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Changed by Global Culture

by John Brooks
Director of Media Relations and News

For any college graduate to be awarded a federal U.S. Fulbright Program grant to spend a year living and working in another country is an exceptional and distinctive accomplishment. Yet in the past four years, eight outstanding graduates of North Park University have been named winners of Fulbright awards.

The Fulbright Student Program is the flagship international educational exchange program of the U.S. Government. Most of the North Parkers were recipients of English Teaching Assistantships, and one earned a Study/Research Grant, serving in places such as Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Poland, and Romania. Two are now serving: Karen Kelly is in Andorra and Michelle Wells is in Colombia.

Looking back, the students reflected on how their unique international experiences affected their lives and professional careers, some in unexpected ways. They shared their American experiences with students and colleagues, and learned from new friends about their lives. The experiences tested the North Parkers, helping each learn to stretch their limits. They learned about their likes and dislikes. Some found new paths.

“They called us ambassadors, and I felt like that’s what I was,” said Laura Johnson, a biology and Spanish major who worked at a Mexican university in Cuernavaca, Universidad Autónoma del Estado de Morelos, from 2010 to 2011. She taught English to students, and practiced her own Spanish. She met everyday people, learned about Latino culture, and shared her U.S. experiences with them.

Ordinary meetings sometimes produced extraordinary results. For example, Johnson sought treatment for an eye problem from an optometrist in Mexico. After the appointment the doctor said he wanted to practice his English skills. Johnson volunteered to meet with him once a week at a restaurant for coffee. “We spent half the time having conversation in English, and half in Spanish,” she said of those meetings. Both learned new vocabulary in each language, and they became friends.

“That’s what the Fulbright is all about. It’s not about ‘isolating’ the experience in the university. It’s about extending something about you to everyone with whom you come in contact, and looking for opportunities for cross-cultural exchange,” Johnson said.

Aaron Nilson was always interested in international subjects, such as world history and languages. Like many of his Fulbright colleagues, he developed a curiosity about people living in other cultures while he was at North Park. He focused on a degree in Spanish and global studies, particularly the politics of Latin America. His Fulbright award landed him at the Universidade Estadual Paulista (Unesp) in São Paulo State, Brazil, where he taught English.

Nilson found at least one creative way to share the American experience with his Brazilian students. He established an American television sitcom group, and showed DVDs of popular series. “The group would watch, and we talked about the different topics each episode explored. The students really liked it,” he said. Programs such as the Office and the Simpsons were among the students’ favorites, Nilson said.

Indonesia, Rebecca Miller C'08

Rebecca Miller chose Indonesia for the international experience. Her older sister had worked there, but Miller had not been there herself, nor did she have experience living in a majority-Muslim country. From 2008 to 2009, she lived and worked in West Papua, Indonesia. At the YPJ National School in Kuala Kencana, Miller taught English in a secondary school. She also learned that she could reach students effectively through songs and games. The school had an “awesome” extracurricular music program in place, she said, one in which it was commonplace for students to come and play various instruments after school.

The band director and Miller eventually started a pop band of their own. Miller, who earned a music degree from North Park, sang and played electric guitar, and the band performed in town. “We were total rockers,” Miller explained. “We wrote songs in English and Indonesian. Singing and songwriting really worked for my students, and it worked for me. I learned songs in Indonesian, and I learned to speak the language.”

Similar missions: North Park University and the Fulbright student program

The Fulbright Program is named for U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, who introduced the legislation that established the program in 1946. Administered by the U.S. Department of State, its purpose is to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and people throughout the world. Some 310,000 participants have been granted opportunities to study, teach and conduct research, exchange ideas, and learn. Fulbright students are working in more than 155 countries worldwide. Currently, the Fulbright student program awards about 1,700 grants to U.S. citizens to study, conduct research, or help teach English overseas.

Similarly, the distinctive learning community of North Park prepares students for lives of significance through its Christian, urban, and multicultural mission. Many students study abroad during their undergraduate years, taking the University’s mission with them and sharing it. The Fulbright grantees carried a multitude of life experiences with them into new places, where each found unusual opportunities to learn and grow.

