Fall Winter 08

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The Ambassadors

More Chicago alumni than ever are striking out on Fulbright fellowships.

Susan A. Sarver

Like many University of Chicago graduates, Eric Prendergast, AB’08, plans to go to grad school. But not just yet. As one of 21 Fulbright recipients from the College in 2008, Prendergast is spending the year in Macedonia doing linguistics research. Other Chicago Fulbrighters will be scattered about the globe pursuing English teaching assistantships and research projects in fields as diverse as public health, anthropology, political science, comparative literature, and international relations.

It’s a record year for student Fulbrights in the College, but record years have become pretty routine. The number of fellowships sought by and awarded to Chicago students has risen steadily over the past seven years: since 2001, applicants and recipients have increased by factors of more than ten. The University ranked sixth among all U.S. institutions for 2008–2009 Fulbrights awarded.

What accounts for the surge in successful U of C applicants? Increasing international study opportunities for students has been something of a deliberate strategy, says John W. Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75, dean of the College. One of his goals is to ensure that most students who graduate from the College have a significant personal and intellectual understanding of another culture—one gained through firsthand experience. Says Boyer, “What we’re trying to construct is a serious, organized approach to encourage students to learn a great deal about another culture and civilization.”

David Comp, the College’s senior adviser for international initiatives, credits students: “We’ve always had a really globally minded undergraduate student body.” Most Fulbright recipients have had some type of prior international experience, says Comp.

Since the launch of a special civilizations-abroad program in the 1990s, students have had the chance to study in landmark European cities like Paris, Vienna, and Barcelona, and in other regions of the world, including South Africa, Morocco, Latin America, and China. “I’d say we now have 400 or 500 students a year studying abroad in one of our curricular programs,” says Dean Boyer. Because language study is such an integral component of gaining familiarity with another culture, the College also offers special Foreign Language Acquisition Grants (FLAGs) that allow between 500 and 600 hundred students to study languages abroad each summer. In addition to opportunities that serve large numbers of students, smaller programs, such as human-rights grants, the National Security Education program, and special departmental affiliations abroad often make the perfect fit for students seeking specific international study experiences.

Though most U of C Fulbrighters undertake research projects, says Comp, English teaching assistantships are another popular option. These demand about 20 hours per week of teaching, so candidates are expected to pursue side interests or research in the assigned country as well. Fulbrights for graduate study are also possible; however, fewer students apply for these since they require fluency in a native language. There are English-speaking destinations, but, Comp says, they are fiercely competitive.

Most students apply for Fulbrights through the College, which provides advisers who work with applicants to strengthen their materials. Students also may apply directly to the organization that administers the Fulbrights, the Institute of International Education (IIE) as “at-large” candidates, independent of the University. That deadline falls about five weeks later than the College’s deadline, allowing a little more time to prepare an application.

Jenya Sapir, BS’08, was a 2008 at-large Fulbright recipient. A math major who participated in math clubs on campus and presented research at a regional conference for undergraduate women in mathematics, Sapir started thinking about the possibility of a Fulbright project in August 2007. She spent that summer working on a research project that brought together the mathematical fields of topology, dynamics, and group theory. Her at-large application was due in October, so Sapir had to work fast. “It was really kind of crazy,” she recalls.

She made her deadline, received a fellowship, and is spending her Fulbright year in France, at École Normale Supérieure in Lyon, undertaking an advanced mathematics project supervised by the prominent mathematician Etienne Ghys. She hopes her work in Lyon will lay fundamental groundwork for further study of the dynamics of the mathematical object known as Neretin’s group. Sapir is excited to be doing independent research, something that typically doesn’t happen for a couple of years in grad school. The Fulbright, she says, “is sort of about widening the perspective on how things work. The best thing is going to be seeing what it’s like to do math in France and making connections there.” She secured Ghys’s agreement to work with her through a professor involved in her summer 2007 research project, an early connection that likely did much to strengthen her Fulbright application.

Fulbright fellows are expected to hit the ground running, says Comp; therefore, solid affiliations abroad are essential to successful projects. Prendergast established important relationships while attending a month-long international seminar in Macedonia. Faculty he met at Ss. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje, the capital city, extended support for his application and project. Prendergast hopes his research will help him confirm or modify his hypothesis about the use of a particular grammatical construction shared by many Balkan languages: that it arose as a result of centuries of contact and convergence between several languages in this multilingual region. He wants to look specifically at language in a conversational context to better examine how the structure of a conversation affects the way individual sentences are constructed grammatically. “In many of the languages of the Balkans,” he says, “people may say things regularly that they wouldn’t write down, thinking it ungrammatical.” To capture this everyday spoken language, Prendergast plans to record, with permission, free-flowing speech patterns of individuals conversing or, perhaps, narrating a story from a picture book.

