Two Fulbright ETA Brazil Alumni on Their Experiences and Tips

Aug 05, 2020 • Views 493
Connie (fourth from left) with other Fulbright mentors and the Brazilian Fulbright Commission

The Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) places recent college graduates and young professionals from the United States in classrooms around the world to facilitate the teaching of English. The one-year fellowship, which has opportunities in over 70 countries, is designed to foster intercultural understanding and communication through an immersive cultural experience. In addition to their teaching roles, ETAs serve as ambassadors for the U.S., sharing their culture and forming relationships with residents of their host country. The ages and English abilities of students vary significantly by country and applicants can apply to one country per application.

We enjoyed talking to two Fulbright ETAs to Brazil, Samuel Hickson and Connie Vilomar, who gave us some valuable insights into the program and helpful application tips!

1. What inspired you to apply for the Fulbright ETA in Brazil?

Samuel: As a double major in Hispanic Studies and Theater & Dance Studies, a Fulbright teaching English in a Latin or South American country was a prestigious post-grad opportunity. An ETA position in Brazil seemed possible, as I felt that with my knowledge of Spanish, I would be able to learn Portuguese fairly quickly. I was excited at the prospect of learning a new language from scratch by interacting with native speakers from the very beginning. I didn’t go into the fellowship with very solid goals, but I broadly hoped to gain a better understanding of my place in the world as a white English-speaking American.

Connie: I have moved around the world, which has contributed to my interest in understanding and learning about new cultures and their impact on the rest of the world. I was an exchange student in Brazil my junior year of college. I was looking to learn a new language and immerse myself in a new culture. I completely fell in love with Brazil (its people, the language, the nature, the music, their “jeito de viver”- essentially absolutely everything). I decided I needed to find a way to go back to Brazil after college graduation, but this time with an even bigger purpose – as a Fulbright Fellow. 

Fulbright offers the chance for educational expansion, rich networking opportunities as well as the freedom to truly make your exchange unique for you and for the host country and its citizens. Fulbright allowed me to immerse fully in Brazilian culture but also invited me to create a bridge between my own heritage and culture with their own, through education, day to day life and interactions with Brazilian communities. Fulbright is selective but not inaccessible and for that I am grateful because it gives everyone that is willing to put in the work towards the application a chance to showcase their abilities to succeed in a foreign country and create a foundation for future cultural & educational exchanges.

Sam Hickson (far right) with other Fulbright Brazil ETAs in São Luis

2. What did you enjoy most about your fellowship? 

Samuel: My time in Brazil was one of the most challenging experiences of my life thus far. Oftentimes, the challenge of living entirely in another language and culture is empowering and exciting. Other times, it can quickly overwhelm you and remind you just how far away you are from familiarity. As an ETA, there were times when my role was expanded so that I was the only teacher in the room. My colleagues and I learned the importance of advocating for ourselves relentlessly to ensure that we were staying within the requirements of our role. There were very few English-speakers in our region, and this improved my communication not only in Portuguese but also in making myself understood in English when I needed to. I think this has translated well to my professional life as I work to prioritize clear communication and expectations.

The most enjoyment came when I directed a play as part of a Special Topics course of English and Portuguese Literature students. As a student of language learning and performance, this was something I really wanted to devote my time to. Over the course of a semester, we went through the entire process of putting on a show, from an initial read-through, casting, blocking scenes, organizing costumes and props, and finally setting up the small auditorium our university had as a theater. The play was directed in Portuguese and English but performed in English as I wanted to prove to other professors and administration that our students were able to overcome their shyness when speaking in English. My co-professor on that project was hands-off but very supportive. As opening night loomed closer, he encouraged me to take a step back and treat this play as more of a creative exercise. Funny enough, he didn’t speak English and acknowledged that most of our audience couldn’t either. He saw that it wasn’t necessarily the content of the play that mattered, but rather the camaraderie, dedication, and follow-through of the students.

The wonderful actors in Sam’s play clapping and giving thanks to their Technical Director, Letycia

3. How has the fellowship experience influenced your current work? 

Connie:  I have always been interested in learning languages, exploring and contributing to new communities, public interest as well as diplomacy and law. Through Fulbright, I was able to nurture all my interests and create new ones. Being a Fulbright Fellow leaked into all my work endeavors and future career goals.

I currently work as a  Language of Destination Flight Attendant for a global airline. I am marinating on the idea of law school at the moment. I also volunteer in my community teaching and mentoring middle school and high school children with an organization called StreetSquash. I also am starting training to be a court-appointed advocate for CASA NY,  as an advocate for children in the foster care system. I have used my Portuguese skills for work and for volunteering with organizations like Advocates for Human Rights (human trafficking projects as a translator). I have also worked in conflict resolution organizations in New York City, like the International Institute for Conflict Prevention & Resolution (in the Brazil branch). In addition, I have been gifted with a network of Fulbright fellows for life. It is a diverse community from culturally rich backgrounds, careers and interests. I always take on any opportunity to engage with the Brazilian community away from Brazil. You can find me dancing to Brazilian music or eating petiscos at events in New York City and around the world.

Before the fellowship, I was working as a Senior Client Housing Advocate in a nonprofit organization called CAMBA. I have always been involved with human rights and public service. 

