A Pivotal Year

For Scripps alumnae, Fulbright and Watson fellowships provide life-changing experiences

by Amy Derbedrosian

Illustrations by Janice Chang

They start with an ambition: Examine how journalism is produced in countries with different government structures and political climates. Assess the impact of ecotourism on island ecosystems. Explore how opera companies enable people with disabilities to fully experience a live performance. Test their language skills while teaching in another country. Then they go out into the world to pursue their projects, ready for education and adventures made possible by the prestigious Fulbright and Thomas J. Watson fellowship programs. The Fulbright program, created in 1946, is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government. New and recent college graduates participate through the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, which offers advanced research, graduate study, and teaching opportunities in more than 140 countries. They become part of an accomplished community of Fulbrighters—the organization’s preferred term for the students, college and university faculty and administrators, and professionals who receive fellowships—that has grown to more than 360,000 members. While students in the Fulbright program typically affiliate with an educational institution, Watson fellowship recipients are required to function in an unfamiliar country completely on their own. The 50-year-old Watson program is solely for graduating seniors nominated by 40 partner schools, most of them liberal arts colleges like Scripps, and it funds a year of what is described as “purposeful, independent exploration” outside the United States. In practice, that means Watson fellows determine what they will do, where they will go, and whether to change course along the way. Scripps graduates have been notably successful in attaining these renowned fellowships. They are regularly represented among each year’s Watson winners, and the total number of alumnae awarded Fulbright fellowships now exceeds 100. More than 80 of these Fulbright fellowships have gone to Scripps graduates of the past decade, including a single-year record of 14 in 2012. Their achievements give Scripps a regular place on the list of the top-25 producers of Fulbrighters among bachelor’s institutions. Though impressive, these numbers exclude what is most significant about Fulbright and Watson fellowships: their impact. Surveys of recipients have shown that they nearly universally believe the program gave them a deeper understanding of international concerns and American society. For many, the fellowship also provided clarity about a career direction. In one survey, 93 percent of respondents agreed that their Fulbright year was life-changing, and more than 90 percent have reported increased self-confidence because of their experience.


A Stepping Stone In Global Health 

Among those from Scripps who echo that sentiment is Katie Lesyna-Mlaponi ’12. She says, “The Fulbright experience is an incredible privilege and an opportunity that not many people are able to have. It significantly influenced my life, professionally and personally, and I will be forever grateful.” Katie Lesyna-Mlaponi ’12 had been interested in global health since high school and knew even before attending Scripps that she wanted to pursue a master’s degree in the field. As an undergraduate, she studied abroad in Kenya and volunteered as a campus and in-country coordinator for Support for International Change (SIC), a nongovernmental organization focused on reducing the impact of HIV/AIDS in northern Tanzania. Nonetheless, Lesyna-Mlaponi knew she had more to learn. “The Fulbright gave me an opportunity to return to Tanzania, delve deeper into issues that interested me, and learn more about the country,” she explains. “It was also a stepping stone to my continuing work in global health.”

For her Fulbright project, Lesyna-Mlaponi researched the experience of the disclosure process for children at a pediatric clinic in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s most populated city, who were born with HIV, and for the caregivers who tell them that they are HIV-positive. She also took classes in the Master of Public Health program at Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences.”The Fulbright certainly gave me perspective and experiences that made my master’s program more meaningful and relevant,” she says. “Would I still be doing global health work without the Fulbright? Yes, but it probably wouldn’t look the same as it does today.” Lesyna-Mlaponi completed a Master of Science in Global Health at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), in 2016. While in graduate school, she worked with UCSF’s Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health and coauthored a paper on the role of human rights litigation in improving access to reproductive healthcare and reducing maternal mortality. Now she draws on her experiences in global health as the country director for Thrive Afya Tanzania. She cofounded the nonprofit organization with Tanzanian colleagues she met through SIC—including her husband, who serves as operations manager.” Unfortunately, SIC had to close in 2015, so five of us decided to start a new organization that would fill the gap in HIV/AIDS services and expand to include reproductive and maternal health services,” explains Lesyna-Mlaponi. To date, their primary work has involved HIV/AIDS services. Thrive Afya Tanzania offers mobile HIV testing and care and treatment centers, as well as reproductive health service days for youths. “I think we’ve made a tremendous impact so far, especially considering our size and limited funding. We’ve been able to identify risk areas and are designing programs to help reduce the impact of HIV in communities,” says Lesyna-Mlaponi. “We love what we do and hope to expand our programs to have a larger impact on the people we care about so much.”

