A Comprehensive Tip List: Applying for a Fulbright ETA

Applying for a Fulbright is a big decision and a long process, but it is well worth it in the end due to the growth you will experience during the application process and for the chance to represent your country and teach abroad.

Since being awarded a Fulbright ETA (English Teaching Award) for the Czech Republic earlier this year, I’ve received a few messages from friends who plan to apply and have questions. Thus, I’ve decided to put together a comprehensive post with my best tips! If you would like more specific advice, I would be happy to answer more questions via email or in the comment section. I would also like to emphasize that by no means am I an expert! I can only share from my personal experience. Please utilize the resources at your university and consult anyone and everyone to give yourself the best shot at an award possible.

An overview: WHAT IS FULBRIGHT?

For those who may be unfamiliar, Fulbright describes itself as follows: 

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program provides grants for individually designed study/research projects or for English Teaching Assistant Programs.  A candidate will submit a Statement of Grant Purpose defining activities to take place during one academic year in a participating country outside the U.S. During their grants, Fulbrighters will meet, work, live with and learn from the people of the host country, sharing daily experiences.  The program facilitates cultural exchange through direct interaction on an individual basis in the classroom, field, home, and in routine tasks, allowing the grantee to gain an appreciation of others’ viewpoints and beliefs, the way they do things, and the way they think. Through engagement in the community, the individual will interact with their hosts on a one-to-one basis in an atmosphere of openness, academic integrity, and intellectual freedom, thereby promoting mutual understanding.

The Fulbright ETA (English Teaching Assistant) program is one of several Fulbright programs. The ETA grant places individuals in countries around the world (typically in smaller towns) to teach English language at the elementary, secondary, and university level. Other programs include opportunities to complete a Masters degree abroad or to conduct research.

Starting Research

Perhaps the most difficult part of starting one’s application is that individuals may only apply to ONE country. For the purpose of this post, I will be focusing on my ETA application. 

Before you choose a country, do research! Asking yourself the hard questions early will ensure that when actually writing your essays, your passion for the country comes through. Although I knew very little about the Czech Republic when I started doing research, I was able to better sell why I was a good fit for the country after keeping up with current news and researching their education system.


A snapshot of my visit to Prague in the spring of 2017

Questions to consider as you research:

  • What are you looking for in your experience? What countries appeal to you and why?
    • Start crossing some countries off the list. I crossed off countries that had a language requirement and that did not have high school placements to begin narrowing it down.
  • Why do you want to go to these countries?
  • What can you offer these countries? 
  • How do your skills and experiences make you a good fit specifically?
  • What is the education system like the country you are considering? 

If you can’t answer all of these questions at first, that’s okay! Continue to do research and find a country that is a great fit for you. 

Once you have an idea of what countries may suit you, use the resources and staff at your university in the scholarships office to narrow it down. 

The essays

  • Start by focusing on paragraphs/elements instead of the essay as a whole
    • At first, the two essays (Statement of Grant Purpose and Personal Statement) seem similar and the 1-page limit is tough! To avoid getting overwhelmed, start by focusing on experiences that will make you shine and piece write paragraphs about each experience. Your university and other advisors can help you pick your best moments later. 
    • Piece writing paragraphs will also help you from overemphasizing on length when you’re starting out. You’ll be able to edit it down on the end
  • Ask for advice from everyone 
    • In the end, you’ll have spent so much time with these essays that you’ll be sick of them. Ask various friends to read for different things. Have a non-education friend look for jargon and have another look for sentence clarity. Set up times each week for feedback so that your application continues to progress even when you want to rip it apart.
    • I also suggest saving each version as you edit so that you can go back and re-insert something if you’ve deleted it
  • Tie your points of emphasis back to the country for which you are applying 
    • For every experience that you write about, find a way to tie it back to your country. Did you help manage a group of volunteers at your university? Did you conduct undergrad research? Do you plan to go to grad school one day? Have you visited the country that you are applying for? Good!! How will this experience inform what you are going to do once you have received the Fulbright award? 
    • Be specific! What specific teaching experiences do you have that you can use when you receive Fulbright?
    • Each sentence in your application should be something that only you could say.

