I was at work when I saw the email alert on my phone. I quickly checked and there it was – the Fulbright acceptance email. I had been selected as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to teach in Mexico! I jumped for joy! Years of preparation and a long and difficult application process finally paid off. I was moving to Mexico to teach at Universidad Tecnologica de Jalisco, a technological university in Guadalajara, Jalisco.
After graduating, I worked for two years at an education nonprofit in Los Angeles. But I itched to go abroad, as well as understand education from the perspective of a teacher. I also wanted to go to Mexico to connect with my roots and to improve my Spanish. Teaching English was the option that made the most sense to me. I investigated teaching abroad options with the help of my university’s Department of Academic Honors and Fellowships. This is how I learned about the Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (ETA). Fulbright places American teaching assistants in English classrooms all over the world. Fulbrighters also serve as cultural ambassadors for the US since the program is funded by the federal government. For non-Americans, Fulbright also has teaching and study opportunities as well.
Five months after receiving my acceptance email (yes, five more months of waiting), I arrived in Mexico City for the Fulbright ETA program orientation. In total, there were 60+ of us teaching in Mexico. My first reaction to meeting my fellow teaching assistants was “damn, there are so many white people!” Coming from Los Angeles, I was used to a beautiful, multicultural melting pot. After all, that’s what the United States is, right? But amongst my fellow Fulbrighters, I felt like a minority in a big way. Out of the 60+ Fulbright recipients in Mexico, only a handful of us were people of color. I was frustrated to see that for a country as diverse as the US, prestigious programs like Fulbright don’t reflect this diversity.
Turns out I’m not the only one that has noticed. An article from the Chronicle of Higher Education writes:
The number of black grantees rose from 33 in 2005-6, or less than 3 percent, to 99 in 2015-16, or 5.2 percent of the almost 1,900 grantees. But the program’s [student] participants remained mostly white, at nearly 63 percent, and black and Latino students remain underrepresented in the program, compared with their share of the U.S. undergraduate population.
While the State Department has tried to characterize the program as “elite, but not elitist,” underrepresented minority students and academics still seem to perceive Fulbright as a program for others, and not for them.
That attitude may have career consequences. In an increasingly global economy, not pursuing an international experience can have an adverse effect on college graduates seeking employment. And a Fulbright award can be a prestigious addition to the portfolio of academics seeking promotion or tenure.
“Teacher, have you ever tried tacos?” asked one of my students on the first day of English conversation club. “What about tamales? Menudo?” piped up another student. My answer was “yes, yes, and yes.” Couldn’t they see that I was Mexican-American? I shared so much in common with my students. Yet they were surprised at how much Spanish language, traditional Mexican dishes, and cultural references I knew. They were shocked to learn how much Mexican culture permeates America, and had no idea of all the different languages spoken or ethnicities that exist in the US. Not only were they unaware of our cultural diversity, they were unaware of our socioeconomic diversity. When they thought of the US, they thought that everyone had tons of money, blond hair and blue eyes.
This is why I think it’s so important to have a diverse group of Fulbrighters. If the majority of the participants are WASP from the Midwest, than that the image and stereotype projected abroad. For many of my students, I was the first American they had ever met in person. I’m glad I had the opportunity to teach them about the vast diversity of the United States, trying my best to dispel the stereotypes they harbored.
I urge more people of color to pursue the Fulbright as well as other international fellowships. I would be happy to help PoC through the application process. It’s free money from the government to have an incredible cultural and teaching experience abroad as well as a resume boost.
For now, here are 6 tips on how to win a spot with the Fulbright Teaching Assistant program, because the the process was time-intensive and confusing:
1.Decide if the Fulbright is right for you: Do you have the patience to deal with the 6-8 month application process? Do you want to go to one of the countries where Fulbright operates? Do they have a language requirement and do you meet the requirement? For example, I knew I wanted to go to Mexico. To teach in Mexico, you need are required to be proficient in Spanish. To prepare for the Spanish proficiency test part of the application, I did months of self-study. I listened to Spanish-language music and news and found a volunteering opportunity where I practiced my Spanish. Not all countries have a language requirement, so do your homework.
2.Get Good Grades: There’s no other way to say it. Fulbright expects its participants to have strong academics. The official minimum GPA requirement is 3.0, but aim for a 3.5+ GPA in college. The applicant pool is pretty competitive. This won’t be the only factor in their decision-making, but it will help.
3.Get classroom, teaching, or teaching assistant (TA) experience: Find opportunities to work or volunteer in the classroom. Fulbright wants to see that you have relevant classroom and teaching experience. For example, I had participated in a teaching partnership through my university for two semesters, volunteered once a month for a year with a literacy program, and then I volunteered once a week for a year in an adult literacy program that taught Spanish-speaking migrants basic reading and writing. In total, I had 2-3 years of volunteer classroom experience. This is crucial to your success as an ETA. There were a number of other Fulbrighters with teaching credentials and TEFL certification, but it’s not a requirement.
4.Put your heart into your Personal Statement: The Personal Statement and Statement of Grant Purpose are where you convince Fulbright to choose you. These one-page documents will be the bread and butter of your application. One of the best pieces of advice I received was to simply be yourself. Be honest in your motives for applying and thoughtful about what you wish to gain from the experience. For example, I wrote about my aforementioned volunteer experiences and how I hoped to start a girl’s empowerment program at my host school in Mexico. I elaborated on how my International Relations studies and time volunteering at a shelter for displaced girls in Peru made me aware of global gender inequalities and fueled my commitment to girl’s education. See the Fulbright’s official tips here and do your research on other forums and university websites!
5.Get feedback on your application: Step 4 was the most difficult process for me. I am a horrible writer and it took me about 20+ rounds of editing before I had something acceptable. I had great experience and was a strong applicant, but I had to write a convincing application to communicate that. At least 10 friends and trusted mentors read my statements to provide feedback. Without this feedback on my application, I wouldn’t have been accepted.
6.Connect with former Fulbrighters: Ask friends, family, or professors to connect you with someone that has done the Fulbright. They can provide you with great insights on the application process. My university put me in touch with two Fulbright teachers in Mexico and they gave me invaluable insights on the interview process. They gave me an idea of what questions to expect and demystified the whole process. I am positive this also helped with my acceptance.
Bonus tip: If you’re accepted, save, save save. You’ll want to have a buffer. You will pay for your flight up front and then Fulbright reimburses you. Fulbright pays a monthly stipend adjusted the cost of living of your placement. Travel funds aren’t budgeted in this stipend per se, but many Fulbrighters were able to travel around if they budgeted well. I used about $2,000 USD of my own savings while in Mexico for shopping, eating, traveling. I didn’t want to be limited to my stipend.
My Fulbright year flew by and overall, was an amazing year of teaching, traveling, and self-reflection. I finished my teaching year abroad over a year ago, but the entire experience has stuck with me. I have since returned to Los Angeles, where my career has taken a pivot thanks to my Fulbright year. I am grateful for the experience and the impact it has had on my personal and professional life.
Good luck with the Fulbright application!
For more tips or advice on the Fulbright or living in Mexico, reach out to Melissa on Instagram at @mmmontalvs.