Faculty support at Chicago can also make all the difference to a successful project. Fulbright recipient Yana Morgulis, AB’07, a double major in economics and international studies, credits anthropology professor Alan Kolata with helping her make connections at the Center for Khmer Studies in Cambodia that will aid her research this year. Morgulis will analyze economic data in rural Cambodia to determine the availability of credit and its impact on poor households. Her project grew out of her BA thesis, “Impact of Innovative Micro-Credit Policy on Rural Credit Markets: The Case of Thailand’s Million Baht Village Fund.”

“I’m really interested in financial markets and development,” says Morgulis, who worked in corporate finance last year to gain a better understanding of financial markets in the developed world. Morgulis will first study data collected by Kolata and economics professor Robert Townsend to determine connections between credit and household economy. Then she will break away from the database and head into the field for interviews to get a much clearer picture of economic reality in individual households.

To prepare for a year in Cambodia, Morgulis enrolled in an intensive Khmer study program at the Southeast Asian Summer Studies Institute during the summer before she left. Although her new language skills will help her get around, they will be insufficient to carry out interviews essential to her research, especially considering the numerous dialects spoken throughout the diverse rural areas she is studying. Morgulis plans to employ a
translator to help her.

Prendergast, like Morgulis, will grapple with multiple languages during his Fulbright year. To prepare, he studied both Albanian and Macedonian with Victor Friedman, AM’71, PhD’75, professor of Slavic and Balkan linguistics, who helped him develop his project. In addition, Prendergast took a quarter-long course in Romani. “I speak Macedonian best,” he says. But Prendergast knows his work is cut out for him. He estimates 65 percent speak Macedonian, 24 to 25 percent speak Albanian, and the remaining population speaks Turkish, Aromanian, or one of numerous other minority languages. “Not only are there a number of languages, there are a number of dialects,” he says.

On top of his research, Prendergast will be busy with his own spoken language thanks to a second scholarship from the Rotary Foundation. “I’m serving as an ambassadorial scholar,” he says, delivering speeches—mostly in Macedonian—to rotary clubs and American Cultural Centers in Macedonia and neighboring countries. The award also will afford him the financial support to enroll in classes at the University.

During the first few months of her Fulbright last year at the University of Oslo Centre for Gender Research, Lauren Osen, AB’07, spent a good bit of time studying Norwegian to become conversational. However, “I got to the point where I realized that, no matter how well you speak Norwegian, Norwegians will always be superior [in English],” she says, adding: “They watch Seinfeld without dubbing and still get all the humor!”

Though there was less of a language barrier for Osen, she worked hard to embrace the culture, paying attention even to details like lunch. In Norway, “it’s unbelievably uniform,” says Osen. When she first sat down at the lunch table with her university colleagues, she was glad she’d brought one of the standard Norwegian lunch packs mentioned in her guidebook. She’d even packed an open-faced sandwich. Suddenly, someone took notice of a dramatic deviation from the customary toppings of salami, cheese, and tomato. Osen’s bread was covered with a schmear of peanut butter, which generated chatter from the lunch crowd: “You really are American!”

The nature of the Fulbright, says Osen, is that it evolves throughout your year. A history and genderstudies major, Osen focused on Norway’s recent legislation for gender quotas. Her trip happened to coincide with the 2008 deadline for all companies listed on the Norwegian stock exchange to meet legislative demands for gender quotas—specifically, requiring that 40 percent of a firm’s directors be female. Osen looked at the rhetoric involved, the implications of different arguments, and how quotas have changed over the past three decades. “It is interesting because the quotas that took place in the ’70s that were for government positions happened at a time when Norway was a much more homogenous society and since then, they’ve had a huge influx of immigrants and refugees.”

Her research involved a series of interviews with men and women serving in a range of roles—from board members to politicians participating in the legislative process. Using her findings, Osen made a short radio documentary, wrote several articles for the gender-research center, and served as a guest blogger for a gender Web site in Norway. Osen’s year was jam-packed. She also took classes both semesters to supplement her research.

After her Fulbright year ended in June, Osen kept working. She hopes to write and publish a law note related to the European Union (EU) and its potential to challenge the legitimacy of the quota law. Says Osen, even though Norway is not a member of the EU, it must still answer to the EU’s surveillance authority.

Osen’s Fulbright experiences helped clarify her career goals. “I really appreciated this year because it was so self-directed it allowed me to synthesize law and academia and radio journalism. Right now I think I want to pursue radio journalism for a year or two,” says Osen, adding that law school might come after that.

This year’s Chicago Fulbrighters also see their work as a starting point. Sapir hopes her research will deliver a result, and getting a published paper out of it would be a nice bonus. Of her Cambodian project, Morgulis says, “My research will hopefully be used by organizations that are just starting to come in and just beginning to provide credit in Cambodia. There’s been very little done in Cambodia thus far in terms of research.” Prendergast hopes the data he gathers will support his hypothesis about certain grammatical properties, perhaps resulting in a paper. He also hopes to gain fluency in Macedonian and Albanian, adding, “I’d really like to learn every single language spoken there. It’s a tall order.”