Shooting for a Fulbright ETA to Mexico

I first found out about Fulbright Scholarships from an old poster on the wall of my graduate school’s Education Building cafeteria. The headline read “Are you interested in traveling abroad and being an ambassador to another country?” Fresh off of a month-long trip to Italy and London, I definitely was. At the time, it was January of 2018, and I was less than halfway through with a two-year Master of Arts in Teaching. The poster said that applications were due in October for the following school year; I figured that would put me right at the year I’d be finished with graduate school and I’d have the freedom to do a Fulbright before I started teaching public school full-time.

I paid a visit to my school’s scholarship and grant advisory office, where I met Alicia, the director of fellowship advising. We had seven months to prepare the application, which was a good thing, Alicia told me, because it was a behemoth of an application and competition was fierce. The first thing I needed to do was figure out what we wanted the focus of my application to be, so she told me to write down a list of all the awards, talents, hobbies, sports, academic interests, volunteer work, travel, jobs, etc that I had done over the course of my entire life. The key, Alicia said, was to get a sense of who I was as a person and then pitch the best version of myself to the National Fulbright Committee.

Okay, I thought. No problem. I went home and that night I sat down and started to compile a list of all the things I had done. I split them up into separate columns: Jobs; Hobbies and Talents; Academic Interests and Output; Volunteerism and Awards; Travel and Other Activities. Before I knew it, I had five separate columns that were full of stuff. I knew I had done a lot, but I’d forgotten just how many things I’d dipped my feet into, and it became clear why it was necessary to lay these things out and then focus on the important parts. I scanned the list: secretary at an auction house; bodybuilding; classical piano; Huntsman Scholar; 4.0 GPA; Croatia; car salesperson; quilting; teaching ESL; Spanish; dental assistant; cycling; article about dogs in Cracked; France; nanny; pencil sketching; creative nonfiction; janitor; Canada; etc, etc, etc. 

A few patterns gradually emerged: I love new experiences. I like to exercise and discipline my body in ever-changing ways. I’m a top academic performer, especially when I enjoy what I’m studying and can give it my full focus. Reading, writing, literacy, and languages are hobbies and talents that have extended over my lifetime. And working with people, rather than things, is where I find the most fulfillment.

I sorted everything into these broader themes and then met with Alicia again. This time, after we discussed the lists I’d created, we went over the major aspects of the application: the Statement of Grant Purpose; the Personal Statement; the outside Language Evaluation; the self Language Evaluation; the recommendation letters; the abstract of the proposal; etc. The sheer number of elements of the application emphasized the importance of the process I was about to embark on. This was a major undertaking. But the prospect of living abroad for a year, the potential of earning the reward and recognition, and the future possibilities that the Fulbright entailed convinced me that I wanted to do it.

When you apply for a Fulbright, you can only choose your country. If you’re selected for the award, the host country selects where in the country you are placed. For me, choosing Mexico was a no-brainer; I had been there several times and loved it, and had upcoming plans for Spring Break travel there. But Mexico requires proficient Spanish speaking capability, and I knew that I was not there yet. So I kicked my Duolingo and Netflix-watching practice into overdrive, and made plans for an extended visit to Mexico over the summer.

Between work and graduate studies, the next few months went by quickly. At the end of April, I went to Mexico for a week as part of a graduate class, and most of that time was in rural areas and small cities where we stayed with families or nuns in convents. Because I was one of the few people on the trip who spoke Spanish, I was roomed with people who did not, and often found myself doing the difficult work of translating out loud in addition to the constant, involuntary translating of billboards and passing conversation that was always going on in my head. By the end of the week, I was exhausted, and the plane ride back was subdued. This was my first glimpse into how very difficult it actually is to spend an extended amount of time in another country when you’re learning the language, and how braindead the unending work of translating is. But I was only home for two days before I turned around and went right back to Mexico for two more weeks.

During those two weeks, I was by myself and had a free schedule. The plan was to go to Merida, an old, beautiful Colonial city on the Gulf that I had decided to spend the summer in, and look around for apartments to rent and places where I could volunteer to teach English. After spending a few days bumming around in hostels in Cancun, I took an ADO bus to Merida and just a couple of days later, got incredibly lucky: I was visiting the Merida English library for reading material when I overheard a conversation between two women discussing teaching English at an orphanage. I politely interrupted them and inquired as to who they were. Both women were expats, and one was a retired English teacher from Waldolf schools in the United States. She was very involved with several English-teaching programs in Merida, and put me in contact with a few different organizations. I thanked her and then told her I was interested in renting a house in July and August; did she know anyone I could contact? As luck would have it, she was visiting her daughter in San Francisco during July and August, and would love it if I could rent out her house and water her plants. Later that week, she had me over for dinner, along with the director of the program I ended up teaching with in July. Bonus: The cute little bungalow house had an upright piano. Frabjous day! Things were coming along most excellently. I went back to Cancun a couple of days before my departing flight and lounged by a pool in high spirits.

