A Lasting Legacy
Fulbright experiences made a difference for Antiochians and the countries they visited.
It’s a chance that only a select number of students get, but in the last two decades, nine Antiochians have received a Fulbright scholarship, one of the most competitive and prestigious international awards in the world. The program, which is sponsored by the U.S. government, allows students to spend a year studying, teaching, and conducting research in one of the 155 countries where it operates.
In the U.S., only 1,600 students a year receive a Fulbright grant, and each is chosen based on his or her academic excellence, leadership skills, and most importantly, ability to represent a home country while promoting understanding amongst different cultures. For many students, though, the program offered more than an exciting, educational experience. During their year abroad in countries such as Taiwan, Korea, Croatia, Brazil, Sweden, Malaysia, Venezuela, and Benin, several Antiochians found that being a Fulbrighter changed their views on not just the world, but themselves.
- Ruthie Scarpino with Malaysian school girls.(photo courtesy of Ruthie Scarpino ’08)
- Ruthie Scarpino on left with Malaysian woman.(photo courtesy of Ruthie Scarpino ’08)
- (photo courtesy of Ruthie Scarpino ’08)
- (photo courtesy of Ruthie Scarpino ’08)
- (photo courtesy of Ruthie Scarpino ’08)
Changing Lives in Malaysia
Traveling abroad to study and teach English wasn‘t anything new to Ruthie Scarpino ’08. After doing co-ops in England, Ireland, Germany, and Ecuador during her time at Antioch, Scarpino realized that she wanted to continue using her skills in the arts and education to change students‘ lives while exploring different cultures. She applied to the Fulbright program with a very specific goal outlined in her proposal: to study the segregation in Malaysia amongst Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity.
But things didn‘t quite go as planned for Scarpino. Instead of being placed in a central city such as Kuala Lumpur as she’d assumed, Scarpino found herself living in a tiny fishing village in Kuala Terengganu, a southern state that also happened to be the most religious state in the nation. Getting in touch with university professors to help with her research when she had limited Internet connections proved almost as difficult as gaining access to the locals, who weren‘t used to seeing tourists and thought of her as an outsider.
“I had no understanding of what it’d take for me to do my research. Because I was a woman, because I was unmarried, and because I was not Malay and not Muslim, people wouldn‘t even talk to me,” Scarpino said. “It became very clear that my research wasn‘t going to happen as I’d intended. Something that you realize very quickly is that you come in with all these ideas of how you’re going to help them and how you’re going to change their world…but you‘ve got to get off your high horse and think, what do they need?”
Although taking her research in a completely new direction was challenging at first, Scarpino quickly changed focus to an issue affecting students in all grade levels.
At the school where she was working, she found that students as old as 17 were being passed along by the education system despite the fact that they were illiterate.
Even though Malaysia’s school system relied heavily on standardized testing, Scarpino – who didn‘t learn to read until she was nine due to her struggles with dyslexia – knew from experience that not all children learn in the same way. Many of her students showed the same difficulties reading as she’d faced growing up, and Scarpino felt the topic deserved more attention. She proposed a case study on dyslexia in the school, in which she’d work one-on-one with several students and document their progress.
Over the next two semesters, Scarpino worked with children in every grade level of the school and experimented with different teaching approaches. Students who were given a chance to take an exam orally or without the constraints of time improved their grades by ten to twenty points per semester. Though Scarpino’s research showed the advantages of a progressive education over more traditional forms of education in students with learning disabilities, she thinks of the results in far simpler terms:
“They got necessary skills for life. That was the result,” she said. In a town where many students graduated school and became fishermen or worked in a factory, “being literate wasn‘t necessary,” she said, “but these kids were failing school and because of that, they had no choices … even if it wasn‘t the change that I thought, it still was change enough that it affected their lives.”
Scarpino’s efforts reached far beyond the classroom walls. When class wasn‘t in session, she organized activities – everything from balloon fights to Harry Potter marathons and a Malay prom – to help the students alleviate the stress of schoolwork and testing. Together with her mentor and school officials, she built a library for the school, filled with books in both Malayu and English. Since Scarpino’s return to the U.S., Fulbright scholars placed in the school have picked up where she left off, and the literacy program has kept growing every year.