A New Form Of Storytelling 

Kyle Delbyck ’09 once envisioned becoming a playwright, but she is now a storyteller of a different kind. Hers are tales of conflict, expressing the experiences of victims of violence and war crimes. Delbyck lives and works in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where she has served as a legal consultant to the nongovernmental organization TRIAL International, the European Women’s Lobby, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. “I’m doing the same thing I did for my Watson fellowship: interviewing people, gathering their stories, and giving voice to those experiences. Only now I’m writing advocacy reports,” says Delbyck, whose projects have included a report mapping the stigmatization of victims of sexual violence during court hearings and a sentencing guide for judges involved in these cases. Delbyck’s own story has unfolded in ways she hadn’t expected.

A history major at Scripps, she had intended to spend her Watson year exploring the relationship between dramatic presentations and historical amnesia in Lithuania, Taiwan, Cambodia, and Ghana. Both her plan and destinations quickly changed: Delbyck instead focused on how countries respond to and educate their people about their past conflicts. She traveled to Taiwan and Cambodia, but also to Cyprus, Bosnia, and Argentina.”That was how I became interested in transitional justice. I saw the impact it had on narratives and oncountries. I realized that gathering and disseminating stories isn’t limited to a creative field, and that one way I could do this was in a legal context,” she says. “I found something I really enjoyed during my Watson year and turned that into a career.” She went on to Yale Law School, participating in its international human rights clinic and serving as co-leader of a student organization providing research and writing assistance to the Cambodian war crimes court. Summer fellowships enabled Delbyck to join the prosecutor’s office at the Cambodian tribunal and a human rights group addressing past conflict in Northern Ireland. She has also worked with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. “The two countries I’ve spent the most time in since graduating from law school, Bosnia and Cambodia, are those I visited during my Watson year,” says Delbyck. “Going into that year, I had never traveled alone before. I came out of it so much more independent, self-sufficient, and just braver. Now I feel so confident setting out to a new place. I know anything is surmountable.”

A Stake In Marine Environments 

The time Samantha Cheng ’09 spent in Bali involved scuba diving, snorkeling, and floating in the ocean at night. But Cheng’s Fulbright fellowship year was no extended vacation: she was there to research the tiny mantis shrimp that live in the rubble and rocks of coral reefs, work that included studying their dispersal pattern and how they
use different habitats. Cheng was interested in using genetic methods to better
understand marine biodiversity and inform conservation planning. She notes that the mantis shrimp is an organism that tends to respond first to environmental change. During her time at Scripps, Cheng had studied organismal biology and ecology and participated in summer research in Indonesia with Paul Barber, who is currently a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Both experiences inspired her Fulbright project. “I wanted to engage in more hands-on research, and I was interested in the ways in which we could understand marine ecosystems and how people depend on them,” she explains. Cheng arrived in Indonesia with logistical issues, limited skill in the language, and an immediate need to develop relationships with locals.

Despite these impediments, she says, “The experience of talking to fishermen and learning from them helped shape my ability to culturally examine conservation challenges. I also have an understanding of why conservation is complicated—we need to preserve ecosystems while ensuring sustainable development and livelihoods—that I wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise.” She would return to Indonesia to continue her research for six more years. Professor Barber became her advisor at UCLA, where she earned a PhD in 2015. Now Cheng is an assistant research professor at Arizona State University and associate director for conservation evidence at its Center for Biodiversity Outcomes.

“The Fulbright was probably the most challenging and necessary experience for me to become the scientist I am today,” she says. Cheng has continued to explore marine biodiversity, examining squid rather than mantis shrimp. Also interested in seafood sustainability, she coauthored an attention-getting study that involved using DNA barcoding to reveal the extent of seafood mislabeling in restaurants. But her primary focus remains the links between human communities and marine ecosystems. “This involves translating, communicating, and creating scientific knowledge into policy guidance for conservation organizations, foundations, and government agencies to find a way for both humans and nature to win,” she explains. “It’s a natural progression of my work in Indonesia.”

