The SPHHS Welcomes International Fulbright Scholars
The Fulbright Program has been described as the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government. Named after the senator who introduced the legislation in 1946 and sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the Fulbright Program has welcomed nearly 183,000 scholars from other countries in the past 60-plus years and operates in over 155 countries around the world.
With public health a growing priority around the world, it is no surprise that many international Fulbright scholars choose to come to the SPHHS to pursue their graduate studies. This academic year, five International Fulbright scholars from three continents matriculated in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences: Nilofer Safdar of Pakistan (PhD in Public Health/Nutrition concentration); Mairi Thomson of South Africa (MPH in Epidemiology); Rodrigo Gramajo-Rodriguez of Guatemala (MS in Epidemiology); Hang Thu Dam of Vietnam (MPH in Community Health Education); and Malikhone Morakoth of Laos (MPH in Community Health Education).
The scholars’ commitment to pursue an advanced degree in the SPHHS was born out of a desire to affect positive change, either in their home countries or internationally. Dr. Mairi Thomson entered the field of public health after serving as a medical intern in South Africa. “I saw so many children dying from unnecessary causes,” she said. “Children with diarrheal diseases and pneumonia that just weren’t managed properly. And that led me to public health.”
Ms. Nilofer Safdar, who co-founded the Pakistan Nutrition and Dietetics Society, felt nutrition was neglected in her home country. She was nearly 50 when she decided to apply for the Fulbright program. “Nutrition didn’t receive the attention it deserved. I knew I would need my PhD to impact nutrition policy in my country.”
All five of the scholars had completed their undergraduate studies and worked in various professions – as a doctor or clinician, or for governmental or nonprofit organizations – when they decided to apply for a Fulbright. None of them took the opportunity lightly.
The Fulbright Program is extremely competitive and participants are chosen for their academic merit and leadership potential. Each year, tens of thousands of individuals apply to the program, but only a select few are awarded fellowships. The application process is rigorous and takes a serious commitment as candidates must complete rounds of GRE and TOEFL exams, complete personal essays and collect letters of reference. For those who make the initial cut, the interview process awaits. The interview board includes an American representative and a former Fulbright scholar from their country of origin, and the questioning can sometimes be intense.
When asked what they thought impressed the interview board and separated them from the other candidates, many of our scholars thought a solid study objective and a passion for public health gave them the edge. Mr. Gramajo-Rodriguez said, “Everyone is nervous because they want the fellowship. But wanting to get into the health field gave me an advantage. I was able to explain that by having a microbiology background, I already knew what studies I wanted to conduct – I just needed to learn the skills to implement them.”
Ms. Morakoth, who was accepted into the Fulbright Program on her second try, describes a similar process. “The second time I was much more focused on my objective of studying mental health and as I grew more professional in my career. I was much more confident and had a great interview as a result. I had such an overwhelming feeling of pride and happiness when I got the acceptance call.”
The Fulbright organization examines each scholar’s application, research goals and personal statements, and tries to make the best match possible. For each of the scholars, that meant UMass Amherst, and they couldn’t be happier for the experience.
“UMass is great. I really love it here,” said Ms. Morakoth. “It has such a diverse population with a great mix of American and international students. It’s a great college town and very convenient. Not all of my Fulbright friends have had this great experience.”
Having Fulbright scholars in the SPHHS enriches the UMass Amherst community, implementing one of the primary designs of the Fulbright Program – to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.
“The faculty has been very kind and welcoming,” Ms. Safdar commented. “I’ve never felt like a misfit because of my age difference or culture. I’ve had a great experience and made a lot of friends and they have learned about Pakistan through me.”
“The teachers are very supportive,” Ms. Hang Thu Dam remarked. “In Vietnam, students ‘receive’ the education, whereas here it’s more about communication and sharing. It feels like the lecturer is learning something from you as well.”
Dr. Thomson has been struck by how friendly people are in the U.S. “We have been overwhelmed by the friendliness of the people here.”
Ms. Morakoth explained that the primary thing she’s learned from being a Fulbright scholar is independence. “In Laos I had lots of family and friends. Now here I am on my own. I have to learn how to take the bus, to adjust to U.S. teaching styles and learn new technology. It’s been really challenging. But now I’ve learned so much from friends and classmates and I’m having a great time. I’ve met so many great people and made so many friends, both American and international.”
As a further example, she mentioned the differing experiences and areas of expertise among the faculty, and how easy it was to talk to individual professors. Her interest in mental health, for example, has coincided with the work David Buchanan, professor of Community Health Education and Director of the Community Health Studies Division, has conducted in Afghanistan.
Mr. Gramajo-Rodriguez noted a similar interaction with his faculty advisor, Brian Whitcomb. Dr. Whitcomb has provided essential guidance for Gramajo-Rodriguez’s independent study project, for which he has been examining data on the HIV epidemic in Haiti gathered during his internship with the CDC the previous summer. His studies here are helping him to prepare for further work in HIV and infectious disease control internationally.
Like Mr. Gramajo-Rodriguez, the other Fulbright scholars expressed gratitude for the way the SPHHS is preparing them for the future. Ms. Morakoth hopes to work internationally for an organization such as the United Nations or the World Health Organization before returning to Laos. Dr. Thomson expressed a desire to work in her native South Africa to help the prevention of childhood disease. Ms. Safdar plans to return to Pakistan to conduct research and implement plans for community health interventions to improve hypertension in the community and affect change in diet and nutrition.
“After I finish the program, I would like to work for an international health organization, especially the World Health Organization,” Ms. Hang Thu Dam stated. “I want to work as a program officer where my main job is designing interventions for specific communities and implementing those interventions. The SPHHS has really helped me move toward that goal.”