Two students discussed their after-college adventures with Education Update: Sam Koplewicz, who recently completed the Fulbright program in Croatia, and Rachel Gellert, a senior at NYU who is applying for a Fulbright scholarship in Malaysia.
Dr. Pola Rosen, Publisher of Education Update: Can you tell us something about your adventures abroad?
Sam Koplewicz, Brown University alumnus (SK): My research as a Fulbright scholar was on the change in money laundering law enforcement in Croatia as they join the EU, officially in July 2013. What’s also great about the Fulbright experience is that it gives you enough flexibility to work not only on your research, but to get involved in a community. It’s really about soft diplomacy; it’s about interacting with people that you wouldn’t necessarily interact with, not having the best research project at the end of your time.
PR: Why did you choose that topic?
SK: I concentrated at Brown in Public Policy. I had been to Croatia once before my semester abroad. I had an incredible experience, and the following year I was working at the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations. I was having a discussion with the head lawyer of the group, and we were talking about different projects that might make sense for Fulbright. She mentioned that money laundering is an issue [in Croatia]. I spent some time working on the issue and it seemed to be a nice fit.
PR: Rachel, would you tell us about what you would like to do abroad? How did you happen to pick Malaysia?
Rachel Gellert, NYU senior (RG): I’m applying to the English teaching assistantship; you apply to a country and Fulbright places you in a school. It’s that same emphasis on soft diplomacy; having a lot of one-on-one interactions that you can then bring back to the US. Choosing Malaysia was a long decision-making process for me. In Malaysia, Fulbright gives you the opportunity to work with elementary school students. I have a lot of experience working with kids and I knew that if I were in a class with children I would be happy. I ended up choosing Malaysia a lot of different reasons, including the diversity there. Malaysia is an Islamic country by law, but it’s actually very religiously and ethnically diverse. It’s also going through a lot of democratic turmoil, and it has a really interesting history of independence and political inclinations. I’ve studied politics and social policy with a focus on the development of democracy and women’s health; a lot of issues that are being discussed in Malaysia right now.
PR: Sam, you’re planning to go to law school after deferring for a year?
SK: Yes, I’ve been accepted to Harvard Law, and they are very flexible about deferment. My plan is to move to Buenos Aires and learn Spanish, which is definitely influenced by my time abroad. I realized that it is important to know other languages in order to both interact with and see other cultures. I’ve also had an interest in film so I’m taking this opportunity to do both of those things.
PR: What are the benefits for students; why should they consider studying abroad, or a Fulbright? What did it do for you?
RG: A year ago, I spent six weeks in Madrid studying Spanish, and the following fall semester in Buenos Aires. When I came back to New York after those experiences it was really eye-opening on a lot of levels. It’s a big risk to go abroad and to a place you’ve never been before where the culture, language and religion are very different from yours, but while it’s definitely nerve-racking, there is so much to gain. It made me more confident going forward and taking risks, and questioning exactly what I want to do. There’s a lot of emphasis in education in this country to go from A to B to C in a specific well planned-out manner. In Spain and especially in South America the culture is much more laid-back and you’re encouraged to look at a few different options and none of it has to happen right away. It made me say that I can set my own course take risks, go back abroad and meet new people. It opens a lot of doors that you didn’t see beforehand.
SK: I studied abroad in Berlin, and it was an incredible experience. When I came home, I could look at my life from an outsider’s perspective. I was able to come back to my community and see what I liked and didn’t like. When I returned to school I was able to reassess the importance of being at school and what I was trying to get out of it. My years in school after going abroad were much better than before because I had more direction knew what I wanted to do and that was based mainly on my experience abroad. This last year [on the Fulbright scholarship,] I started to really live in Zagreb, Croatia. I really felt at home. What was most powerful for me was that I was able to connect with the community in a larger scale than it is easy for me to do here. I could talk to anyone and have conversations about people’s lives that I would never be able to hear in any other context. Being a foreigner it puts you in this special place where you don’t have any ties and people are willing to open their doors, their minds, their lives to you and it’s very moving and also a great experience.
PR: Are there any lessons that we, in our education system in the United States, can learn from the countries you’ve been to, or the schools that you’ve seen?
RG: The first thing that jumps to my mind is the language component. I went to public school in rural New York and started learning Spanish in seventh and eighth grade, and didn’t get much out of it. The emphasis wasn’t on learning the language, it was about completing whatever curriculum we had to and it’s immediately out of your head once you leave the classroom, whereas in Buenos Aires and in Spain, classes are bilingual in elementary school. Knowing English and Spanish gives you incredible opportunities. I think we’re really lacking that [in U.S. public education.] SK: I realized that Americans are much more focused on America and not really aware about the world around them than it seems most other citizens of most other countries are. I think this is a bad thing for America in the future. It’s resulted in our citizenry not being aware enough to make decisions in how our foreign affairs work. Meanwhile, the world is growing smaller and smaller. I think that that’s one of the major differences and flaws in the U.S. education system, or maybe the culture.
PR: Where did you live when each of you were abroad?
RG: When I was in Madrid, I lived in a home with one older woman and six other girls from my program. It was nice to be with English speakers, but there wasn’t really a lot of interaction with our host mother, which I really missed. When I came to Buenos Aires I lived in an apartment in an area that was really beautiful, very affluent, close to stores and restaurants, which was also great. But in the beginning I would’ve liked to be in [your average] homestay, both for the language and cultural component.
SK: When I was in Berlin, the program put us in dorms with other students from throughout the United States, which was pretty good. This last year I found a very small apartment right in the center of the city. Utilities included, I was spending a little bit more than $300 [a month]. For students there, that’s a lot of money. The average income is about $1,000 a month. The Fulbright program gave about $2,000.
PR: Throughout both of your lives you have been concerned about improving the lives of others, and that seems to have carried over into your life as young adults and what you’d like to do in the future. Can you elaborate?
RG: I feel really lucky because I figured out really early on what it’s like to feel passionate about something. [Through founding a program to benefit children with muscular dystrophy] I got to see what it means to actually do something, to really make a difference. I learned really early on that that’s worthwhile. I got to do a little bit of youth coordinating, which really started the flame for what I want to do now. To be able to work with young people, talk about social action and what you can do if you’re passionate about something, and to see that little light turn on in their eyes; it’s one of the most rewarding things I have ever experienced. I went to NYU and I wanted to study politics as a tool to create change, and it evolved into a study of social policy, which has been the basis of what I want to do now. I’m hoping to stay at NYU for a fifth year and get a master’s in Public Administration. If I get into that program they’ll allow me to defer for a year and that’s when I’d like to do Fulbright.
PR: Sam, how about you? Even as a little kid, you’ve always been interested in helping people around the world.
SK: I’m not really sure which direction I want to go in. I still have that passion you were talking about, and I think that it has something to do with being a Holocaust survivor’s grandchild. On my semester abroad in Germany we took a day trip to a concentration camp. I was speaking to a coordinator for the program, he was German and he mentioned how guilty he felt being there. It made me realize that what happened in the Holocaust isn’t about my grandfather but that humans were treating other humans in this really inhumane way. That’s one of the things that has driven me, and made me more open-minded about who I wanted to help, and also passionate about preventing those kind of incidents in the future. #