Short answer 

The short answers may have been the most challenging portion of the whole application for me. They are SO short and I couldn’t figure out how to make an entire point that concisely. I would recommend writing your essays first and then identifying gaps or areas that you would like to emphasize in the short answer portion. It’s okay to reiterate points in your essay that you’d like your readers to remember.

Recommenders 

  • Ask them early!
  • Pick recommenders who have seen you operate in a specific setting and then let them know why you are requesting a letter from them. I asked my 3 recommenders to each focus on a different aspect. I asked my research mentor focus on my ability to work independently and complete research, my academic mentor to talk about my cross cultural competence in a teaching setting, and a supervisor from an international job I held to talk about my flexibility and teaching experience in Ecuador.

The Interview 

All Fulbright applications require an interview at your university. The Fulbright Commission requires this because of the large number of Fulbright applications that they receive. Your university will decide whether or not to “recommend” you, and then you will move on to the first stage of the process. Some countries require additional interviews, but the Czech Republic only required an interview with Elon’s faculty and staff. Later, after I had been awarded semi-finalist status, I also completed a 5 question short answer questionnaire that I received via email from the Czech Republic and returned to the country commission. Key takeaway: every country is a bit different so research online to find out your country’s specific process. 

My INTERVIEW tips:

  • Don’t stress too much about the interview. Let your research knowledge and passion for your country shine through. Your university wants to know that you are prepared and will represent your school and your country well as a Fulbrighter.
  • Practice your answers with friends and be prepared for questions based on what you wrote in your essays.
  • If you have a questionnaire or interview with your country, really think about what you want out of the experience. For example, in my questionnaire, I had to specify what type of school placement I wanted and what type of town I wanted to be placed in using my past experiences to emphasize why I thought I would be a good fit for the country. It is important to say what you want in the application and not just focus on what you think the commission wants to hear.
After several months and many hours of work, here’s my tired moment of accomplishment!

Waiting

Second only to choosing a country to apply to, waiting months to hear back from the commission really tested my patience. I kept myself busy by applying to fun summer programs, joining Fulbright chatrooms on Reddit and an app called Slack, and generally reminding myself that I had plenty of other opportunities. While applying for Fulbright is a long process, a lot of good comes from it even if you aren’t accepted. You’ll work with awesome mentors and friends crafting the application, think deeply about your future goals and plans, and create documents that you can borrow from when writing cover letters and other job applications.

If you’ve applied to Fulbright, what other tips and recommendations do you have? Leave your tips or your questions as a comment! To keep up with my Fulbright journey (I leave in just 3 weeks on August 22nd!), follow me at: 

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Fulbright

What teaching in Ecuador taught me

When summer camp began, I was really focused on what I would be able to teach my students in the short amount of time that I had with them. This is not a bad goals to have, but I was definitely too caught up in how I was going to achieve this instead of thinking about the students. As one of my professors, Dr. Carpenter always tells us, when you begin teaching you are too focused on yourself and not focused enough on the students and their experience in your classroom.

As the weeks and classes passed by, I found myself being able to forget myself more and more as I was teaching and instead, focus on the students to make sure that their needs were being met. I realized that I had to really listen to them and get them invested in the lessons so that they would care. This realization was a result of many lessons I received inside and outside of my classroom here in Ecuador. Camp is now sadly over and I know that while I did teach my students, they also taught me. The lessons I’ve learned here in Ecuador have already impacted me as an educator and as a person and I’m so excited to begin my student teaching this fall.

Lesson #1: Going with the flow

Anyone who knows me well knows that I love having a plan. I look forward to the start of each new semester when I can color code my Google calendar and perfectly plan each day so that I can maximize my productivity. Here in Ecuador, things definitely did not abide to my color-coded calendar. If you arrive early here you’re early and if you arrive on time you’re still early. While camp was supposed to start at 8:40 each morning, we never started until between 9 and 9:15, majorly cutting into my first lesson plan every day. At first, I was frustrated by my plans getting messed up and I started to put in a little bit less effort knowing that I would not be able to perfectly execute what I had in mind.

