Want to pursue a project abroad? Fulbright U.S. Scholar awards can help

Over the past half century, hundreds of Yale faculty, postdocs, and staff have won Fulbright grants for their work abroad.
Sharon Chekijian, Kayhan Nejad, Allie Agati, and Paul Van Tassel

Left to right: Sharon Chekijian, Kayhan Nejad, Allie Agati, and Paul Van Tassel.

As the granddaughter of Armenian genocide survivors, Dr. Sharon Chekijian, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Yale, has long had an interest in her family’s native country. She visited for the first time as a college student in 1991 as part of a summer language program, and learned on her return flight to the United States that the Soviet Union — of which Armenia was then a part — had just collapsed. She was on one of the last planes to leave the country before the collapse.

Ever since, Armenia has been more than a home away from home for Chekijian. Her work in the country has included advising the Armenian medical establishment on how to improve stroke care. And soon she’ll return to the American University of Armenia (AUA), where as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar she’ll help establish an emergency medicine residency program at the school in cooperation with the Armenian Ministry of Heath’s National Institutes of Health over the next three years.

The Fulbright program awards more than 800 fellowships annually to American faculty and higher ed administrators, artists, journalists, scientists, other professionals, and scholars outside of the academy in support of international opportunities. Over the past five decades the program has supported the work of hundreds of Yalies.

Chekijian is grateful for the support. The emergency medicine system in Armenia today, she says, is comparable to that of the United States in the 1960s. “There are no emergency-trained doctors, but there are 700 or so doctors who are working as emergency physicians in the system, some of whom have temporary assignments, such as anesthesia residents,” said Chekijian, who is also medical director of the Yale New Haven Hospital Physician Assistant/Nurse Practitioner Residency Program. “There’s no dedicated emergency medicine training program, but some of the doctors have dedicated their lives to this field.

The idea behind my project is to make sure that they are up to speed, that they have all of the knowledge that they need, and then to establish them as the faculty members going forward who will teach other people this discipline as part of a more formal training program.”

Since it was established in 1946, the Fulbright Program, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, has awarded some 8,000 different grants annually to U.S. students, foreign students, and U.S. and foreign visiting scholars. Its U.S. Scholar Program allows educators, researchers, and other professionals to teach, conduct research, or do both in over 135 countries worldwide. Most awards are for a period of two months to one year, and are given on the merits of the research or teaching project.

Since the program’s inception, Fulbright U.S. Scholars from Yale have traveled to such countries as China, Israel, Chile, Ghana, Panama, and New Zealand (to name just a few) to teach or to conduct research in fields as diverse as theater arts, sociology, environmental sciences, law, music, psychology, agriculture, neuroscience, and religious studies. Typically, about three or four Yale faculty members and postdocs win Fulbright U.S. Scholar awards each year.

Yale’s Fulbright scholars strengthen the university's global engagement and make important contributions to international understanding,” said Pericles Lewis, Yale’s vice president for global strategy and vice provost for academic initiatives. “I encourage faculty and students to consider applying to the Fulbright program.”

For Paul Van Tassel, professor of chemical and environmental engineering and of biomedical engineering in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, who has won the Fulbright U.S. Scholar award twice, the opportunity has allowed him to conduct research at two different institutions in France about a dozen years apart.

With his first award, in 2006, Van Tassel spent six months at the Université Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg, France, where he was able to work in a laboratory with researchers he had collaborated with briefly as a postdoctoral student in the mid-1990s. His research at that time was focused on fabricating thin polymer films that could be used as coatings for biomedical applications.

This was really my first time interacting with them as a peer, and it was a wonderful experience,” he said. “Being able to live and work with the team really cemented a relationship between my lab and theirs, and exposed me to many of their interesting projects.”

During his second visit, in 2019, Van Tassel worked in a pharmacology lab at the University of Paris-Saclay, where he researched polymer systems to deliver therapeutic agents. He also had the opportunity to lecture informally and to serve as a mentor to postdoctoral students at the school.

With these experiences, you of course have the opportunity to interact with colleagues from a different culture,” he said. “But you are also seeing up close the different systems within which these individuals work: how other places manage and administer science and education is really eye opening. Such a perspective helps you not only to develop your own intellectual trajectory, but also to gain a better appreciation of other ways of doing things.”

And the program doesn’t just support faculty. In 2019, Allie Agati, senior associate director of Yale Study Abroad, participated in a Fulbright International Education Administrators seminar, a two-week program designed for staff members at higher education institutions who work in the international education sector to help them connect with societal, cultural, and higher education systems in other countries. As a Fulbright U.S. Scholar, she traveled to South Korea, where she visited more than a dozen universities to learn about the country’s education system.

While her Fulbright experience was not directly related to her daily work advising students on study abroad opportunities in Spain, Latin America, or the Middle East, participating in the program was one of Agati’s own professional development goals. It was her first trip to Korea, and the Fulbright program specifically preferred applicants with no prior experiences in Korea.

Being able to speak with and learn from those who work in the same field but have a different approach to how they encourage students to seek out their own study abroad opportunities, or support them when they come to their campuses, was really valuable,” she said. “And I appreciated learning more about Korean culture in general.”

Shortly after earning his Ph.D. at Yale last year, Kayhan Nejad, a historian of the Middle East and Russia, flew to Turkey to begin his academic year-long stay as a Fulbright U.S. Scholar. He is currently serving as a senior research scholar at the Sabanci University in Istanbul.

Nejad is especially interested in the topic of 20th-century revolutions, comparing those in Russia, Iran, and Turkey, and examining how those three nations have supported each other’s state-building projects. He’d conducted archival research for his dissertation in Moscow as a student, but was unable to travel to the Middle East to conduct research because of the COVID pandemic. His Fulbright award is now giving him the opportunity to investigate Turkish archives as he prepares a monograph for submission to an academic press.

I’m currently working in the Ottoman archives primarily, and I’m gathering Turkish-, Persian-, and Russian-language documents that are pertinent to the relations of all three states in the early 20th century,” he said. “I’m reconstructing how revolutionaries moved between those states and collaborated with each other.”

In addition to his days conducting research, Nejad, an amateur mountaineer, is also enjoying climbing in Turkey, a hobby that has introduced him to many Turks who share his interest. He has also joined with Turkish neighbors in caring for stray animals in the city.

Likewise, Agati said that her time traveling around Korea and getting to know traditions around food and other cultural aspects of life in the country was a special part of her time there. Learning how the South Koreans handle life in the context of geopolitical tensions with North Korea, she said, was especially illuminating.

For Chekijian, her travels in Armenia have given her an opportunity to see a nation that is still in the process of building itself as an independent state, even as it remains vulnerable to conflict. While her Fulbright award was granted in 2020, she had to postpone her travel to Armenia because of the Nagorno-Karabakh (known to Armenians as Artsakh) war that year, when there was an armed conflict with Azerbaijan, supported by Turkey, over the ethnically Armenian Republic of Artsakh.

It has been exciting to witness the building of the country,” she said. “I’ve also been lucky to find great partners there with whom to do this deep work of establishing an emergency medicine training program.”

Traditionally, there is not a lot of money for global health research other than for research about infectious diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis, and, most recently, COVID,” she added. “Getting support for work in emergency systems development is pretty challenging, so I am very grateful to receive this award.”

The Fulbright U.S. Scholars Program is now accepting applications for the next round of awards. Visit their website for more information. Faculty members with questions may also contact leslie.powell@yale.edu.

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