Kiwifruits and Capstone Projects: My tips for the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching application

Disclaimer: this is a personal website. All views and information presented herein are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.

‘Tis the season to apply for the 2015-2016 Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching!  Applications are due November 5th.  It’s funny to think that at this time last year this experience was just an idea, but now it has become a full reality.  What a difference a year makes, eh?

Jess climbs rock

Hiking in the Golden hour in Wellington. I had no idea a year ago I’d have this amazing experience.

It’s been wonderful that I’ve gotten e-mails recently from applicants who have stumbled upon my blog.  I’ve gotten some good questions, and I am eager to help others have this amazing opportunity that I’ve been afforded.  So my first bit of advice is, APPLY! (If you want know why I did, check this out.)  You have no idea what magical things can happen for you if you do.

Fellow Fulbright DA grantee Kate has some good general application tips on her blog called “I got it!” if you are interested in those.  Below, I’ve included a few of the questions I’ve received, along with my response to those questions.  These answers are my personal opinions, and my experiences have to do specifically with what I know–the New Zealand program–so please keep that in mind.  Please let me know if there are any other Q and A I should add.  Happy applying!

How did you make (or how are you making) your contacts in New Zealand, both university and in schools? Have you had trouble meeting people or making connections?

New Zealand is a small country.  As an American, it’s like living in small town U.S.A. It’s not too dissimilar from where I grew up in Wisconsin, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of town, where there are four stoplights that are all found on “Main  Street.”  People here in New Zealand say that there is two degrees of separation (although some argue for three) between its citizens. This means that when you are networking with someone, either she will personally know the person you’d like to get  in touch with or she will know someone who knows that person. This also means that within one week of moving into my apartment, I’d walk into a dairy (convenience store) within a two-block radius and would hear, “Oh, you must be Jessie!” Word travels fast here.

Picture of silver fern

New Zealand’s national symbol

As a result of the tight knit nature of the Kiwi Community, meeting people really depends on who you know.  They are a bit like a Kiwifruit ironically, a bit hard to eat because you must cut through a tough outer layer, but once you do, they are incredibly mushy and wonderful on the inside. (I am in no way endorsing cannibalism) . It was quite hard when I first arrived, as I wasn’t culturally ready for how careful and standoffish Kiwis would be (although I haven’t had this experience when meeting Māori men and women–who have opened their doors and felt like Whānau (family) right away–but I’ll write more on that in another blog post).

The good news is that once you are in, you are in.  And the Fulbright family really is a family that will help you get “in.” The support I’ve gotten from Fulbright Scholars and Fellows  (thanks especially to Brenda, Ben, and Sarah) is amazing.  They were able to formally introduce me to key people, who have in turn introduced me to key people, and my small world here has just been expanding to something delicious (I think I’m still thinking about that kiwifruit).

So yes, it was hard at first.  Kiwis are perplexing because they are so kind and giving,  yet they can be difficult to get to know on a personal level. But if you can get to know one in the field you are interested in, you are set.  I  spent the first three weeks feeling like I was the new girl in the cafeteria, sitting awkwardly alone with my bruised banana, looking at every passerby with eyes that read, “Will you please be my friend?”  But now that I have made some important contacts, the invitations to homes, to meetings, to conferences, and to hopefully lifelong partnerships, is overwhelming.

It will take patience, a dazzling smile, a little bit of luck, and the help of some of your fellow Fulbright family members, and you will break through the figuratively hard shell of the Kiwifruit to find much sweetness inside.

How many of these contacts did you know/have communication with when you applied?

I did not have any contacts when I applied.  I would not recommend trying to get any either. You see, if you just blindly e-mail people in New Zealand, it is quite rare to get a response (and it could actually hurt your chances of a connection in the future). You really have to have a proper e-mail introduction from someone else that they know and trust.  So unless you know someone who can get you in touch with people in New Zealand, I wouldn’t worry even a millisecond about making contacts until you’ve gotten your boarding pass to New Zealand.

Did you know what exactly what your capstone project would be when you applied or did you mostly have a general idea of what the need was and what you wanted to study? Do all applicants know, or is it something you can craft as you are there?

You must know what your capstone project is before you apply, as it is an integral part of the application process. Although your background, your accomplishments, and your general character are important to Fulbright, the capstone project really is your reason for connecting with another culture.  Therefore, you must deliberately choose the work you’d like to do in another country, and you really want it to reflect your passions.

Fulbright has amazing resources for creating  your capstone project.  I found these two especially helpful when I was working on my application:

There are two types of capstone projects. The first is Global Best Practices, where you research how another country functions and excels in a particular area.  You’ll study what techniques, pedagogies, belief systems are successfully working in a topic that you are passionate about.  You’ll bring what you have discovered back to your home school and community and try them out in your home context.

The second is Developing Global Competence.  This strand is about developing ways in which students can become citizens and activists of the world, and engage in connections that will make the world more unified. This can be (but is not limited to) bringing your expertise to your host country.  I’ll tell you a bit more about my particular hardships with my capstone project in the next questions.

I know that you’re at the very start of your experience, but could you tell me about some of the challenges that you’ve had crafting a proposal without being there first?

Jess hikes up Butterfly Creek

A lovely day for a tramp” (hike) up to Butterfly Creek.