I spent June in Chicago, working a little, wearing very cute outfits from Rent The Runway, and seeing my old friends. Before I knew it, I was back to Mexico for the rest of the summer. The first two weeks I was there, I taught English in the mornings with a small summer program for impoverished girls ages 5-12. The truth is that I had no idea what I was doing; I started them on clothes, body parts, and emotions, and made the next day’s lesson based on how well they remembered the day before. I also tutored a small group of older, more advanced girls on Saturdays, and we covered more complex verb conjugation and past and present tenses. All of the lessons were half-prepared, half-completely-fucking-winging-it, half, “Oh by the way, could you play this tiny keyboard and teach us some English songs today?”

Every day was fun, stressful, interesting, and filled with the most bodalicious food I had ever eaten. I lunched with the program directors every day, and although the women cooking seemed unsure of whether I would like the traditional Yucatecan food they prepared, I hoovered it up and asked for seconds. I discovered agua de jamaica, sopa de lima, and ate so many marquesitas and so much elote that even with all the walking I did, I gained weight. When I arrived at the school in the morning, the girls’ excited calls of “Maestra! Maestra!” busted my heart open. We played busca, busca, set up obstacle courses filled with exploding water balloons, talked about Harry Potter, and ate all the tiny M&Ms I’d brought so they could make shapes of the clothes, letters, numbers, and body parts I called out to them in English. The girls ranged in appearnce from white skin with green eyes to dark brown skin with thick, straight black hair: their mixed European and Indigenous ancestry manifested in a wide variety of ways. They were all poor, wearing worn shoes and dirty, stretched tank tops that had obviously belonged to several older siblings. They were all sweet and silly and in the process of developing outrageous pre-teen attitudes with each other and their teachers. I had a really good time and was sad when the summer camp ended.

The next week, I was in a daycare affiliated with the previous weeks’ summer camp, and spent several hours hanging out with toddlers. They were cute as hell, as all toddlers are, but it turns out that understanding little kids in another language is so hard! There were a lot of blank stares and tilted, questioning heads between the me and the kids. Usually we resolved these moments with very goofy faces and working on the same project together.

One afternoon after I’d bought some ice cream, I was sitting on a park bench in the shade when a man approached me and asked what I was reading. He introduced himself as a indigenous Mayan activist, and asked what I was doing in Merida. When I told him I was there teaching English and learning Spanish, he questioned my motives. Did I really think I was helping? How could I be sure? He was a little prickly and I was a little apprehensive, but I tried not to be defensive, and really listened to what he was saying. He urged me to avoid any kind of savior complex and think of myself as a learner, rather than a teacher, and to have an awareness of my role as a visitor in the community. He also encouraged me to go home, to take my ex-pat friends with me, and to let the community solve their problems by themselves. We ended up talking for about an hour and a half, and when he stood up to leave, we shook hands. He wouldn’t give me his name, but thanked me for listening.

I spent the next few days in a bit of an existential crisis. Was I actually there for the right reasons? Was I just another American do-gooder who had no idea what the community needed and was simply imposing my ideas of a “better life” onto people I didn’t and couldn’t know or understand? I had originally fallen in love in Mexico over the course of my marriage to a man from Chihuahua, and although the relationship ended, I kept my admiration for so much of Mexico’s history and culture. We had attended Mexican weddings, full of mezcal and mariachi music, and his mother would come visit us in the US and make so much food that we’d have leftovers for weeks. I loved those parts of Mexican culture, but now wondered if I had idealized them. I felt weird and guilty and doubted my helpfulness.

This was in addition to the fact that by now, I had spent over two months in Mexico just that year, and had begun to see and learn about some of the less positive aspects of Mexican culture. There is no question that machismo towards women is a problem in Mexico; traditional attitudes towards men and women played a major role in the destruction of my own marriage, and I encountered it nearly every day walking down the street. Men would follow me around in cars and on bicycles, proclaiming their love and admiration even at my firm protestations, while their wedding rings flashed in the sun. Corruption is accepted as part of daily life and is rampant at all levels of society. Everybody knows that if you get caught driving while drunk, you just bribe the cop and you’re GTG. An American ex-pat casually told me about bribing the city code official so she could get renovations done more quickly on her new home. My ex-husband had told me stories of the corruption in construction in Mexico, and while I was there that summer, a brand-new shopping mall collapsed over a highway because the builders had saved money by bypassing building codes and using cheap materials. Painters and building refinishers would leave old materials, chunks of concrete, and buckets of paint all over the sidewalks when they finished a job. Garbage – mounds of plastic, bags, wrappers, old shoes – rotted in corners and clung to fences and trees.

