‘This is my purpose.’ Fulbright scholars back in Wichita after nine months abroad

Gretchen Eick (left) and Lakshmi Kambampati were two of over 800 U.S. citizens who went abroad through the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program during the 2017-2018 academic year.
Gretchen Eick (left) and Lakshmi Kambampati were two of over 800 U.S. citizens who went abroad through the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program during the 2017-2018 academic year. Madison Obermeyer

For many of the thousands of people Lakshmi Kambampati and Gretchen Eick met in the last year, the dream is to come to America.

For the teachers themselves, though, coming home was tough.

“It’s a great feeling to go home,” Kambampati said, “but then you begin to think of how much you will miss it — the people, the memories. Those are the things that I cherish.”

Kambampati, 67, and Eick, 75, were two of more than 800 U.S. citizens who went abroad through the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program during the 2017-2018 academic year.

The Friends University adjunct faculty members each spent nine months at the universities they applied to — Eick at Džemal Bijedić University in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kambampati at the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies in Sarnath, India.

The women received the Fulbright Distinguished Teaching Award to train pre-service and current teachers in differentiated teaching methods.

Fulbright recipients are chosen based on academic and professional achievement, record of service and demonstrated leadership in their respective fields.

The Fulbright Program is an international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government. The program operates in over 160 countries worldwide and awards 8,000 grants each year.

In September 1945, U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright introduced a bill that called for “the use of proceeds from the sales of surplus war property to fund the promotion of international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture and science,” according to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs website.

One year later, President Harry S. Truman passed the Fulbright Act.

Since 1946, more than 380,000 people have been awarded the Fulbright scholarship; 59 Fulbright scholars are Nobel Peace Prize winners, 82 have received Pulitzer Prizes and 37 have served as a head of state or government.

Applicants to the Fulbright program have to choose a country before applying to the Fulbright program, and each has its own criteria of what applicants can teach, Kambampati said.

The application process is onerous and includes essays, recommendation letters and possibly a letter of invitation from the prospective school, Eick said, but it’s worth it.

“I think a lot of people who apply for Fulbrights really would be happy to go almost anywhere in the world because they love the idea of being able to teach in a different country, learn the culture and be an ambassador of friendship,” Eick said. “The main thing is picking a country based on what it is that you have to offer and decide how your skill base and your experience fit with that particular country. It requires you to do some homework on the country that you choose.”

Kambampati taught Tibetan refugees using a project-based learning method. Eick focused on history to bring discussion on social change to the forefront over 20 years after the Bosnian and Herzegovinian War.

“I’m a social change historian and I’m very interested in countries that have gone through major social change and how they adapt from that,” Eick said. “In Bosnia, the major war that occurred in 1991 to 1995, people are still recovering from that. It’s a country with multi-ethnic groups, and I wanted to teach in a Muslim university in one of the smaller cities that I had already visited in Bosnia.”

Eick said she could make a case that her background as a historian of social change movements and as a historian of African-American and Native American history gave her something she could bring to Bosnians by studying the United States and looking at a country that has significant minority groups and has had significant tension in working as a whole and being inclusive, and deciding what the Bosnian students could learn by talking about that.

“If we talk about our differences, it can be tricky,” Eick said. “But if we look at how this works in the States, we can ask questions. How do we bring those changes needed in this country to make us adapt and work with each other much more successfully? I thought it was something that would interest students and professors, and it did.”

Kambampati said while her background is in mathematics, what she teaches isn’t limited to math.

“I had been a teacher in Wichita Public Schools for 20 years, and when I was teaching mathematics, my students were not at all interested in math,” Kambampati said. “So I started showing them projects of how we use math in real life.”

Kambampati’s style of teaching, called project-based learning, interested her students because they like to do hands-on projects as long as you don’t give them paper and pencil, she said.

“I can see the interest in them to learn, to come to class,” Kambampati said. “Particularly in many parts of the world, it’s not common to teach the real life experiences in a classroom. So that was my proposal.”

From the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, Kambampati was sent to other Tibetan establishments to develop the same idea of project-based learning.

Kambampati also presented her learning approach at the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan.

“The project-based learning isn’t just a real life experience in the classroom, but working collaboratively, thinking critically, and then presentation skills and all those other things involved,” Kambampati said.

In Bosnia, Eick said, people see English as their ticket to a good job.

“If they speak English and write English well, they have a chance of being able to be employed, and unemployment is very high,” Eick said. “The English department at the university, even though it’s not a huge department numerically, it has very bright students. I didn’t dumb down anything I taught.”

Eick said her students were looking at aspects of American culture today in terms of race and popular culture, even doing a Skype interview with Mark McCormick, who was the previous executive director of the Kansas African American Museum.

“Students read essays from his latest books and then they talked with him about race in America. They were so excited,” Eick said. “They loved his essays and then to actually see him on the screen and to be able to ask him questions was great for them. He had gotten up at five in the morning to speak with us.”

Eick said students also studied current social change movements in the U.S. such as the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter and Native Americans trying to protest and stop the Dakota Access pipeline.

“Bosnia has a culture where there isn’t much dissent permitted by the governing structure, so we were trying to get students to think, ‘You’re very frustrated by the way things work in this country politically, by the corruption and by the fact that the structure is not very workable. How can you change that?’” Eick said.

“I think what I learned from this experience that will stay with me in terms of how it changes the way I teach is the importance of both assigning contemporary articles about politics, religion, race — that students can read and connect it to themselves and can see how issues in the past are playing out today; and secondly, their speaking on important issues in their lives,” she said.

One class, Eick asked her students to give a speech on a significant object in their life or an extraordinary experience.

What happened was something she hadn’t experienced in 20 years or will ever forget, she said.

Students talked about experiences that were extremely emotional and powerful in their lives, like an unplanned pregnancy and how they dealt with it, or a brother with Down syndrome that had died.

“It was a very emotional moment,” Eick said. “By the end of the class, everyone was crying, even the guys, who said they weren’t prepared for the speech. It bonded the class and when they walked out, everyone was hugging. They had never done anything like that before.”

Kambampati said that’s exactly what the Fulbright is about: To go and experience.

“We want to encourage youngsters and other people to go and experience and see the world,” Kambampati said. “There’s so many neat things that are happening, and the Fulbright, it’s not just for teachers. There are student researchers, teachers who do research together, even English teaching assistants coming right out of university.”

Eick said Americans tend to be ignorant about the rest of the world, but the fact that English belongs to the world was very important to realize.

“English doesn’t just belong to you in America, or in England or Australia. It belongs in places like Nigeria and India, and countries that have spoken English for hundreds of years,” Eick said. “People are learning English everywhere as the lingua franca, the connective voice. That requires us to not be so arrogant about the way we speak English. There are many ways to speak English, there are many accents, just as there are in this country, worldwide.”

Kambampati said there is so much more she would have liked to accomplish in India. She has only planted a seed in their mind.

“I love to help people, it’s my motto,” she said. “I want to help as many students and teachers as possible. This is my purpose.”

For more information on the Fulbright program, visit cies.org.

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