Abby Gruppuso, 2016, East Asian Studies
Next year I will be teaching English in Taichung, Taiwan through a Fulbright fellowship. The decision to apply for this fellowship was deeply influenced by my time abroad in Beijing in the fall of 2014. I studied in China through a six-person Middlebury language immersion program, complete with a semester-long language pledge. I found out that I was the only student who had never been to China, and I was the only student who didn’t study Mandarin in high school. I told myself that it didn’t matter; my language classes back at Wesleyan had prepared me well. Although my Mandarin classes at Wesleyan provided me with the immensely useful skill of perfect tones, my vocabulary was lacking and my listening comprehension and conversation skills were nonexistent. During my semester in Beijing, I studied harder than I’ve ever studied before. I practiced characters for at least three hours a day, asked my teachers a million questions, and was constantly making conversation with my friends in order to catch up to the rest of the group. And after only a month and a half, I was confident enough in my language skills to go to the local 麻辣烫 (hot spicy soup) shop alone, to take the subway across the city, to give a ten minute presentation about 孔子的死亡观 (Confucius’ view of death), to take cooking lessons with a Sichuan chef, and to talk to a local man in the park about music.
Overcoming this challenge was the reason I decided to apply to teach English in Taiwan. There are students there who are facing, through a mirror, the same problem I was when I started studying Mandarin. I want to impart my experiential wisdom on them, because I know exactly how they feel. I want to teach them that no matter the height of the language barrier they face, they can climb over it. Through this fellowship, I hope to change a student’s life like the Middlebury program changed mine.
Preparing my application for Fulbright proved to be a difficult task, mostly because I wanted it so badly. I worked on my essays for many months, but was dissatisfied with every draft I came up with. It was just boring. I was under the impression that my application had to be formal, but that just isn’t who I am. The one thing I eventually did that turned the whole process around was reading sample essays from people who had gotten accepted. I discovered that I could approach the prompt in any way I wanted. And I’m a writer, so I told a story. Most of the first paragraph of this post is actually from my application. Instead of telling the committee why I wanted the Fulbright, I showed them through my experience and personality.
My biggest advice for writing fellowship applications would be to 1) read sample essays, 2) be patient, and 3) be yourself. Your essays will come together, so don’t stress. Start early and one day the inspiration will just strike. (I wrote my final personal statement in a half hour!) Don’t make yourself be something you’re not. Committees like that of Fulbright are looking for passionate one-of-a-kind people who will bring something valuable to classrooms abroad. And if they don’t want you for you, then it’s just not the right program. Apply to a few different things. Ultimately, each program is looking for something slightly different and you’ll end up with the perfect fit!