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The value is in the process

Fulbright applicants pay it forward with Top 5 lessons

Abigail Weiderhold ('20) and Eric Rondeau ('19, '20M) are two Fulbright Program applicants offering advice to future applicants.

SUMMARY: Several Fulbright Program applicants share their Top 5 lessons for future Fulbrighters. The program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government.

By Meredith M. Malburne-Wade, director of student fellowships advising

The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government and is designed to forge lasting connections between the people of the United States and the people of other countries, counter misunderstandings, and help people and nations work together toward common goals. Each year, the program sends more than 2,100 young Americans abroad for eight to 13 months to conduct research or artistic endeavors, pursue graduate study, teach English or pursue other initiatives. This year, 49 James Madison University graduating seniors and alumni applied for a Fulbright U.S. Student Grant in countries from Mexico to Mozambique. While they don’t know the outcome of their applications yet, several applicants share their Top 5 lessons—and a piece of advice—for future Fulbrighters. 

  1. It will help you crystallize your future goals.

The application process for Fulbright, one that includes thinking through both short-term and long-term goals, helps applicants forge and articulate their career paths. Theresa Perez (’20), who was a vocal education major, applied for an English Teaching Assistantship in Spain. She said, “Fulbright has helped me get to know my goals and future direction by showing me how much I love teaching.” Fulbright helped Perez see new avenues to use her degree. “I never would have considered teaching English in a foreign country, but going through the application process has enticed me into looking at what other opportunities there are.”

Honors graduate Abigail Weiderhold ('20), who majored in intelligence analysis, said, “Fulbright helped me redefine what my future goals are and narrow into more of what I wanted to do in life. I was able to develop a shorter-term plan for my goals and get a better idea of how to implement my college experiences into a successful career path.” She hopes to teach English next year in Kyrgyzstan, using her Russian language skills from her minor at JMU. 

  1. It will help you synthesize your JMU experience.

Most fellowship applications ask applicants to demonstrate how the pieces of their college career—from classes to internships to extracurriculars—come together, and Fulbright is no exception. Fulbright helped Eric Rondeau (’19, ’20M), who majored in interdisciplinary liberal studies and education, see clearly how JMU set him up for success. “JMU has done a great job preparing me for any scenario I may come into,” he said, as it gave him “credible experience” to use in his application, including “[teaching] placements, leadership roles and many more invaluable ideas and experiences.” He hopes to apply his experiences teaching English in North Macedonia. 

  1. It will help you become a better writer. 

Fulbright requires an intensive and unique process of writing and revision. “This isn’t like writing a research paper in college,” said Ciara Brennan (’17), who majored in writing, rhetoric and technical communication and applied to research the culture of bread making in Germany through the Young Professional Journalist Program. “This is writing a research paper about your dreams with a chance that everything you’ve written could happen in a year, or not. This process is both highly professional and deeply personal, and it’s going to surprise you how invested you’ll become.”

Honors student Monica Slater, a tutor with the University Writing Center, hopes to turn her undergraduate experience in vocal performance into a funded year of studying opera at the Liszt Academy in Hungary after her anticipated 2021 graduation. She advises future applicants that “the revision process is transformative; keep going and don’t give up.” 

  1. It will teach you more than you could ever expect about yourself. 

Fulbright won’t just teach you about writing, however. Brennan said she learned “I am the single biggest obstacle to my success and ambitions,” but applying for Fulbright helped her pursue her dreams. “The biggest thing I learned about myself is that I didn’t know myself as well as I thought I did,” said Weiderhold, who credits Fulbright with helping her learn how to express her plans meaningfully for others.

Elena Rogers plans to graduate this spring with a degree in marketing. She hopes Fulbright will fund a master’s degree program in business and law at University College Dublin. Her biggest lesson from the Fulbright process? “My dreams are achievable and there are people in the world willing to help me achieve them. Whether it be faculty telling me I have so much more I could include about myself in my essays, a foreign professor excitedly announcing her desire to supervise my graduate research, or seeing other women who have achieved similar feats, my desire to achieve what I once thought was impossible is strengthened.” 

  1. It will help you realize you can do more than you imagined. 

Every Fulbright applicant hopes to win the award. The journey of the application, however, is sometimes just as revelatory. “I’ve learned that I am resilient and can do anything I set my mind to,” said Alison Sall (’19, ’20M), who majored in mathematics and education. Brennan said, “I’ll be disappointed if I don’t receive the grant, but I’ll be so grateful for the process. I know my goals now, I know what I’m passionate about, and I know I can do hard things. 

Slater said she learned how to lean on others. “The biggest favor I did for myself was asking for help—from Dr. Malburne-Wade [director of student fellowships advising], two voice teachers, a mentor and even a local Hungarian speaker. With support from these people, I got through each of my challenges.” Rogers described how the process made her more determined: “Applying for Fulbright, you are well aware that the odds are against you, and yet that doesn’t matter. What you learn about yourself and your goals during the process will motivate you to find alternative routes to achieve those goals." 

But what’s the best piece of advice for those interested in Fulbright or other awards? “Do it! No matter what your reason for it is, you might as well give it a shot. It can surprise you with what you can do,” Rondeau said. 



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Published: Friday, January 22, 2021

Last Updated: Tuesday, May 25, 2021

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