Eliza graduated from UCI in 2014 with a B.A. in International Studies and minor in Spanish. She also earned a Certificate in Contemporary Latin American from the Pontifical Catholic University in Santiago. Upon graduation, Eliza participated in the UCDC program in Washington D.C., interning at a small non-profit working in youth service learning programs. Following UCDC, she spent ten months on a Fulbright grant in Nicaragua, researching factors that influence civic engagement among Nicaraguan youth. Eliza now works in Washington D.C. in the field of international education, gaining experience working with the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program. She hopes to apply to a graduate program in International Relations next year, and continue to find opportunities to live and work abroad.
What did you study at UCI and how did it inspire you to pursue a Fulbright?
I graduated from UCI in 2014, and as an undergraduate I majored in international studies with a Spanish minor. I spent my junior year studying abroad in Chile, and that was really the experience that set off my interest in international relations and living abroad. The time in Chile really inspired me to pursue a Fulbright.
How was your Chile experience influential?
While I was abroad in Chile, I took classes at a local university and I was also working on my senior thesis on Peruvian immigration to Chile. One of my Campuswide Honors Program advisors said I should consider applying to the Fulbright. So I looked into it, and realized that my experience studying abroad in a Latin American region could boost my application and chances, so I looked into those possibilities, and ultimately decided to apply for a Fulbright doing research in Nicaragua.
It was really my study abroad that inspired me to pursue it and so I spent a summer after graduation in D.C. doing an internship with a nonprofit in UCDC, and then I spent 10 months in Nicaragua involved in civic engagement. I soon found out that doing research in Nicaragua would be quite different from my study abroad experience. In Nicaragua, it would just be me, and it definitely was a more independent experience.
Tell me a little bit about how you described your project when applying for the Fulbright. How did you build a case for travel? Why go on location to Nicaragua and what did you want to accomplish there?
I picked the region before I picked the project. I had been in Chile before and in the context of Latin America, I would say that Chile is on a different economic spectrum. There are so many variances within Latin American countries and so I looked for a unique country that would offer me a more viable and realistic option to be awarded the Fulbright.
Some countries can be quite competitive. I looked into possibilities regarding research, with an eye for specific themes that interested me, like civic engagement. This topic is at the center of important debates in central America, and within Nicaragua, and so I crafted my project around that topic. I decided to look into the process for obtaining national ID cards, which Nicaraguans use for voting, opening bank accounts and applying for employment. One of the most interesting aspects to me was exploring the reasons behind the Nicaraguan early voting age of 16.
I wanted to explore that a little more. Why was their voting age so young? During my study abroad experience, the study abroad director in Chile was important in inspiring my proposal. He was the one I would talk to regarding how to choose a country, and weigh out the pros and cons because every country in the Fulbright program is a little different. They have different requirements. Given my academic background and experiences, Nicaragua seemed like the most viable option.
This was a professor in Chile who helped you brainstorm and prepare the background study for research in Nicaragua?
He was my director of study abroad. He was actually a UCSB professor who was doing a 2-year contract as the director of the Chile program. He was really helpful, as was my thesis advisor at UCI who was immensely helpful as well. He was especially good at asking questions: what does this mean? Can you clarify this?
My honors’ advisor, too, offered guidance and support and was one of the individuals who helped write the letters of rec, and helped plant the seed.
So, when did the seed get planted? Was it at UCI? Was it in Chile?
I was in the Campuswide Honors Program when I was an undergraduate and I remember the end of my sophomore year hearing about 2 people in the honors program who had gotten a Fulbright. And I thought, that seems interesting, and then it didn’t cross my mind for a while until I was in Chile for my senior year when my honors’ advisor contacted me and said, have you considered a Fulbright?
How did SOP help you navigate the application process?
The process is pretty long. I looked through the website to find all the different resources. The pre-application deadline was in April and the campus deadline was August, so at first, I was pretty overwhelmed.