No country is perfect. Figuring out what and how to think about another country is difficult and complicated, even if you greatly admire that country, and I did and do greatly admire so many things about Mexico. Even though I ultimately came away from my ruminations on the conversation with the man in the park feeling like there was a great need for English teachers in Mexico, and I was willing and able to meet that need in a way that was both helpful and humble, spending a whole year in Mexico on a Fulbright would be no walk in the park.

I also dealt with something during the last weeks in Mexico that I had never felt even an inkling of before: intense homesickness. Loneliness is not an emotion that I have experienced often in adulthood. More often than not, I prefer to spend my time alone or with family and need very little interation with friends. I had traveled for up to a month in other countries and never felt homesick, and when I moved to Chicago and lived there for five years, although I sometimes missed my family, I never felt like I wanted to be back in Utah. But those last two weeks in Mexico were almost unbearably lonely and suffocating. I missed my dad and brothers, I missed Utah, I missed being where I knew how everything worked, where I wasn’t constantly straining my brain to figure out how to speak in another language, and where the weather wasn’t a constant 95+ degrees at one hundred percent humidity. I missed expressing myself accurately and with ease in my native tongue; everything I said in Spanish sounded childish and reductive to my ears, even after weeks of 20-hour-per-week Spanish lessons. I had very little to do my last few days in Merida, and spent most of it wandering aimlessly around the streets, sweating my ass off, and wishing I had somebody to talk to. I had begun a senseless affair with my Spanish teacher, which was going nowhere and both of us knew it. I was bored and frustrated and unsure of whether I wanted to come back for a year.

I went home two weeks early, full of uncertainty about the Fulbright. It wasn’t until a few weeks had passed and the spectre of homesickness had worn off that my lenses cleared a little and I realized that much of my dissatisfaction had stemmed from a difficult but normal adjustment period plus too much free time without a clear goal in mind – the worst had come when I was done teaching and had nothing to do all day. In addition to proposing your own project for community engagement, the Fulbright keeps their teachers very busy working with classrooms and engaging in service and social events. I’d hardly have time to be bored, I’d be meeting other Fulbrighters from the U.S., and I’d have projects to be working on all week long.

I gathered myself, bucked up, and began working on the application. I spent hours and hours writing, rewriting, editing, rewriting, editing, and rewriting my statements. I practiced Spanish for an hour every day, and spoke it whenever I could with my adult students that I tutored English to at night. I took the proficiency test with a Spanish faculty member and passed. I honed my application some more. I met with Alicia and had a few crying meltdowns where I wondered if I was worthy or prepared. She was a champion and I always left feeling better, but I was still terrified I wouldn’t get the Fulbright, and equally terrified that I would.

 

I submitted my application on October 8th, 2018, and the wait began. I wouldn’t hear whether I had advanced to the semi-finalist stage for several months. In the meantime, I began my full-time student teaching at a high school in my hometown of West Jordan and got so wrapped up in that process that there were days at a time when the Fulbright was only a passing thought. My mentor teacher was more awesome than I could have hoped for, and we quickly became good friends. I was pleased to discover that I was immensely good at teaching English to high school students; I bonded quickly with them, had so much fun in class, and was often moved to tears by the meaningful discussions we had. I received stellar evaluations from my observing advisors and excelled in my masters classwork.

One morning in January, Alicia emailed me to tell me that semi-finalists were being announced that day. I checked my email obsessively, and when I received notification that I had been selected as a semifinalist, I shouted it to the class and we all cheered together. The Fulbright Selection Committee immediately arranged a date for the formal live interview in February, about a month away, as well as a quick troubleshooting call to clear any technical difficulties out of the way. I began studying Spanish again in earnest – it had been difficult with teaching full-time, plus taking classes – and insisted that my Colombian boyfriend only speak to me in Spanish.

As February drew to a close and my student teaching days began to wind down, a teacher at the school unexpectedly died, and several teachers announced they were moving to other positions in the district. The prospect of teaching at that school became very real, and it was very appealing. Several dozen students expressed interest in having me as a teacher in the future, and pending my future class assignments, there was a very real likelihood that I would be able to teach many of my beloved students again; at the very least, I’d see them around school. If it came to making the decision between taking the Fulbright and teaching at the school next year, it would have been very difficult. Furthermore, I had found such a great living space and gotten a puppy; whether I meant to or not, my subconscious intentions seemed to be pulling me away from the Fulbright and gluing me to Utah.

