Loren Carrillo arrived to our interview article bounding up the Hemmingson staircase, skateboard in hand. James Vair arrived carrying an intricately crafted green bowl and happily announced he had just come from ceramics class.
The two Gonzaga University seniors have not only both been accepted to be Fulbright scholars, but will be members of the same program, teaching English to middle school students in Taiwan.
The Fulbright U.S. Student Program is the largest U.S. exchange program and offers research, study and teaching opportunities in over 140 countries worldwide to recent college graduates and graduate students. Currently, the program awards around 2,000 grants each year in all fields of study. Being such a globally acclaimed program also makes Fulbright a prestigious one, with a general acceptance rate of only 20%.
While not knowing where exactly his future would take him, Vair knew from a young age that it would revolve around the pursuit of discovering new cultures.
“It all goes back to when I was younger and I watched the Japanese cartoon called Dragon Ball Z. Long story short, I was inspired by it,” he said. “The artwork is so different, the culture is so different and I was a nerd so I went on YouTube and did a bunch of research and found out the martial arts, in it were based on Chinese martial arts. Initially I started learning about martial arts but to understand the martial arts I needed to learn more about the medicine, the culture, the philosophy, and basically I just went down this spiral of wanting to learn Chinese culture.”
Vair is self-taught in mandarin and is studying psychology with a research concentration but has a specific interest in cultural psychology.
Ultimately it was this desire to learn about the world beyond him that led him to Fulbright, and specifically the Taiwan program. Both Vair and Carrillo will spend their time in Taiwan working as English teaching assistants (ETA’s).
Carillo’s journey to Fulbright was different than Vair’s in the sense that it was more unexpected. In fact, it was essentially a last minute decision.
“Fulbright’s mission and what they do is really intriguing to me, but it wasn’t something I was thinking about for a long time,” Carrillo said. “I applied maybe two weeks before the deadline.”
The application process included two recommendation letters, interviews and two essays, among many other components.
“The essay prompts ask such big questions, but they ask you to answer them in one page,” Carrillo said. “So how do I tell Fulbright that I am Fulbright material, that I have experience being a teacher that I have experience being a good student, and who I am, all in one page?
In addition to the rigor of the application process, both students acknowledged the competitive nature of the program.
“I knew it was very challenging and competitive,” Vair said. “I have a mentor in the masters of teaching English as a second language program, James Hunter. He had a lot of confidence in me to be able to do it, so that gave me more confidence throughout the whole process.”
Hunter said his duty as a mentor to GU’s Fulbright applicants is “to help them craft their statements — they have very limited space to make a case for why they want an ETA position, and so it has to be both interesting and coherent. I’ve served in Fulbright National Screening Committees three times and we have to read 70-89 statements and score them, rank them, and then reach consensus (usually there are three members, from a variety of institutions) as to who to recommend. As you can imagine, given that each application is 20 pages or more, we cannot spend a lot of time on each one, so it has to make an impact.”
After sending in their applications, both students anxiously awaited the arrival of their results.
“I was basically just waiting for them to tell me I didn’t get it, and then they told me I got it on March 11, my birthday,” Carrillo said.
When asked what they thought set them apart in the application process, and contributed to their acceptance to the program, it was the first instinct of both Carrillo and Vair to remain very humble. It was only further into the conversation that they began to offer more details about what makes them stand out in such tremendous ways.
“I think it is mostly because I know so much about the culture, its not just some sort of fantasy. Its interesting because I’ve studied cultural psychology and I’ve found that I’ve learned these new cultural scripts’ that make me act differently than how a typical American might act,” Vair said.
Carrillo believes it is both his background and his roots that have played a huge role in all that he will bring to Fulbright.
“I am a city boy from Tacoma, which is not only an up and coming city, but Tacoma is a part of my identity. I have three generations of family in Tacoma on my mom’s side, on my dad’s side, my grandpa is from Mexico and we have native on that side as well,” Carrillo said. “Tacoma has always been this multiethnic, multicultural rock of who I am. With that comes a grit and an admiration for cultural diversity and a curiosity for it. I think that Fulbright’s mission aligns with mine which is sharing information and sharing stories across borders. Even if its about what its like to be a multiethnic city boy from Tacoma.”
In the future, Vair hopes to live in China or Taiwan long term. He has plans to eventually get his doctorate in either cultural psychology, philosophy or leadership studies and is interested in one day pursuing a career in higher education.
Carrillo said his long term plans are to develop a nonprofit that helps low income students travel abroad. As for his plans directly after the 11-month Fulbright program, he is open to whatever unique opportunities come his way, but ideally would love to explore his passion for storytelling.
“Treating relationships as currency is an idea I really resonate with,” Carrillo said. “Not treating them as currency in a capitalistic sense, but I value them above many things. If I am ruining relationships than I’m hurting myself. I value relationships and I want to know how I can use that piece of me to start some sort of career in storytelling.”
Vair said he would strongly encourage other GU students to apply for opportunities like Fulbright.
“There is a certain irony with Gonzaga, we have this huge office for the Center for Global Engagement which I also work in,” he said. “Being global is such a huge thing that Gonzaga talks about, but its not really in the American mindset, and I feel like its not really in the Gonzaga mindset besides advertising. I want to encourage students to engage with international students and have a global mindset in the way that they want to learn languages, learn about new cultures, and expand the way they see the world.”