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Fulbright students rise to meet a changing world

Despite challenges, many are abroad once again
Keerti Gopal is in Taiwan on a Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellowship.

Signs of climate change are all around us, but the issue can feel overwhelming: What do individual people’s experiences with climate change look like, and how can one person make a difference?

Northwestern alum Keerti Gopal, ’21, is finding out. Since last fall, she has been in Taiwan on a Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellowship, a rare opportunity that goes only to Fulbright recipients with a proven track record of using new media to tell compelling stories. 

As one of Northwestern’s 17 Fulbright grantees in 2021–2022, Gopal is collecting and sharing accounts of climate action and resilience for stories in media outlets, including Medium. Her interviewees have included tea farmers forced to adapt by drought and activists advocating for fossil fuel divestment and climate justice education.

Related: Northwestern named top student Fulbright producer, 17 years running

“The best thing about the grant has been the people I’ve gotten to meet,” Gopal said, recalling an experience in Taiwan’s central mountains, which she visited in January with a research team collecting climate data. The mountainous Alishan region is known for its high-quality tea — a crop that thrives in part because of the region’s abundant mist.

But the mist has been less consistent in recent years, posing a challenge for the farmers who depend on tea for their livelihoods. Gopal stayed at a guest house run by three siblings who grew up in the area 50 years ago and still cultivate tea there today. One of the siblings, Lin Fang Mei, described the changes she had witnessed during a sunrise walk with Gopal. 

“The Lin sisters could track climate change in the region so vividly through their own memories — of changing seasons, impacts on agriculture and natural disasters that have displaced their friends,” Gopal said. “The climate crisis can sometimes feel big and abstract and overwhelming, but hearing the Lin sisters talk about climate change in the context of their own personal lives was a grounding reminder that fighting this crisis is actually about human beings, in the present.”

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Fulbright winners this year navigate a world transformed by a pandemic and other challenges, and it’s crucial upon us to endow our students with these experiences overseas.”

Annelise Riles
Associate Provost for Global Affairs

Around the world — and at home in the United States through virtual connections with people, institutions and databases — Northwestern’s current class of Fulbright students has been engaging with the international community despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The Office of Fellowships continues to do a remarkable job advancing global opportunities for our students,” said Annelise Riles, associate provost for Global Affairs at Northwestern. “Fulbright winners this year navigate a world transformed by a pandemic and other challenges, and it’s crucial upon us to endow our students with these experiences overseas.”

Administered by the U.S. Department of State and funded via an annual Congressional appropriation, Fulbright is the United States’ flagship international academic exchange. For the 17th consecutive year, Northwestern is one of the top producers of Fulbright students among U.S. colleges and universities, earning praise from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

“Northwestern University’s place among the Fulbright Program’s 2021–2022 Top Producing Institutions clearly demonstrates your dedication to preparing Americans to thrive in the global economy and serve as engaged citizens,” Blinken wrote in a letter to Northwestern President Morton Schapiro on March 30.

Northwestern Now caught up with four of the Fulbrighters — Keerti Gopal, Dominic Balestrieri-Fox, Daniel Rosenzweig-Ziff and Tara Wu — to hear about their experiences teaching and conducting research internationally over the past year.

Documenting refugee experiences

Daniel Rosenzweig-Ziff, ’21, is currently based in Berlin, where he has been working on a series of stories for The New Humanitarian describing the lived experiences of Syrian refugee families in Germany. He’s met with NGOs, nonprofits and Syrians of all ages in the refugee community there.

Daniel Rosenzweig-Ziff
Daniel Rosenzweig-Ziff

“This project will amplify Syrian voices, illustrate German endeavors to support Syrian refugees and provide valuable information about one of the most crucial issues — forced migration — facing global leaders today,” Rosenzweig-Ziff said. 

As he seeks to understand how Syrian refugees’ experiences can help inform similar situations in the future, Rosenzweig-Ziff said that one of the most rewarding aspects of the Fulbright has been conducting interviews in Arabic, which he studied at Northwestern, and hearing from Syrians directly: “I’ve learned so much about what they’ve experienced here, and how to be a more empathetic listener and reporter,” he said.