North Park’s Fulbright student award winners were mentored by Dr. Linda Parkyn, professor of Spanish, and a Fulbright Scholar who taught in Mexico. She is also a recipient of three Fulbright Specialists Program awards to teach abroad.

Mexico, Riley Clark C'09, Laura Johnson C'10

Karen Kelly earned a bachelor’s degree from the University in global studies and French. Her parents are Evangelical Covenant Church missionaries in Mexico City, where she has lived most of her life. Growing up in Mexico, combined with her knowledge of French and Spanish, and the mix of cultures, were motivating factors for Kelly’s application to teach English in Andorra, a tiny European country nestled between France and Spain. Residents there speak French, Spanish, and Catalán.

Kelly attended a grade school with representatives of 52 countries. “I’ve always been around people from all over the world. I was always interested in other cultures and languages, and I had studied abroad and traveled throughout Europe. It is how I continue to learn, and I’m always open to adventures and experiences abroad,” she said. When she was a North Park student, Kelly studied abroad in France, was active in the Middle Eastern Student Association, and worked with a refugee family from Somalia through a refugee connection program for students. She also volunteered with Casa Central, a Chicago agency that provides a host of human services primarily to the Hispanic population.

Ruth Blidar earned a degree in history and secondary education from the University. She was born in the United States to Romanian parents, both of whom emigrated to the United States in the 1980s when the country was under communist control. As Blidar learned the Romanian language while growing up, she wanted to teach English as a second language in her parents’ home country. Blidar was assigned to teach in the American Studies program at Ovidius University, Constanta, Romania, and in the spring semester, taught at West University of Timisoara, Timis, Romania.

“I thought it would be interesting to spend time overseas after college,” Blidar said. Plus, she would be able to use her teaching knowledge in a classroom. She became a student herself, learning what it was like to teach college students. “We worked under professors, and we were given a lot of freedom at the college level. You recognize the responsibility you have. It was pretty stressful, but the experience was also rewarding,” Blidar said.

Blidar and others taught courses in human rights in the United States, American studies and civilization, pop culture, and U.S. politics and religion. In fact, the North Park Fulbright grantees said that in the countries where they served, they were often asked about the same subjects.

Romania, Ruth Blidar C'10

Riley Clark’s experience was different from most. With his University degree in business and Spanish, Clark went to work for a nongovernmental organization that funds strategic activities and innovative projects aimed at conservation and sustainable use of natural resources. After his Fulbright year with the Mexican Fund for the Conservation of Nature in Mexico City, Clark stayed another 18 months to work with the Mesoamerican (MAR) Leadership Program, an environmental fellowship program that boosts conservation capacity in the Mesoamerican Reef Ecoregion, and focuses attention on coral reef conservation projects. The region includes the western Caribbean Sea bordered by Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.

While feeling “unprepared” for his Fulbright experience, Clark made the most of what he had learned at the University. “I was happy to walk into my grant year as an open-minded individual whose passions and interest in Mexican culture had been sparked and guided by professors and experiences at North Park,” he said.

After two-and-a-half years in Mexico, Clark returned to the United States. “I learned that Mexico is not the United States,” he commented. “In both countries, there’s no substitute for hard work and ingenuity. However, business in Mexico centers on relationships. You don’t get anything accomplished if you don’t connect on a personal level with your peers. This could lead to three-hour business lunches, which some might see as ‘unproductive.’ Regardless, the message really stuck: relationships motor success—something I’ve found to be true across borders.”

Michael Nelson knew that a Fulbright grant might help him in his career one day. His path to Poland began through an interest in the Polish culture and language he developed through an internship at the Polish Museum of America in Chicago. He had done research on the development of Polish national identity of Poles in the United States. Nelson earned a bachelor’s degree in history from the University, and his Fulbright award gave him the opportunity to work in Poland teaching English writing and speaking, and social history, from September 2011 to July 2012.

“Polish history was something new, and something I hadn’t studied much. What attracted me was the history as much as contemporary Polish culture,” Nelson said. Among his internship projects at the museum was cataloging a 25-foot high stained glass window from the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. “The impetus for me to actually apply for a grant and go to Poland came from working in the Polish museum, and a desire to do the kind of work that comes with a Fulbright,” he added. Nelson taught students English at Adam Mickiewicz University, PoznaƄ, Poland.