Now living in New York City and pursuing her passion for the arts, Scarpino still manages to stay in touch with her students, whom she says feel like a family halfway across the world. Every night after work, she comes home and logs on to Facebook to find messages from them. Some have graduated and are attending college to become teachers, following in Scarpino’s example. Others have gotten married and are starting families. All end their messages to her with the same question: When are you coming back?
Looking for Answers in Baltimore and the Balkans
It started with two words that had multiple meanings. One day at Antioch, Zachary Gallant ’08 mentioned the term “bombed out” during a conversation with a Serbian student to describe the decrepit and abandoned houses in his home city of Baltimore, which was suffering an economic and crime-rate crisis. In Serbia, the student explained, the two words had a much different connotation after NATO bombed her country during the Kosovo Conflict in 1999.
That comment was the catalyst for Gallant’s interest in the differences in redevelopment techniques between the post-war world and American cities.
When Zachary Gallant ’08, above, applied for the Fulbright, he hoped to travel through the Balkans. He was instead sent to Croatia. Photo courtesy of Zachary Gallant ’08
“How was it that Croatia and even parts of Serbia were doing better than Baltimore? Baltimore per capita was the worse city in America at that point, educationally, economically, crime-wise,” Gallant said. “Somehow, the post-war regions had done better and I wanted to understand why.”
He applied for the Fulbright grant with a proposal to travel through the Balkans to research urban development and recovery in post-war regions. Gallant was awarded the grant but was sent instead to Croatia; he arrived in Zagreb, the country’s capital, in August 2008. Through contacts he made both at Antioch and while working in several political campaigns in Baltimore, Gallant was able to tap into a network of politicians, economists, and officials involved in redevelopment for his research.
During his first several months in Croatia, he began to feel discouraged by the answers he was getting, which he said seemed to be driven more by ego and politics than the truth. Finally, an economist suggested he travel to Bosnia and Serbia, areas that had been much more affected by the wars than Zagreb.
It was during this time, in the last three to four months of his research, that Gallant started to make a real breakthrough.
“I was able to meet with people who perhaps in other situations would‘ve been tried for war crimes for some of the things they’d done, but this was a very tense and tenuous situation, so they were now in positions of power, and they understood and admitted that every side had messed up,” Gallant said.
His sources explained not only how these regions recovered, but also what roles the international community and organized crime played in the process. They put him in touch with wartime lawyers, international lawyers, and even individuals involved in organized crime who shed understanding on their own economic systems and helped Gallant draw meaningful conclusions about Baltimore’s poverty.
“It was really just about knowing the right people because the answers I was looking for could not be found in books,” he said.
As he traveled from city to city, Gallant studied poverty-stricken areas up close. While he mostly got around by train and stayed at friends of friends‘ homes, there were several nights where he didn‘t have a place to stay. He spent them in hostels, on buses, and in bus stations.
“The first few times it was scary,” he said. “You think, ‘Someone’s going to mug me, someone’s going to steal my kidneys,‘ because that’s what we’re seeing now in Kosovo. But it turns out the hobo community is incredibly friendly and open. People would share food, they would share alcohol…If I had stayed in apartments, if I’d isolated myself from these underground areas, I would never have experienced these things.”
Now that he’s back in the U.S. after a second trip that took him through Eastern Europe, Gallant is working as the executive vice president at a disaster management consulting firm in Baltimore, where he hopes he‘ll be able to apply his findings on redevelopment and turn his ideas into action. Gallant’s main conclusions to his case studies were that localized, grassroots involvement in rebuilding and recovery is vital to lasting change and disaster management and that intervention by the international community often causes more problems than solutions.
He said he’s still focusing his goals on the improvement of Baltimore and the international community’s handling of post-war, post-conflict redevelopment.
“If I can find a way to make change in these issues, that’s my long-term goal, and whatever way is going to get me into a position of power to change, that is where I‘m headed,” he said.
