Story posted May 09, 2006
It doesn't take much digging to discover why Bowdoin students consistently win Fulbright fellowships for teaching and research overseas following their graduation.
In the German department alone - where over 40 of Bowdoin's estimated 65 Fulbright Fellows have either studied or majored - the prestigious awards are mentioned almost in the same breath as their first Guten Tag.
"We make sure from the start that students know about the opportunities to study and teach overseas," says German Professor Steve Cerf. "We developed a three-year building-block program, where many of our students study in German and Austrian universities for their junior year, then come back to Bowdoin and teach language and conversation to our beginning and intermediate students.
"They perfect their skills, they learn to be teachers, and then they go back abroad through the Fulbright to teach their native English. It's all quite a supportive adventure."
This year to date, Bowdoin has its largest group of Fulbright Awards - nine students spread across five countries who will spend a year studying or teaching. Bowdoin also recently earned the distinction of being among the top 10 producers of Fulbright students from liberal-arts colleges nationwide, a distinction the College has held repeatedly since the Fulbright Awards first were established in 1946.
The Fulbright Program is sponsored by the U.S. Dept. of State and is designed to give awardees from nations around the globe an opportunity "to observe each others' political, economic and cultural institutions, exchange ideas and embark on joint ventures of importance to the general welfare of the world's inhabitants."
It's a lofty ideal that often translates into life-changing experiences for Bowdoin grads.
Lindsay Pettingill '02 learned more than she bargained for during her Fulbright year teaching English in Berlin. The first few months she spent living in a tiny dwelling tucked into the backyard of a suburban house.
"It was a garden shed, essentially," she says, chuckling. "I was warned not to go out at night because of the wild boars - they dig for truffles in the forest, no joke."
An apartment change took care of the boar threat, leaving Pettingill to deal with something even more foreign: free time.
Preparation for the Fulbrights takes place well before the final, anxious semester, when graduating seniors await formal announcement of the awards. Bowdoin faculty and staff work with students a full year beforehand.
"We meet one-on one with each applicant to discuss proposal topics and fellowship destinations," says Bowdoin Director of Fellowships and Scholarships Anne Shields. Members of the Faculty Fellowship Committee, which currently is headed by Film Studies Chair Tricia Welsch, then interview Bowdoin's candidates and coach the nominees in the finer points of proposal writing and fellowship interviewing.
"Everyone goes forward, there are no cuts," notes Shields. "Even if students don't win a fellowship, we want them to learn what it takes to put flesh and bones on their dreams."
"It is enormously rewarding to work with these gifted students, and to help them see their futures more clearly," says Welsch. "The committee members routinely hear back how important students find the application process itself, and how much the close collaboration with interested faculty means to them. "
"It's the thing that sets Bowdoin apart from other schools," notes Lindsay Pettingill '02, who spent two years in Germany through the Fulbright program (see main story). "This kind of communal approach and guidance is so needed when you're 21-years-old and you're looking for a job."
The Fulbrights are just one of nearly two dozen fellowship programs to which Bowdoin students regularly apply. During fall of 2005-2006, 22 Bowdoin students applied for Fulbrights.
"I went from Bowdoin, where I was taking four classes, working a job, and playing rugby, to an environment where I was only working 10 hours a week," says Pettingill. "Much of the transition and learning for me had to do with time. Learning I didn't have to be busy 60 hours a week. Learning how to enjoy time. Reading. Exploring museums. Traveling. It was all of those experiences they don't tell you when you apply for a Fulbright. So many of the pleasures came from the informal."
Pettingill also had the opportunity to interact with Germans who had experienced the fall of the Berlin Wall, a subject about which she had written her honor's project. "I got thrown right into the heart of my research by living in the former East Berlin," notes Pettingill. "It was a very living experiment. I got to know my fellow teachers well and had dinner with their families, so I could ask questions to see if what I had written was correct or not.
"I had written about how, when you open the wall, you invite freedom. I discovered it was indeed a new world for most people, but it was not without its drawbacks. While they enjoyed the consumer freedoms, many people missed their former job security."
Anne Shields Bowdoin's director of fellowships and scholarships, says it is this kind of scholarly and cultural insight that makes Bowdoin students standout applicants for Fulbrights and other fellowships.
"The Fulbrights are not tied to GPAs," she notes, "they are about passion and a desire to experience different cultures. Fulbright winners are ambassadors who represent our country and learn about others. The Fulbright countries want these young people to really engage in their communities and bring back their insights and experience to share with others in the United States."
Philip Friedrich '06, will enjoy an interaction level few Westerners get to enjoy when he heads to Sri Lanka this fall as a Fulbright Junior Research Fellow. A religion major, Friedrich is examining attitudes toward village culture.
"In the 1950s," notes Friedrich, "a lot of rural development plans were targeted at rehabilitating village life in Sri Lanka. It was tied to Nationalists, who romanticized these villages as being free from colonial influence."
As a 2004 participant in ISLE (an intercollegiate study abroad program in Sri Lanka administered by Bowdoin's Sree Padma Holt), Friedrich says he observed disparities in current views of village life between urbanites and villagers. "They are perceived as being idyllic communal living on the one hand," he says, "and as backwards and filled with superstitions on the other hand."
Friedrich will live in several interior villages to study present-day village life.
"My parents are a little hesitant about sending their son to the other end of the world for a year," concedes Friedrich, grinning almost sheepishly. "But they're very proud of me. They know I enjoy studying this sort of thing. And I'm hoping this will lead to a career of academic research in religion."
For Pettingill, her Fulbright experience netted as many "formal rewards as it did personal. After a year of teaching at a German high school, Pettingill snagged a year-long internship at Deutschbank in Frankfurt, where she joined a seven-person team working on diversity training throughout the bank's international divisions.
"Getting exposure to the business world at that level was incredible," says Pettingill, who currently is working as a research assistant for noted Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner and plans to enter a masters/Ph.D. program at Georgetown in the fall.
"How many 22-year-olds get an opportunity like that?" she says. "Without exaggerating, I would have to say my life would be drastically different if I hadn't received a Fulbright. The network it gives you access to in terms of jobs and friendships is astounding."