Making It Work the Second Time: My Path to Fulbright
Jul 21, 2018
By James Kale, II, 2017-2018, Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to Brazil
Standing in the middle of the blacktop, watching my students play—the air brisk, the skies gray and the sun fighting to reveal itself—my pocket is furiously buzzing. I quickly grab my phone and remove it from my pocket in a panic, thinking it might be a parent calling or some emergency.
While unlocking my phone, I see that there are two emails and a text message exclaiming, “Congratulations!” from two of my Fulbright recommenders and the Boston College Graduate School Fulbright Program Adviser. In wide-eyed amazement, I quickly scroll through my email, looking for a message from the Fulbright Program. To my surprise, I received a gift, a surprise on my birthday. For the very first time, one of my dreams had come to life.
My interest in pursuing a Fulbright ETA in Brazil stems from my ongoing educational interest in learning about the African diaspora and Brazil’s parallel history to the United States’ regarding slavery and race relations.
Still in disbelief, I am now reflecting on my path to becoming a Fulbright ETA to Brazil, a journey which has gone from something I would not have ever foreseen attaining as a first-generation, poverty-stricken, Afro-Latino Black man from the projects in the South Bronx.
I first learned about the Fulbright Program during my junior year of high school during a pre-professional and college bound career readiness program called The Opportunity Network. I was introduced to a professional, Jake Brenner, who I befriended, and we connected quickly. When learning about his life’s trajectory, he informed me that after he graduated college, he spent a year in Singapore on a Fulbright award. As a 17-year-old with great interest in globalization and post-colonialism, hearing about this opportunity appeared “cool,” and an awesome professional opportunity, but at that point in my life, I had no idea that I could ever claim this accomplishment.
From that moment on, the Fulbright name remained clear in my head. But all I knew was the name, that it was a prestigious award and that it could help someone study in another country.
Fast forward four years later to my junior year in college: One night while studying, my friend, Martin Gamboa, shared the good news that he received a Fulbright ETA award to Poland. Having no idea what a Fulbright ETA award was, he broke down the varied awards Fulbright offers, including the ETA, and how to apply. In excitement with and for him, I asked, “We get these kinds of things?” Martin is also an Afro-Latino Black man from the projects in the Bronx and NYC public school educated. He was the first person who I had met who looked like me and came from a very similar upbringing to receive a Fulbright. In that moment, I knew I would be applying for a Fulbright award to Brazil.
When my senior year of college rolled around, I informed my campus Fulbright Program Adviser of my interest in applying. However, it was mid-August and I was late to the party. I had a lot to do if I wanted to put forth a competitive application before the deadline. From August to early October, the Fulbright application was all I could think about and would prioritize over all other things. I was determined to earn this award, even though it was a struggle finding time to apply, organizing my thoughts, deciding how much of my story to share (and how to articulate the necessary parts of it in one page) – all while attempting to identify what would make my application competitive.
Through working on my essays right up to the last minute of my university’s Fulbright application deadline (with some support from my college adviser/dean, Dr. Audrey Friedman, and a former professor, Dr. Erin Wecker), I was able to submit my application on time.
When January rolled around, I was so eager to find out if I was a Fulbright Finalist. I soon found out that I was not. I was crushed and defeated. My dream sagged and weighed on me. Instead of heading to Brazil, I was headed into my first full-time teaching job and to graduate school at Boston College.
Eight months later, one September morning, while scuffling through my desk looking for something that I planned to share with my students, I came across my Fulbright interview notes from the previous year. The feeling of discouragement returned as I read them, but I also suddenly felt an urge to apply to Fulbright once again.
I contacted my graduate school and asked about the application process. I refined my essays and reached out to my dear friends and Fulbright U.S. Student Program alumni, Jake and Martin, as well as my graduate student Fulbright Program Adviser, Dr. Candace Hetzner, to ask them to review my essays. Once they’d offered their feedback and support, I applied for a Fulbright award for the second time.
For some reason, my anxiety about applying did not bother me as much this time around. I was not as consumed by the process. I applied and that was it. Teaching and graduate school kept me busy and distracted from thinking about Fulbright, and I didn’t think about it until this past January when I received the Finalist email. I had not thought about my second Fulbright application until that fateful day in the middle of the blacktop with my students. My dream did not explode, but my heart did in elation.