The challenge was that I didn’t understand the culture and social climate of New Zealand enough before I came here.  I started off with a Developing Global Competence project: I was going to do professional development with teachers about issues of race, ethnicity, and equity in education.  I wanted to take my knowledge of culturally relevant pedagogies, diversity training, and social emotional learning and try to see if I could help schools that were struggling with an academic achievement gap between Māori and Pakeha (White) students.   However, once I got here, I realized that it is very much against the norm (and pretty much taboo) for an “outsider” to give professional development.  My feelings are no longer hurt–once I’ve gotten to know the culture of education here, this sentiment now makes sense–but it did make for an uncomfortable first two weeks.  If you’ve read my “Things I Learned the Hard Way” post, you know that if a Kiwi has a problem with you, they’ll beat around the bush and you’ll have to do a lot of decoding and reading between the lines to get at said truth.  In fact, this Youtube clip cartoon between a German and a New Zealander really exemplifies what I mean:

But you know what? Being on a Fulbright is all about being flexible, as well as growing, and adapting. It is a wish-upon-a-star, once-in-a-lifetime experience that I will always treasure.  Although I felt badly and embarrassed that I had created a project that was inappropriate for my context, Fulbright US and Fulbright NZ were nothing but supportive of me.  They helped me rewrite my project, were incredibly positive, and as a result of their support, I have a much better project than I proposed a year ago.  In short, it all worked out for the best, and I will walk away so proud of myself.

How is your final capstone project shaping up compared to your proposal?

I am now on the Global Best Practices strand.  Instead of conducting professional development for teachers here, I am learning about Best Practices in New Zealand for increasing Māori and Pasifika student achievement and seeing if I can apply these techniques, ideas, and ways of being to my context in the U.S.  I’ll use these methods that I’ve learned, namely a teacher evaluation program called Pa Harakeke, for a professional development program once I return.  My passions are still greatly represented, I’ve just changed the way that I achieve my end results.  And it’s so much better as I am building community with teachers and students, learning te reo Māori (Māori language), and truly getting to the soul of educators, activists, and academics whom I greatly respect and admire.

How detailed was your proposal/application?

Picture of ducks in water

Some of the wildlife in Zealandia.

My application and proposal were fairly detailed.  I really wanted Fulbright to know who I am, and so I wanted to exemplify my passions. Therefore, the proposal did take a lot of time and attention.  It has to be something you feel “ride or die” about, and it should address a need in your community.  I also wanted it to  be something that could be achieved in four months.  And thirdly, it should be something that you can’t study or research from your living room–you need cause for living in another country to accomplish your goals. It might seem intimidating, but if you focus at the core of what you care about, the thing that keeps you up at night, the essence of your teaching philosophy–whether it be place based learning, restorative justice, or STEM education, anything–your project will shine.

How long did you spend your application?

I will say that I am a bit an anomaly in this vein–I spent one crazy, nose-to-the-computer week on it.  I would not recommend this to anyone, and I only did so because of my circumstances.  You see, I knew I was going to apply in September.  I outlined my project and researched my resources.  I read and re-read the application questions.  However, two things got in my way of actually physically writing the questions:

Empty room 313

Poor room 313 is empty!

The first was that I was also writing my masters thesis for Northwestern, which took up an incredible amount of my freetime.

The second was that I had a lot of difficulty getting my school to sign the leave authorization form, and I didn’t want to spend the hours necessary writing the application if I couldn’t get the necessary clearance anyway.  But things aligned for me in all the right ways– starting with the fact that my thesis was approved the Monday before the application was due.  I then spent every free waking hour on the application from Monday-Friday (which wasn’t too much of a change in schedule from writing my thesis) and I probably looked to my students like I had taped water balloons under my eyes.  My letters of recommendation writers (administrators Amy, Chala, and Dan) were amazing as they dropped everything in a terribly busy week to write my letters.  I got the authorization form from my school at 4 p.m. on Friday.  It was a really, really close call, and I felt I was playing in a tie game in the last minute of a state championship game. And I shot and and scored the winning goal. It was totally worth it (and doable), but I would not recommend it to anyone. After talking with others at the Fulbright orientation in D.C., most said they started as soon as the application was released in September.

Anything you think would be valuable to share about your application experience or time abroad so far?

I really, really wanted this Fulbright. It occupied my thoughts for most of the winter and spring.  I am usually very quiet about my hopes and dreams, but I felt  like if I told the universe how much I wanted this grant, it would come back to me.  But it is a long, slow process of waiting.  But I took a leap of faith–I applied for and accepted a sabbatical at the end of February. I then learned I would have the phone interview end of March, and I found out that I had the Fulbright April 16th.  So yes, it was a long haul of waiting, but it was worth it.

To conclude, I will say that the Fulbright is worth it not just because of the amazing opportunity it affords you through four months of an experience abroad, but because you get to enter into a family of incredible people.  There are so many doors that open for you because of Fulbright. So it’s important to know that the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching is not your end goal–it’s the beginning of an experience that will change your life forever.

So, if you want to go on the experience of a lifetime that will change your future in ways you can’t imagine (pardon my terrible cheesiness, but it’s true), get going on that application!

Jess is happy

I love having this opportunity!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s