During the first year of the fellowship, I was in the English Literature and North American English language departments hosting workshops and supplementing classes for college students. On the side, I would edit book excerpts from some of the professors and hold cultural interactive classes for students in between and after classes.  I interned at the International Relations Secretariat in order to create alternatives to encourage cultural exchange among students through social media. I researched the impact of social media on second language acquisition. I made some lifelong friends, mastered my Portuguese skills, learned about many music and cultural aspects of living in a small Brazilian college town, among many life lessons. 

My second year as a Fulbright fellow I worked as a mentor, where I oversaw 11 mentees that were placed in various cities in the north of Brazil. I was placed in the Brazilian Amazon in a city called Belém, in the state of Pará. That year, I taught English to university students, but my role was more focused on offering support to my mentees inside and outside of work, during their first year as Fulbright fellows. In my free time, I joined with human rights activists and attorneys like Lorena Fabeni from the Restorative Justice against Domestic Violence Organization (in the city of Marabá), to take on a field research project on conflict and domestic violence as a concept in the Brazilian Amazon and its indigenous communities. I co-hosted English teaching workshops with one of my mentees, Kimberly Waters, to encourage community teachers and professors to continue fighting the good fight and also to share and exchange resources. 

Both years were truly life-changing. The Brazilian Fulbright commission was supportive in making sure I was challenged and faced with enriching experiences that definitely nourished my constant sense of awe, curiosity for new spaces and knowledge but also held space for me to nurture my own skills and interests.

I learned that learning languages will always be an asset, no matter how many apps or google translations we are able to develop. There is something important in the human social interaction and in the ability to make communication more efficient and sensitive to culture, recognizing our global differences, distinct cultures and histories. I also realized that working with the people and the community is where the learning is, it is where the authenticity of a country lies. It is truly where I learned the most; speaking and listening to Brazilians always took me further. I also learned that taking initiative for a bigger purpose usually pans out positively: it is important to remain curious and to be proactive with your learning, but to remain completely open to others’ ways of life as valid and just as nurturing as our own.

Connie (front row, second from left) with her mentees during her second year in Brazil

3. What tips would you give others applying to the Fulbright ETA Fellowship?

Samuel: The main tip I would give to another prospective Fulbright ETA would be that Fulbright is not traditionally looking for ESL professionals. They’re looking for individuals that have proven that they can adapt quickly to new and challenging situations. My two co-ETAs in Imperatriz are some of the most resilient people I know; this is a factor the decision-making team considers when choosing future ETAs.

Connie: There are no guarantees for selection because Fulbright is continuously seeking individuals from diverse backgrounds that bring about innovative and feasible projects. It might sound generic, but being yourself and letting your passion and achievements come through all over your application helps. I believe there should also be an openness to learn, to adapt and willingness to learn about the differences (and similarities) of your host country as a fellow. Being a Fulbright fellow is a two-way street; it is about exchange and openness. I would advise starting the application process early in order to have time to edit as many times as possible, but also to make sure it is all cohesive with the rest of the application. No typos! My application was very honest and humble and I showed my deep connection with Brazil. I suggest choosing recommenders that truly understand your ability to make the most of the full experience. 

Make it a fun application and believe in your life story. Believe in the potential you bring to your host country as a Fulbright fellow without imposition; display your ability and desire to learn and assimilate the culture in a way that benefits both you and the host country. Enjoy the application process – it is a long one but a beautiful one! It helped me, in many ways, to clarify to my future self what my goals in life were and how they merged and catapulted me into the career of my dreams.  Research your country if you have never been! You will be a Fulbright fellow for life and that is one of my favorite communities to date.

My name is Sam Hickson and I’m from Kennebunk, Maine. I majored in Hispanic Studies and Theatre & Dance Studies with a minor in Economics at Wheaton College, MA. While at Wheaton, I was part of our improv comedy troupe, The Dimple Divers, for four years. I also studied abroad in Granada, Spain and volunteered with Camino Seguro in Guatemala for a summer. Following my Fulbright, I taught children’s theater and worked at the Malden Public Access TV station teaching improv to middle schoolers. The performing arts have always been important to me and I’m always trying to find ways to stay active in that field. I currently study Spanish and Portuguese and I love to cook. I have serious saudades for Brazilian fruits that you can’t find in New England. I currently work at Northeastern in their Global Experience Office. Please feel free to email me at samuelmhickson@gmail.com if you have any questions about the Fulbright experience in Brazil!

My name is Constancia Vilomar, but everyone calls me Connie. I was born in New York City and raised in the Dominican Republic. I have moved from DR, to Florida, to Brazil, to Los Angeles and back to New York. I majored in International Relations and Political Science with minors in Spanish and Law & Justice at Eckerd College. I love nature; I am obsessed with being outside, always open to culinary adventures, hours spent dancing & listening to live music, volunteering for children & women, and gallivanting through life. I love honest and authentic people. I also love dogs and have my own mastiff- Santino. I have two siblings (I am the middle child) and can speak several languages (5). I am horrible at math but play the violin. I like to travel A LOT, and am so lucky I get to do it very often for a living. My sister says I am unique, full of life, warm and very, very giving. I like to say I am just a loving Dominican New Yorker with a Brazilian coração. Being a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant & Mentor, as well as living in Brazil, truly changed my life! Please feel free to email me at connie.vilomar@gmail.com for questions about Fulbright. 

Interested in applying? Bookmark the Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship your ProFellow account.

© Victoria Johnson 2020, all rights reserved.

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