A Professional Path Through Research 

At Scripps, Melissa Mesinas ’12 explored the Zapotec community, her own ancestral group from Oaxaca, Mexico. When it came time to choose a Fulbright project, however, she was ready to learn about another indigenous population. That led Mesinas to Puno, Peru, home to the Quechua and Aymara people and the Universidad Nacional del Altiplano. “I wanted to pursue my interest in a new context. Peru attracted me because I wanted to go to a country where I could speak the language fluently,” says Mesinas, who also studied abroad in Seville, Spain, during her junior year at Scripps.In Puno, Mesinas participated in the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Program, leading language classes and helping to develop and teach the university’s first Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) preparation classes.

But the research she did in Peru for Claremont Graduate University Professor William Pérez proved most meaningful. Mesinas completed interviews and conducted surveys addressing the educational attainment and identity development of youths in the local indigenous communities. “I appreciated research in a new light and affirmed that I was competent in it,” she says. “This led me to think seriously about going to graduate school.” Mesinas became a PhD student at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education in 2015. Her doctoral
research is bringing her back to the Zapotec indigenous population, this time to examine the learning experiences and development of youth participating in a philharmonic band traditional to the Oaxacan community in her hometown of Lynwood, California. “My dissertation aims to understand what this education means to them, whether they’re internalizing cultural practices, and whether it has an impact on their development, such as well-being and motivation,” explains Mesinas. “I’m trying to shine more light into the culture and how we think about education.”

As for her plans after finishing her own education, Mesinas says, “A faculty position at an institution like Scripps is most appealing to me at this point. I love the feel of a small liberal arts college and the opportunities to develop relationships with students. I also want to do public service, to have an ongoing relationship with the community. That’s the kind of professor I envision myself becoming.”

A Happy Ending In Picture Books

Jessica Lanan ’06 made sculpture her primary medium as a studio art major at Scripps. But watercolor was the more portable option when Lanan headed off for her Watson fellowship year, traveling to Japan, Thailand, Laos, and India to explore each country’s folktale traditions and delve more deeply into illustration.”I had always loved illustrated picture books and fairy tales. I was studying Japanese and exploring Asian cultures, so I thought I’d combine everything. Partly, I wanted to go on an adventure,” says Lanan, whose senior thesis advisor, Professor of Art Susan Rankaitis, had encouraged her to apply for a Watson fellowship. Today, Lanan is a Colorado-based illustrator of picture
books who works exclusively in watercolor.

The first book she both wrote and illustrated, The Fisherman and the Whale, will be published in 2019, as will Just Right: Searching for the Goldilocks Planet, the first she has illustrated for a major publisher. “The Watson fellowship completely changed the trajectory of my life. I don’t know if I would have tried to become a picture book illustrator without it,” she says.Traveling alone in Asia, Lanan used her sketchbook to connect with local people, particularly when they lacked a common language. She recalls, “I was excited about using pictures to communicate when you don’t have words.”

Lanan also discovered how folktales reflect their cultures. She notes that characters in Japanese stories are typically rewarded for proper behavior, many Indian folktales are based in religion, and some Thai stories are influenced by those of India but given happier endings.Most of all, she learned about her own capabilities. She explains, “I grew up a lot on the trip. I had to be self-reliant and independent and solve problems creatively. The experience taught me that I could do things I didn’t expect I could.”

She returned home grateful for the privileges of her own life and appreciative of the kindnesses of people with far less. In addition, she says, “I came back thinking that nothing was more fun than traveling around and illustrating stories.” It took nearly a decade for Lanan to make illustration a full-time career. Now, though, she not only has two picture books ready for publication but also two more in progress. “They take a long time,” she says. “It’s like doing a mini-Watson every time. Nonfiction books in particular require a ton of research, and I’ve even gone on trips.”

A Faculty Fullbrighter Goes To Poland

Students aren’t the only Fulbrighters at Scripps. Their professors have also merited the fellowships.The latest is Keck Science Department Associate Professor of Biology Gretchen Edwalds-Gilbert. She is currently in Poland as a visiting faculty member and researcher at the University of Warsaw Institute for Genetics and Biotechnology. “It was a dream of mine to do a Fulbright,” says Edwalds-Gilbert, who succeeded as a first-time applicant.

“You get to live abroad for a year, make new colleagues, and learn new methodologies.” She hopes to incorporate what she learns into her classes and molecular biology lab when she returns to Claremont and create opportunities for students to also go to Warsaw. “I think it would be a great experience for students to live there and do research,” she says.