However, I soon realized that this cultural difference shouldn’t affect the effort I give to my students or the effort I give for myself. In many ways, “going with the flow” and throwing the plan out the window can turn out better. This way of living forced me to forget myself and my perfect plans and focus on what was best for the students. When we were asked to come up with a final presentation for the parents in just a few days, I realized that I was now more confident and capable because I had been asked to think on my feet the entire summer. I also realize that being flexible and having back-up plans is important in any school anywhere in the world. Sometimes, the people higher-up than myself will have requests of me that seem last minute or challenging and I know that I am now more equipped to deal with those requests in stride.

Lesson #2: Overcoming communication barriers

Throughout my time in Ecuador, I was challenged by the language barrier. When I first arrived, I could barely order food and make basic conversation. In Riobamba, I had to communicate with Ecuadorian volunteers, have school meetings in Spanish, and eat all meals with the priests while only speaking Spanish. I learned to communicate my needs, be a better listener, and be very patient. I now am at a very functional level! I definitely have not completely overcome this challenge by any stretch of the imagination, but I make small gains every day by committing to daily study, being patient with myself, and celebrating all progress.

Lesson #3: Achieving a balance between caring and in control

This lesson really all boils down to my confidence in the classroom and as a person. Before any new classroom placement or teaching task, I am always the most nervous about classroom management. I want the students to be able to see how much I care about their learning and about them as people, but I also know that I need to be in charge of the classroom in order to facilitate and maximize learning.

The first few days of teaching, I was extremely nervous and I was in my own head a lot. After a few crazy events – a fight in my classroom, students showing up late, and some chaotic moments, I realized that I was handling the situations without even thinking about them because my instincts and the things I’ve learned at Elon were kicking in. My students knew that I cared about them partially because of my classroom management and because of my high expectations of them. I once heard a student grumbling as they walked in that my class was her hardest and I silently cheered inside my head.

My most fulfilling teacher experience was seeing the transformation in my students from passive to active learners. With my older groups of students (11-15), I saw the most change. At the beginning of my time, they were quiet and just expected to listen and give one “correct” answer and then be done. Each day, I pushed them to have more conversation and to discuss the “why” of their answer. On one of the last days of classes, I asked them how they would like to run their final presentation and present to their parents. I was shocked when nearly all of the students raised their hands and began to offer opinions on how to get their parents talking. The ideas that they suggested were activities that we had been working on the entire course of the summer. It was amazing to see my students take charge in the classroom and see the value in the young leaders that they are becoming! The more of an active role I asked my students to take, the less talking and side conversations I had in the classroom.

Lesson #4: People matter the most

Lastly, the most important lesson I’ve been reminded of this summer is that it’s the people, not the places, that matter the most. This is my first time ever coming to South America and I had no idea what to expect. Would the people be different?! Would I be able to communicate?! Would I make friends?!

Now, as I sit here with my 7 year old host-sister who somehow understands that I can only understand if she speaks slowly and manages to communicate with me perfectly, I can tell you that these fears were completely erased as soon as I arrived. Even without perfect Spanish, it is possible to communicate with smiles, with the attempt to speak in a new language, and with putting in effort to make friends and learn each day. My absolute favorite days here in Ecuador have not been big trips, but instead days spent with new Ecuadorian friends that I made at camp or with my director and host siblings eating long lunches or meeting more of their family members.

I would like to thank my host family, the priests at UESTAR, for being so patient with our Spanish level and for opening the community center to us and always making us laugh. I would also like to thank my site director and her kids (my host-siblings), for treating me like family and for always believing in me and giving me the support and encouragement I needed. A special  Additionally, I would like to thank all of my fellow WorldTeach volunteers and the WorldTeach office staff for providing me with friendship and with advice no matter the time of day. I hope that our paths will cross again!

Ecuador Reflections Trips