Brazil, Aaron Nilson C'10

Continuing their North Park education

Several North Park Fulbright grantees felt a continuing connection to the University and Chicago as they lived out their Fulbright years. To these graduates, the Fulbright experience seemed like an extension or continuation of their education at the University. Their unique experiences in international settings continued what they started in Chicago—at the University and in the community—forming a progression of links to the past, present, and future. The sum of these experiences were life-changing, and steered some in directions they couldn’t have imagined.

“I got a foundation in international studies at North Park, and the Fulbright has grown my interests,” said Michelle Wells, who is teaching English at Universidad Pedagógica y Tecnológica de Colombia in Tunja. It was natural for Wells to want to teach somewhere in South America. When she was a North Park student, Wells lived and studied in Argentina and Ecuador. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University in global studies, with concentrations in Latin-American and Africana studies. Her minor was Spanish, and she earned a certificate in nonprofit leadership and management.

Living in and attending college in Chicago’s diverse Albany Park neighborhood was influential in Wells’s decision to seek assignment in Colombia. “That was four years of my life, and I decided I wanted to continue that abroad,” Wells said. “North Park taught me to value people, and to value cultures. Everyday.” Early in her tenure in Colombia as an English teacher, Wells had to brush up on some things about her own native language. “For example, when Spanish speakers ask me, ‘Is it who or whom?,’ I have to think about that. I’m teaching English, and I have to know about my own language and culture!” she said.

Johnson’s interest in global affairs began as she grew up in Litchfield, Ill. Her father is a physician who went to medical school in Chicago, and has spent his career in Litchfield. Her interest in medical school, the Spanish language and South America began at age 15 when Johnson saw the movie the Motorcycle Diaries, the story of Che Guevara’s 1952 motorcycle expedition across South America.

“I grew up in a tiny town, and I wanted access to the rest of the world,” she said. “That movie was the reason I wanted to study Spanish.” She also learned that by speaking Spanish, she could gain more access to the neighborhood around North Park. Johnson found a niche at the Albany Park Community Center, where she tutored Spanish-speaking adults studying to prepare for the U.S. citizenship exam. “I really fell in love with that, and it became my extracurricular focus in my later years at North Park. It was also a way for me to practice Spanish. They gave much to me in return. That enhanced my desire to apply for the Fulbright award. I wanted to get to know the Mexicans even more. To me, it was always Mexico.”

Johnson’s neighborhood experience, her formal biology education at North Park, and her Fulbright experience all contributed to her ongoing education. When she returned to the United States in 2011, Johnson said she was more confident in speaking Spanish, confident about cross-cultural communication, and confident as a teacher. She has learned in medical school that it’s clearly an advantage for a physician to be able speak to Spanish when talking with many patients, she said.

Poland, Michael Nelson C'11

Blidar saw her Fulbright experience as a practicum phase of her North Park education. For example, in her classes in Romania, she was able to discuss what she learned about the U.S. civil rights movement. “I was trained as a teacher to know how to create lesson plans. It was a way to culminate everything I learned in both my history and education classes, and apply it in a different atmosphere than I would have in the United States,” she said.

Nilson believes the experience he had living in another country was a factor that led to his current position with Catholic Charities, where he works with people from all over the world, most of whom speak Spanish. His experience in Brazil was not always easy. Most Brazilians speak Portuguese, and while Nilson’s knowledge of Spanish was helpful, it wasn’t the same. That made his early months there difficult. “I certainly can empathize and sympathize with the people I work with here in the United States because of that,” he said.

Medical school was not originally part of Miller’s plan for her life, but her Fulbright experience was influential in directing her vocational path. She worked in Bangalore, India, after she was in Indonesia, and taught at a music school. She also volunteered at a hospital, where she became interested in enrolling in medical school. “I got to work as a teacher, support myself, and do volunteer work at a hospital. That confirmed that I definitely wanted to pursue medicine,” she said.

Miller also recalled how she volunteered as an English teacher and tutored people from southeast Asia living in Chicago while she was a North Park student. At Chicago’s South-East Asia Center, she learned that people were not shy about learning English through song. She learned even more about their lives when she was a Fulbright teacher in Indonesia. “I had the experience of being ‘the other’ speaking a language that was not mine. That sensitized me to the experience of ‘others’ in the United States. It changed the way I see things,” Miller said.