Reporting for the project has also allowed him to spend lots of time getting to know refugee families personally, which has led to some unforgettable experiences — like spontaneous knafeh baking. One Sunday, Rosenzweig-Ziff asked a family that he had been interviewing whether the knafeh (a Middle Eastern cheese pastry) sold by a local vendor was any good. 

“They said it wasn’t,” he recalled. “Instead, they said we’d make real knafeh right now.” Despite his insistence that there was no need to go to any trouble, the ingredients were fetched from a store and they were baking knafeh half an hour later. “It was the tastiest, crispiest knafeh I’ve ever had,” Rosenzweig-Ziff said.

Recently, the Medill alum has also been writing about families impacted by Russia’s war against Ukraine as a freelancer for The Washington Post.

Teaching English in Taiwan

Taiwan has made English education a priority, with the goal of having a country that is bilingual in English and Mandarin by 2030. Tara Wu, ’21, has been in Taipei since last summer, where she has been working as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in a public elementary school. 

Tara Wu
Tara Wu

Though her primary goal is giving students and colleagues opportunities to practice their English through classroom instruction, Wu said her work also extends to extracurricular activities. She helps run an English club for sixth-graders; participates in a digital drawing club that is designing stickers of iconic Taiwanese foods for public use in a messaging app called Line; and does a weekly interview with a student on the school’s announcements.

During her time in Taiwan, Wu has also grown as both a teacher and a student of Taiwanese culture. 

“Being here for almost a year, I can get to know people on a different level, see students grow and notice details that illuminate facets of Taiwanese culture,” she said, noting that even simple things like rides on public transportation or visits to the dentist have been learning experiences.

“This Fulbright is my first time teaching (or even interacting with) young students in the classroom, and forming connections with them and watching them grow has been one of the most meaningful parts of my time here,” Wu said.

She recalled one friendly first-grader who had no English ability at the start of the year, but always ran up to say hi and give a hug. Then, one day at the beginning of the second semester, she held up a rubber band and said, “purple!”— making Wu “incredibly proud.”

‘Small acts of kindness’ in Turkey

Dominic Balestrieri-Fox, ’20, knew about Turkey’s beautiful Black Sea coast long before he decided to pursue a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship there. He learned about it as a Northwestern student studying Turkish, and got to know Turkey firsthand after studying abroad in Istanbul.

Dominic Balestrieri-Fox
Dominic Balestrieri-Fox

He spent the spring of 2021 teaching English to graduate students preparing for tests and pre-college students at Black Sea Technical University (Karadeniz Teknik Üniversitesi) in Trabzon — a city, he said, with “stray cats napping in courtyards and vendors selling fresh simit in the morning” and “green mountains that meet the seaside, studded with hazelnut groves and tea gardens.”

“I would make lesson plans and come up with speaking activities with an emphasis on fun, interesting and real-world topics,” he said. “We talked about animals and fables, favorite dishes and current events.”

Balestrieri-Fox’s stay in Trabzon was impacted by the lingering COVID-19 pandemic, but was nevertheless full of small joys that still allowed for the establishment of lifelong friendships. When he wasn’t teaching, Balestrieri-Fox liked to work in the garden at his apartment building, which he developed with help from his landlord Ali’s wife, Derya, and her little girls, İnci and Zeynep. 

“We planted lettuce, parsley, peppers, onions and garlic, eventually growing enough to give away to neighbors,” he recalled. Other memorable experiences included a birthday hike with friends up Mt. Kaçkar to a meadow at 10,000 feet, and walks beyond the edge of town to fields of ferns with views of the ocean.

But it wasn’t the highlights that defined Balestrieri-Fox’s time in Trabzon, he said. “It was the small yet extremely impactful acts of kindness from my friends that made my time there so meaningful.” The people who cared for him while he was sick, helped him navigate the immigration office and spent evenings drinking tea or playing video games, he said, “communicate what I feel is the spirit of the Fulbright Program.”

The Fulbright Student competition is administered at Northwestern through the Office of Fellowships. The Northwestern campus application deadline is always early September for awards that last an academic year. Graduating seniors, alumni and graduate students with U.S. passports are eligible to apply through Northwestern.