using our Instagram story as a way to have users respond, not just see posts and click on an article, but actually help produce content in a dialogue. I think Instagram has a lot of functionality for that; why not use it? 

Another I think is using it for direct engagement with the community as much as possible, a bit the way Fulbridge uses its Instagram story to post templates and questions that then get submissions and responses from our followers. 

Extract: Zoë Gioja on social media

"The conversations Fulbrighters are having do have wider relevance beyond the Fulbright community": Continue the Conversation with Zoë: Should ‘net:work? A Fulbrighter Conversation’ stay focussed on FulbrighterNetwork, or try to engage with wider issues around social media? Post your thoughts in the Comments below.

w4rner: I appreciate what you’re saying about this series. 

It’s not all cat pics and Insta stories for Zoë Gioja, is it. You’re about to embark on some serious studies. You are about to start your PhD at Stanford, and even though you’ll be primarily based there, your work is taking you back to Korea. Your recent stint in South Korea was cut short by the corona virus pandemic. It’s going to be interesting to what extent we are encouraged to connect IRL. I think it’ll be a really interesting time. I wondered if you wanted to share any brief thoughts on that? 

Extract: Zoë Gioja on the impact of COVID-19

"The Coronavirus is a global phenomenon… but it’s really inspiring to see… the connections we can foster using this technology at our disposal": Continue the Conversation with Zoë: How has technology affected your experience of the crisis? Post your thoughts in the Comments below.

Zoë: I was in Korea around the time it started mushrooming over there, around the time that I arrived. It’s difficult because the corona virus is a global phenomenon; it’s not specific to any place now. You have to make that decision. I think that Fulbright grantees worldwide have gotten the green light to repatriate if they want. I think it’s a difficult decision and comes down to each person’s really individual circumstances. For some friends in my program it made complete sense for them to stay, and for others of us it made sense for us to go. It really just depends on the situation. It’s been interesting participating in my program online. It hasn’t been IRL, and I definitely miss that. But at the same time it’s really inspiring to see how all the teachers have been so willing to work with me during this and make these connections using these online platforms, and I think that’s a great example of the power that the kind of connections we can foster using all this technology at our disposal. 

w4rner: That’s as optimistic a note as we can hope for at this time. It remains for me to say thank you for coming on and having this conversation with me. I hope other folks will be inspired to head down into that comment box if they’re logged into the Fulbrighter network, and leave a comment or question for Zoë. 

Extract: w4rner on getting involved

I’m looking forward to my next conversation, which will be out on the 2nd Monday of May. It currently remains to be seen who it will be, so please head to that application form on the series landing page and let me know what you want to talk about about social media and tech as it relates to the Fulbrighter network! [Ed: you’re particularly encouraged to apply for May, if you have expertise on the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on social media]

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