I found that the SOP online resources were so helpful. I spent a whole summer dedicated full-time to applying for the Fulbright, which led to the endorsement interview on campus in August.
SOP has a lot of resources on their website, and they are really on top of things. It was a grueling process but SOP was really good about having me submit multiple drafts of my project statement, personal statement and even my letters of recommendation were carefully read. They even suggested that I ask the director of the Honors Program to write a letter on my behalf. They discussed strategies for asking the right recommenders to increase my chances.
I believe that the endorsements were ultimately what allowed me to get the Fulbright. I cannot imagine applying at-large. I think I would be so overwhelmed and not know where to begin.
Tell me a little bit more about your experiences in Nicaragua. What happened when you first arrived? Where did you stay? What was a day in your life like? Who did you meet?
It was a little bit overwhelming at first. I stayed in the capital of Managua. When I applied for the Fulbright, I had to get a letter of affiliation from the host organization. If you are granted the award, these would be the organizations on the ground that would support you on location. My host institution was the Martin Luther King Institute at the Polytechnic University. They were really my main point of contact from day 1.
They actually picked me up at the airport. They brought me to their office, gave me my office space, and introduced me to the staff. I think that people don’t realize that a 10-month grant may sound like a long time, but it’s not. When you are actually there, it goes by so fast, especially when you are trying to execute a full-blown project.
How did you break down the project into doable parts? What role did the host organization play?
The first 3 months were really spent establishing contacts. My host reached out on my behalf telling the community, we have someone doing a research project; she’d love to set up an interview, and so for the first half, I interviewed with local civic organizations working in the electoral process and committed to transparency. I interviewed them asking them a lot of questions about the purpose of the national ID card for Nicaraguans; what was it used for? What are the obstacles to obtaining this? What are some issues behind it?
The importance of getting multiple perspectives
I always tried to make sure to interview people from different backgrounds because it definitely was more of a controversial topic, so I had to make sure that I was capturing different backgrounds. I interviewed a few young people from different political parties and actually from the Sandinista party, which is the party in power, and got to hear their perspective. And then, I interviewed a couple of other people from different political parties and understood what the different views were in respect to youth voting and the level of engagement and factors that might affect people’s engagement in society.
Then, the second half was more of a focus group approach, so I worked with a local contact and she was great because she worked with a lot of youth groups–young adults from ages 16 to their early 20’s–and we held a series of focus groups where I asked them questions, such as, what does it mean to be young in Nicaragua? What was your process for obtaining the national ID card?
Some of them shared their personal experiences with going and obtaining these cards and getting their right to vote. I found that the focus groups gave them a chance to interact with their peers in a more informal setting as opposed to 1-1 interviews that can be a little intimidating.
What did you learn as a result of this project?
I came into the project at an interesting time. Soon after I started, I found out that the president had actually changed the constitution and introduced new dynamics. In short, the impact of the ID card had to do with the region. Among the challenges for obtaining one, research showed that there were economic barriers; it actually cost money to get the card. Spending a whole day to get the card, taking time out of work, and when people live day to day, they don’t think about political engagement, so economics were a big factor. This, in turn, played into a lot of other categories. You may not have access to higher education, for example. There are so many layers to it.
Were there other Fulbrighters in the area?
There were 2 others that also went during my year, but they were in different regions. One went north of the capital, to Matagalpa, to do research on coffee farming; the other was way off in the Atlantic coast. We were all in different regions, but I did get to see them once or twice during a briefing or when they came to the capital for a conference. We met for coffee and talked about our research.
How comfortable are you with Spanish?
I’m fluent. It definitely helped to go to Chile for a year. I became fluent in Chilean Spanish and in Nicaragua, people were surprised. The stereotype is that Americans don’t speak very good Spanish, so they would ask, where are you from? Are you from Spain?