But, I reasoned with myself, it was best to give myself options and if the Fulbright was the best option, there would always be great apartments and open positions and amazing students to teach in the future. Other Fulbrighters sometimes took their pets with them, and I had researched the cross-country animal safety requirements, so Burt wouldn’t be a problem. More than anything, I was determined to finish out the process and do my very best.

The day of the big interview loomed nearer. Without being boastful, I have always excelled at writing summaries, statements, and letters, and I knew that part of my application was excellent. My background in working with children and teaching English as a second language was great preparation. I felt qualified, as an MAT holder, to teach English, and to teach it well. My community engagement project proposal, which was focused on individual and small-group reading instruction for enjoyment and increased literacy, was well-planned and could be executed anywhere, even with very little resources.

But there was one part of the Fulbright that scared the absolute piss out of me, and it was the upcoming interview. My written and spoken Spanish skills were quite good; by now, I had no problem expressing complex thoughts, conjugating in past tense, and expressing future desires. I could read texts like Harry Potter and the news fairly easily. My listening comprehension, however, left much to be desired. I’d find myself listening to someone, losing track of what they were saying, beginning to panic because I was losing track of what they were saying, and then completely missing the rest of their thought and being unable to respond effectively. It happened enough times that, whether rational or no, I developed an intense fear that during the interview I would completely fail to understand what the interviewers were asking me and sit there stammering like an idiot.

When the morning of the interview came, my boyfriend sat across the office from me and reviewed my questions before the call began. I had a glass of wine to relax and unfolded my paper of words and phrases I sometimes forgot. Before I knew it, the Skype call was pinging in, and it was time.

I answered the call. I had been told that the interview usually consisted of three to four Mexican diplomats and educational experts, but no less than nine people sat in front of me. We got past the holas and mucho gustos, and then, starting with the person on the farthest right and following the circle of people around the conference table, I was asked a question by every single person. In typical Mexican conversational manner, the questions were embedded in statements and other questions (Americans are incredibly direct compared to Mexicans, and often viewed as rude because of this). The sound quality wasn’t great, and I was a fat fucking bundle of nerves. I had to ask more than one person to repeat themselves, and during the third question, during which it was very difficult to suss the actual question out of the surrounding information, I totally panicked. Everything flew out of my head. The noises my interviewer was making seemed like total gibberish. My heart was pounding, my head cold. I couldn’t speak Spanish! What was I thinking signing up for this?? An insane idea flooded into my mind and seemed suddenly perfectly rational: Disconnect from the Wifi and pretend the call dropped. Or pretend I coudn’t hear them. Or run out of the room screaming and hide in my room and never step foot on campus again. Or, or… The voice of the woman went on in the background, and I mentally bitch slapped myself so hard that my head spun around at least twice. Buck up, you asshole, I told myself. If you were one of your students, you’d tell them to lean in to this anxiety and stop trying to run from it. You’ve gotten this far and the interview won’t last forever. Plug in your brain, pay attention, and figure this shit out. The moment was brief, but critical. I was up against the worst, most cowardly version of myself, and nobody could get me through it but me – and I had to do it right now.

Somehow, I did that. I figured out what she was asking, and I answered her. The rest of the interview went much smoother, and the panic subsided and then disappeared completely. I left the interview feeling like I had done my best, and when my boyfriend, who apparently hadn’t realized how serious this entire thing was, presented me with the ultimatum of moving forward with the relationship or pursuing the Fulbright, I chose the Fulbright and said goodbye to a very sweet, kind man.

I found out at the end of March that I did not get awarded the Fulbright. I was offered a job teaching less than two weeks later. I don’t know what I would have done if I had been awarded an ETA position in Mexico; I’m glad I didn’t have to make that decision. More than anything, I’m so glad I applied for the Fulbright and stuck with the process, even when I had doubts. It made me challenge and refine my own ideas about who I am and what I want out of life. I learned to speak Spanish proficiently, and got to live in Mexico for an entire summer. I was forced to confront one of my greatest fears – failing to perform at an intellectual task and having everybody think that I’m stupid – when it came to a head in a moment of temporary terror and insanity, and instead of cowering away, I pushed my way through it and came out the other side. I’ve done a lot of things that I feel good about, but this I am actually proud of.

I feel great about teaching next year. I’ll spend a lot of the summer traveling to Chicago and Israel, but I should have plenty of time to set up my classroom before school starts and get started on building a great curriculum. Graduation is in May, and then I’ll have my Master of Arts in Teaching, and I’m proud of that, too. I get to spent at least the next few years working with a population of people I love, talking about books and writing and literary interpretation, which I motherfucking loveand get paid for it (not enough, of course, but that’s a subject for another post). Fulbright or no Fulbright – things are good.

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