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Engineering senior Nikhil Rajapuram and College seniors Grace Truong and Joyce Kim, respectively, were among the 17 Penn students selected as 2015-2016 Fulbright scholars.

Each year, thousands of students apply to be paid to conduct independent research or teach English abroad. 

Last year, 26 undergraduate and graduate students were selected as Fulbright scholars, including those who declined. For the 2015-16 academic year, the results are beginning to trickle out, with announcement dates varying by country. At the moment, Penn has 17 recipients.

“Smart students with interesting ideas tend to win Fulbright,” Wallace Genser, senior associate director for fellowships and operations of the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships, said.

The government grants roughly 1,600 Fulbright grants to U.S. students, with half for research and the other half for teaching assistant positions.

Nikhil Rajapuram (Engineering Senior)

Engineering senior Nikhil Rajapuram, heard about the program in his junior year, and although he was not sure whether to apply, professor Justin McDaniel encouraged him to go for it.

Based on his previous independent study on pediatric child injury through the School of Engineering and Applied Science's Rachleff Scholars Program, he proposed to research the social stigma that families of children with cerebral palsy face in rural India.

“I really wanted to do some work about people with disabilities and social issues,” Rajapuram said.

In order to apply for the Fulbright Program, every applicant is required to have an affiliate organization in their target country that can provide resources for the research. Rajapuram is going to work with an NGO called Able Disable All People Together, or ASAPT — whose objective is to improve social inclusiveness in rural areas in India.

“I just cold-called a lot of organizations,” he said.

Although he said he received a good amount of responses, choosing the right organization was still not easy. “You’re so far away, and it’s difficult to tell the legitimacy of the organization,” he said.

While CURF was a helpful resource to learn about the program through information sessions, Rajapuram said it is very difficult for CURF to have an overarching guidance policy given the diversity of each Fulbright applicant.

“I honestly gained the most help by reaching out to a former Fulbright winner and professor on the Fulbright board, both of whom knew me and understood what I was going to do,” he said. “CURF has good intentions but was not able to provide the detailed help I needed.”

Grace Truong (College Senior)

College senior Grace Truong, another Fulbright research grant recipient, said she applied to the program to “make connections in foreign countries and go out of the comfort zone.”

She has a particular interest in autism and decided to go to Manila in the Philippines after finding an affiliate organization called Elsie Gaches Village through her friends from the Philippines.

“Most of my [previous] research involved animal behavior and histology lab work. Being able to work with people is what I wanted to do but never had the opportunity to do,” Truong said.

Despite not having any connection to the Philippines, Truong said reaching out for help has opened up many affiliation possibilities for her research, such as finding faculties through the Pan-Asian American Community House and by connecting to people in the Philippines through the School of Nursing.

In terms of filling out the application for the program, she said CURF’s interview process and official endorsement amplified her application. But it wasn’t through CURF that she found out about Fulbright and eventually decided to apply.

“After I decided to apply, they have a very encouraging environment, but I wouldn’t have known about the opportunity if I hadn’t known a previous recipient,” Truong said.

Joyce Kim (College senior)

For other recipients, being able to live abroad is an aspect that makes Fulbright an attractive option.

“I didn’t choose to study abroad during my time here at Penn, but I wanted to have experiences abroad,” College senior Joyce Kim said.

As an extension of her senior thesis on how the South Korean education system affects attitudes toward North Korean defectors, she is planning to research how education impacts the integration of the defectors.

For Kim, whose father graduated from a Korean university, finding an affiliation was not as difficult as other applicants. However, she is still expecting to go through some culture shock.

“From my understanding, Korea has changed a lot,” she said. She added that she has not visited Korea since 2006, and this will be her first time living in a different country.

Samantha Osaki (2014 College graduate)

Similar to Kim, 2014 College graduate Samantha Osaki found opportunities to live and work abroad through the Fulbright Program.

After coming back from the International Honors Program and Penn’s International Internship Program, Osaki was itching to go abroad and learn about the world that she couldn’t in a classroom setting.

“When I looked at all the entry-level jobs available to me, none seemed like the right fit. I wanted to do something impactful, interesting and fulfilling during the two pre-law school years I’d planned out for myself, and it seemed that many of the positions I qualified for lacked one element or another,” Osaki said.

She decided to pursue her passion for teaching and traveling by participating in the English Teaching Assistant grant in Cote d’Ivoire. She is currently teaching English in an all-girls public school in Abidjan and conducting workshops and English crash-courses in Cote d’Ivoire.

Although Osaki has many previous experiences abroad, living in a country in West Africa isn’t the same. She said because Cote d’Ivoire is a very communal and religious country, people would get concerned if she spends a few hours alone or does not go to a Sunday sermon.

She added that her ethnicity as an Asian American also creates an “enigma.”

“Street vendors are shocked to discover I do not hail from China. Children are disappointed when I explain that I have zero talents in the martial arts, and adults are disappointed when they learn I can’t speak to them in an Asian language,” Osaki added.

Quan Nguyen (2014 College graduate)

Nguyen has also been interested in education through his various teaching experiences, and after studying abroad for a year in Korea, he decided to come back to do research on the Korean education system.

He said he was interested in the competitive educational environment of Korea and its advanced technological landscape and decided to interweave the two.

“I wanted to foster a new educational environment that is less stressful,” Nguyen said.

Throughout his undergraduate years, he had numerous journalism experiences through working for The Daily Pennsylvanian and through internships and came up with a journalistic research of making a documentary film. He is currently working with KBS – the national broadcaster of the country – and hopes to introduce the “flipped classroom” concept in Korea.

“My research experience is different from my study abroad experience,” Nguyen said. “I feel more like a local and can immerse myself in the local culture.”

Nguyen agreed with other recipients that he found out about the Fulbright Program through his friends and previous recipients, not from the University.

“I didn’t hear from professors or academic counselors, but so many people would love to apply for this because all it takes is a simple passion,” he said.

“For Penn, it’s a shame that OCR takes a greater presence than other post-graduate options. You have to realize that sometimes it’s not the right path for you,” he added.

Improving Guidance for Fulbrights

In fact, CURF is introducing new approaches to the Fulbright Program to provide better guidance and attract more students’ interest.

Genser said that in addition to the office in CURF, it will launch a Fulbright advisor program with faculty members who can provide a more detailed assistance tailored to each applicant’s field of interest. CURF is also planning on holding Fulbright Program panels with recent recipients so that prospective applicants would learn more about the program.

“Fulbright has so much freedom and flexibility, whereas with Rhodes and Mitchell, they are more formalized degree programs,” Truong said. “I’ll be able to learn more about myself while helping people and making a tangible change.”

“I just took a leap of faith and I realized that as long as I continue doing what feels right, I know I get one step closer to that goal, whatever that may be,” Nguyen added.

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