Having that experience in Chile and being confident in Spanish was so helpful in Nicaragua because there are situations when you have to be on your toes and having that local language adds an extra layer of comfort.
Did you feel safe?
Yes. I would tell students, you have to be aware of your surroundings. Managua is a big city, but I never had any issues. The biggest thing was talking to locals, especially other women. They would tell me, it’s okay to go here. They would give me advice on taking a taxi, for example, or what places to avoid after dark or general advice. I never felt unsafe but I also knew how to be cautious.
What advice would you give someone contemplating doing a Fulbright in South or Central America?
I talked a lot about research, but the Fulbright, more than anything, is a cultural exchange. They are looking for an individual who is open-minded, flexible, open to other cultures, who can engage with other cultures and can be a cultural ambassador to the US because the Fulbright program is funded by the Department of State.
It is seen almost as a citizen-diplomacy program. I would tell students, even if you don’t necessarily have experience in South America think of ways in which you can show how you’d be a good cultural ambassador. I think that’s what’s really important and maybe if they consider teaching, and they have teaching experience, bringing that experience to light, that would help. Or if they are looking at research, and they’ve done research on a certain topic, even if it’s in another region, it can still be relevant to South America. I would bring that up, too.
How can you convey in a personal statement, research proposal or teaching statement that you are all these things, open-minded, culturally aware, diverse, how does that come across?
I think there are two components to the Fulbright. I can’t speak as much to the ETA, since I did research, but I definitely would say, don’t discredit your personal statement. That’s really your place to tell your narrative. You start with sharing your experiences that demonstrate your cultural adaptability and your interest in the program because the Fulbright is not like any other program where you get a grant and focus on what it can do for you.
They are really looking for that mutual exchange. In my personal statement, I shared a lot about my experience in Chile, where I went, how I learned a lot, but I also discussed what I shared with locals there and emphasized that I built lasting friendships after my time in Chile. That’s what they are looking for, too. They are looking for someone who builds lasting connections.
Have you stayed in touch with people in Nicaragua?
I have. My host institution actually publishes a magazine and it’s all in Spanish but they write their abstract in English and they still send me pieces to translate from Spanish into English. They recently wrote a card inviting Angelina Jolie to their institution because they are interested in her work as a UN Peace Ambassador, and the mission of the institute I affiliated with was trying to create a culture of peace, so I translated that letter for them.
When you returned how did you connect with the DC opportunity?
When I did UCDC the summer after graduation, I was bitten by the DC bug. I wanted to move out here for work, and I actually found my current position through a staffing agency. My current position was supposed to be a month contract and luckily, they hired me full-time.
Are you working with the Fulbright program?
I’ve been back in D.C. for about a year and half. I’m actually working for the Institute of International Education. The program focuses on senior level professors and professionals who are going to exchanges abroad. The interesting aspect of this job is that it allows me to work on it from the other side. I’m with the scholar program.
The student program is based in the New York office, but the DC office works with the scholars, and I’m actually working on programs with the Europe-Eurasia region, which is a new region for me. I’ve had so much experience with Latin America, and I’m now learning about all these countries in Europe and the priorities for those countries as far as research and teaching, so it’s been a really interesting and growing experience.
How would you say the student and the scholar Fulbright programs differ?
I would say the student program is everything leading up to the Ph.D. and so the student program can be anything from recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree to still doing their dissertation and so they tend to be earlier on in their career. The scholar program is everything from recently received the Ph.D., onward, so we have everything from post-doctoral scholars to scholars distinguished in their fields and there are so many awards in the scholars program; some are teaching, some are doing research and some a combination of both which they can do through a visiting professorship at a university to an institution. Fulbright offers lots of opportunities for exchange.
It has definitely been life-transformative for me, and I encourage everyone to apply.
Eliza documented her Fulbright experience in Nicaragua. Click here to read her blog.
For questions about Eliza’s Fulbright experience in Nicaragua, she can be contacted at email@example.com