No substitute for international experience

Johnson is an enthusiastic supporter of the Fulbright program, emphasizing her appreciation for U.S. taxpayers who supported her and others who had similar opportunities. She learned much from the people whom she calls our “Latino neighbors,” who taught her and shared their culture with her. “It was the most formative, enriching experience I’ve ever had,” observed Johnson. “Living abroad is a completely difference experience from being a visitor.”

To Clark, living in a foreign country made him realize the richness of the unknown. “Being an outsider can be maddening at times because you can’t teach understanding. It comes to you on its own terms. Experiencing the world as I knew it through Mexico’s lens, on Mexico’s time, taught me to never be satisfied with what I consider to be my horizon,” he said.

Others point out the personal lessons of the Fulbright experience. Blidar said her most significant lessons were those she learned about herself, and from the people she met and worked with. Hearing their stories affected her and made her more of a global citizen. “That is what the Fulbright program wants: (for you to be) changed by the culture and the people you visit, and (for you to) share your own culture,” she said.

Kelly is learning what it is like to live in Andorra, and do tasks, such as opening a bank account and finding the local post office. “You learn a lot about yourself. In most of the experiences I’ve had abroad, what I’ve learned is to just go with the flow and not worry. Just try to do things just as the people here do it,” Kelly said.

Andorra, Karen Kelly C'12 

Best memories

Along with opportunities for intellectual, professional, and artistic growth, the Fulbright Program creates opportunities to meet and work with people of the host country, sharing daily life as well as professional and creative insights, according to program. “The best way to appreciate others’ viewpoints, their beliefs, the way they think and the way they do things, is to interact with them directly on an individual basis—work with them, live with them, teach with them, learn with them and learn from them,” read the Fulbright materials. As the North Parkers look back on their Fulbright experiences, they recall special moments that remain with them, the result of living among new friends and colleagues.

Nelson remembers the traditional Polish Christmas he spent with two different groups of friends. For Nilson, it was hosting students from Ohio State University who were visiting Brazil, an empowering moment, he said, as he showed them his Brazilian hometown. Blidar remembers the American-style Thanksgiving potluck she and her students shared in Romania, and the local church where she was an English translator. Miller played rock music in Indonesia and found her life’s calling in India. Johnson deepened her relationship with the Latino community, and wants to continue by working with them in medicine in Chicago. Clark has become a passionate advocate for waste reduction, especially plastic waste that deeply affects pristine coral reefs, and he dearly misses his friends and work in Mexico.

Many still keep in touch with the friends and colleagues they met in the places they lived and worked. Some have entertained their international friends when they have visited the United States. All are grateful for the welcome extended to them by their hosts.

Colombia, Michele Wells C'12

Two North Park Fulbright grantees are still acquiring their memories. The Andorrans tell Kelly that they wonder why she chose to live and work in such a small country, then are impressed that she did. Wells spends part of her Saturdays in Tunja working with a nonprofit foundation in lower-income neighborhoods, a community project that all Fulbrighters are expected to do as part of their service. “We teach English to children four to nine years old. It’s a nice break from teaching university students,” she said.

Kelly and Wells will complete their service in 2013. Kelly sees this year as a chance to learn about being a teacher, and may get a teaching certificate when she returns to the United States. “It’s exciting. The long wait and the different things I had to do to prepare for this make it more worthwhile. It seems like I’ve been in a dream,” she said.

Wells is still discerning what the future holds for her. Maybe it’s graduate school in international studies. Or teaching English as a second language. Or living abroad.

“This year is about realizing what I can do, and realizing what I want to do,” Wells said. She is eager to see what the experience will bring, and what comes next.


Dr. Linda Parkyn "I take my responsibility as the Fulbright Program faculty associate at North Park seriously because of how much I’ve gained from my own Fulbright experiences."

Dr. Linda Parkyn brings the experience of being a Fulbright Scholar and Fulbright Specialist to North Park's academic community, and is committed to encouraging students to seek out opportunities offered by the program. Read more about her own experience and commitment to her students.

Next Steps

Read more from the Winter 2013 North Parker.