“I was the youngest person -- and the only female -- telling them that they were doing things not in a wrong way, but not the most efficient one, and that they could improve,” explained Marea Emilia Calderon, a mathematician from Guatemala, about her two-year stint in the fiscal policy analysis department of the country’s public finance ministry. “It was tough,” she admitted.
On top of the gender discrimination that served to undermine Calderon’s authority, the reluctance to acknowledge the corruption she observed in her country fueled resistance to her advice. “It’s a reality that’s kind of harsh for people nowadays, but I see it as an opportunity for the future,” she suggests. “Not only for me but worldwide.”
It’s not empty optimism. Calderon’s sway may well pick up when she returns to Guatemala, after studying at North Carolina State University on a Fulbright. “There are a few titles in life that stick with you – in a good way,” joked Indiana University School of Global and International Studies Dean Lee Feinstein to a group of Fulbright scholars gathered in a classroom on the Bloomington campus Tuesday; “and one of them is to say that you are a Fulbright Scholar.”
Calderon is one of 71 scholars from 37 countries whose first stop in the US – en route to more than 15 universities around the country – is Bloomington. During their week on campus for the Fulbright Gateway Orientation Program, administered through SGIS’s Center for the Study of Global Change, members of the international cohort representing 34 disciplines are introduced to their roles and responsibilities as Fulbright Scholars. During the same week, they are equipped with the skills to succeed in the American academic system and professional world, and steeped in regional culture. From Tuesday’s welcome remarks, for example, the scholars learned that they had arrived in the land of Lincoln’s boyhood – a “wild region with many bears” as Lincoln wrote -- and that the limestone quarried just beneath their feet had built the Empire State Building.
Local lore mingled with global observations in Feinstein’s remarks. The dean cited what he characterized as “alarming statistics” about the dim view millennials take of the democratic process and their personal agency with it.
“Normally younger people tend to be much more optimistic and pro-democracy than their elders,” Feinstein noted, “so it’s a bit of an inversion. And clearly it’s a global trend – appeals to populism, nationalism, and other forms of intolerance or extremism are clearly on the rise.”
The millennials in the Fulbright group, by contrast, go against the grain, Feinstein insisted. “Whatever discipline you’re in -- whether it’s a hard science or a social science or the humanities -- you’re not only committed to your scholarship but you’re also committed to your idea that through your work, you can make some kind of positive impact on the world.”
Calderon, the Guatemalan mathematician, conforms to Feinstein’s portrait of the pragmatic, politically motivated, yet non-ideological scholar. “We don’t have a strong financial framework in my country,” Calderon asserted, “and I see an opportunity -- not only for Guatemala but for the region -- to strengthen it. My idea is to study the math behind financial models implemented in more developed countries to see how we can improve.”
During a coffee break in Tuesday morning’s welcome orientation, Calderon met Abdul Siddo, who is also headed for North Carolina State University. Having worked at Niger’s ministry of foreign affairs, Siddo will be studying international relations in the hopes of “bringing creative and positive policy solutions” to such security challenges as the extremist groups that terrorize Niger and all of West Africa.
Siddo and Calderon mixed with peers including Hanine Mohammed, an engineer from Morocco, who will work toward an M.S in petroleum studies at Missouri University of Science and Technology and Hayet Zeghlami, from Algeria, a middle school English teacher who is headed for Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, where she will study education.
“You get to be a part of a great community,” remarked David Henningsson, a lawyer from Sweden whose Fulbright is taking him to New York University, where he will specialize in international legal studies. “This gateway alone provides me with so many new friends -- it’s a great network.”
His interest in international criminal law emerged from his work on a major criminal case related to 1994 genocide in Rwanda. “It’s getting more and more common that national courts are taking on cases that relate to grave violations of international law and serious crimes that were committed abroad,” Henningsson explains. “In Sweden we have taken in a lot of refugees – which we should be very proud of – but that also comes with great responsibility. As we take in people who have escaped from places of conflict and war, we also need to ensure that if there are allegations about crimes that were committed there, we have procedures to make sure that it’s a due process and that justice will be established.”
After the coffee break, the Fulbright scholars got acquainted in a more systematic way through a series of timed mini-conversations on the subject of such universal inquiries as “Are you a morning person or a night person?” The week’s activities include courses ranging from such practical considerations as “cross-cultural understanding and adjustment” to more philosophical ones, including “U.S. politics and people.” Excursions include a picnic at Cascades Park to meet and greet local Rotarians and Fulbright alumni over barbecue and cornhole, and a visit to Spring Mill State Park to see the Pioneer Village and a memorial to America’s second man in space – Hoosier Virgil “Gus” Grissom.
The Fulbright Gateway Orientation Program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), as part of its flagship Fulbright Program, and designed by the Institute of International Education (IIE).