The Meaning of Learning and Language
For Viktor Maco ’06, the moment that asserted everything he’d learned about linguistics during his time at Antioch and in Taiwan as a Fulbrighter came unexpectedly. He wasn‘t even in the classroom or communicating with words. He was simply exploring a hobby of his in an extraordinary way, learning about tai chi and the Taoist religion in a monastery in Taipei.
Despite speaking very little Chinese, Maco formed a friendship with a student at the monastery who spoke just a few words of English. Over several weeks, she taught him tai chi and, to Maco’s surprise, he in turn helped with her English.
“It was unexpected. She just proved everything that I’d learned in linguistics right. She wasn‘t embarrassed [to speak] … we were just trying to find a way, trying to communicate as straight forward as possible without translating,” Maco said. “Two or three weeks later she’d picked up a lot of English, and she was amazed at herself and how much more she could communicate.”
Maco had been fascinated with language and learning ever since he audited a linguistics class at Antioch and found himself surprisingly in tune with its principles. As the son of Peruvian immigrants, he’d grown up in a bilingual household where he’d learned to understand English before he could speak it. “I realized it was kind of a linguistic phenomenon,” he said.
“To be a Fulbright scholar was easily one of the greatest things I‘ve done ... because of how many people I connected with and how many people helped me grow.”
—Viktor Maco ’06
Having taken a year off from school to travel across Peru and South America, Maco was encouraged to apply to the Fulbright program by his professors upon returning.
“I was astounded by the idea that you actually live somewhere for such a long period of time. It’s a whole year of getting to know a different culture,” he said. Since he’d recently started studying tai chi and Chinese philosophy, Maco chose the English Teacher’s Assistant (ETA) program in Taiwan.
The program consisted of two weeks of orientation, and two weeks of co-teaching to prepare Fulbrighters for the months ahead. “Once you started teaching, that was it – we really just jumped right into it,” Maco said.
Though he found his students to be incredibly hard-working, the biggest adjustment for Maco was learning how to read them. The Taiwanese are not as quick to show emotion as Americans are, Maco said, and a lot of emphasis is placed on not putting people on the spot, teasing, or embarrassing them.
“There’s a saying that they have in Taiwan: you know you’re really good friends when you can tell that someone’s mad at you,” he said. They pride themselves on remaining calm and not becoming angry easily.”
Maco taught groups of 15 to 20 students in every grade and at every level of language proficiency. Classes started at 7 a.m. in the morning and ended at 3 p.m. in the afternoon, and after school Maco would teach specialized classes with more advanced students as well as classes with adults who wanted to learn English. Along with other Fulbrighters, he also produced an instructional video for the county on how to teach the language.
“Teaching is one of those things where it’s not about the subject, it’s about learning how to learn,” he said. “If you can give people different ideas and different ways to pick things up and acquire them faster, then you’re really giving them something that’s going to be invaluable and be with them for the rest of their lives.”
The Impressions People Make
The title of Fulbrighter comes with a prestige that’s recognized all over the world. Despite the vastly different experiences of these Antiochians, they all said they feel the greatest takeaway was the Fulbright experience itself.
“To be a Fulbright scholar was easily one of the greatest things I‘ve done in my young life and probably for the rest of my life, just because of how many people I connected with and how many people helped me grow,” Maco said. The first in his family to go to college, Maco felt that spending a year abroad gave him a more optimistic weltanschauung, and made him realize that there were so many possibilities to the things that he could accomplish.
For Gallant, the experience of meeting people affected by war – and seeing how they dealt with it – brought about an entire philosophical change. He was struck by how, despite not being wealthy, the people he encountered in the Balkans seemed happier than people in some of the most affluent areas in America.
“They have a strength of community and a strength of family, and it’s not something that you necessarily understand until you‘ve been in a region that’s been affected by war and is still capable of wealth like that,” he said. “Everything else has been important: the job that [the experience has] gotten me, the podium from which to speak, but it’s the shift in worldview that’s been vital.”