Gilman Scholar Rowan Glass’s Leap Of Faith To Pursue Global Anthropology

May 02, 2024
Gilman and McNair Scholar Rowan Glass sitting an Inga shaman on wooden chairs with a brightly colored mural on the wall behind them.
Rowan sitting with an Inga shaman the morning after a yagé ceremony in Sibundoy, Colombia, August 2022.

The Gilman Scholarship, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, is a powerful tool for financially constrained U.S. undergraduate students receiving Federal Pell Grant funding. It offers the opportunity to pursue transformative study or internship experiences abroad. The McNair Scholars Program, part of the federal TRIO initiative supported by the U.S. Department of Education, focuses on preparing disadvantaged undergraduates for doctoral studies. By nurturing academic potential, McNair aims to boost graduate degree awards for individuals from underrepresented segments of society, such as first-generation and low-income students.

One talented student and researcher, Rowan Glass, won both prestigious scholarships and embarked on a transformative journey as an anthropologist, multimedia journalist, and filmmaker. With funding and guidance from these fellowships, Rowan’s work explores cultural preservation, identity, and autonomy, particularly within Indigenous communities. We recently spoke with him to learn about his travels, the invaluable lessons he learned from navigating diverse landscapes, and his work in Colombia and Senegal. He also shares vital tips for applying to these programs, working abroad, and how these fellowships shaped this anthropologist’s commitment to working collaboratively with underreported communities.

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From your diverse background, what interested you in pursuing cultural anthropology as an undergrad?

Growing up in the only Jewish family in a small, conservative town in rural Oregon that was once considered the “KKK capital” of the state, I attribute my early interest in anthropology to my feeling of being an outsider in my own society. In the stifling atmosphere of my hometown, neither my cultural identity nor my curiosity about the wider world was welcome. I dreamed of pursuing my aspirations someplace where cultural diversity and intellectual growth would be encouraged. Built into my desire to explore the world was an equal interest in making change and challenging injustice. These convictions led me to anthropology, a discipline that engages with human diversity in all its forms while also lending itself to practical applications that can make a difference in people’s lives.

As a first-generation, nontraditional student from a low-income background, my initial educational path was challenging. With limited means to study in the U.S. and a strong desire to escape my hometown, I moved to Argentina after graduating from high school in late 2018, intending to enroll in the University of Buenos Aires, where undergraduate studies are free. Although my plans soon changed, I used the opportunity to take a gap year abroad while planning my next steps. I then spent the following nine months backpacking back to the U.S. across Latin America, volunteering and working along the way to support myself.

My experience traveling across Latin America and gaining fluency in Spanish while interacting with people of various cultures and walks of life opened my eyes to the diversity I had always sought. These pre-college experiences were the inspiration and foundation for the global fieldwork I have since conducted. They also confirmed my dedication to anthropology as a discipline which, in the words of the anthropologist Ruth Benedict, seeks to “make the world safe for human differences.”

Through both my trials and travels, I have learned how my lived experiences are an asset to me as an anthropologist. They also drive me to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion within my research by using my skills and compassion to share the experiences and knowledge of the people I work with—particularly the understudied and disadvantaged Indigenous communities which my research has centered.

Moreover, my passion for anthropology stems from a lifelong interest in human diversity, as well as a firm conviction that anthropologists can engage with such diversity to foster intercultural dialogue. In a world increasingly strained under the pressures of globalization and impending climate catastrophe, anthropologists are well-positioned to employ their knowledge, skills, and networks to help locate solutions to globally pressing problems in ways that bridge cultural divides. This is the throughline that drives my commitment to a career in anthropology.

When I returned to the U.S. in July 2019, I enrolled in Portland Community College (PCC) since I couldn’t afford to enter a four-year program. Once the COVID-19 pandemic struck, I realized that if I could work and study online, there was no reason to remain in the U.S. while completing my degree. At the same time, I began considering what I might like to focus on in my later research; although PCC did not have the resources or training necessary to conduct the ethnographic research I was interested in, I knew a four-year university would.

These realizations inspired me to return to Colombia in October 2020 to investigate possible research avenues. During this trip, I visited the Sibundoy Valley, my eventual research site, where I met an Indigenous shaman of the Kamëntšá people who inspired my interest in cultural contact and change. Upon returning to the U.S. once again, I graduated from PCC and transferred to the University of Oregon (UO). At Oregon’s flagship university, I finally had the training, mentorship, and funding opportunities necessary to begin conducting research.

Rowan Glass at his McNair Scholars Program graduation. He wears a gray suite while a faculty member puts on a green graduation stole.
Rowan at his graduation ceremony from the University of Oregon’s McNair Scholars Program, alongside his cohort, in June 2023.

During undergrad, you became a McNair Scholar! How did you come across this opportunity?

I learned about the McNair Scholars Program during my first term at UO by coming across a flier on a campus bulletin board. I sent in my application and soon heard back from the program director. In an interview, we discussed my background as a first-generation and nontraditional student and my interest in pursuing a PhD. Shortly after the interview, I was informed that I made the cut; I was now on my way to becoming a McNair Scholar—officially, you only become a Scholar at the induction ceremony that comes at the end of the two-year program!

At the same time that I joined the McNair Scholars Program, I also got involved in the Humanities Undergraduate Research Fellowship. For that program, I built on my interests in cultural change and adaptation by examining historical processes of cultural change and adaptation among the Indigenous peoples of the Sibundoy Valley. This project resulted in my first publication at the end of my first year at UO. Since the McNair Scholars Program also has a research component, I decided to build on my historical project by using McNair’s funding and advising resources to travel to Colombia for my capstone BA thesis research.

As I began this research through the McNair Scholars Program, I learned of the senseless murder of the shaman I had met in Sibundoy. This personal connection was the decisive impetus for my return to Sibundoy for my BA thesis research. In support of my project, my mentor, Dr. John H. McDowell, put me in contact with the same host family he lived with during his work there decades before me, establishing an intergenerational link between two generations of anthropologists and the same Kamëntšá family. This, too, lent a deeply personal quality to my research in Sibundoy. I returned from my fieldwork with the sense that I have established a lifelong commitment to my Kamëntšá collaborators in the Sibundoy Valley, motivating me to continue my research there.

Gilman and McNair Scholar Rowan Glass sitting inside a wooden roundhouse, around a fire pit. Other people sit in plastic chairs around the fire put as well. Many artifacts are hung up on the walls of the roundhouse.
Rowan meeting with a Kamëntšá shaman in Sibundoy, Colombia, July 2022.

Can you tell us about your research in Colombia? How did the McNair Scholars Program allow you to travel there?

For my BA thesis research, I wanted to investigate how the Kamëntšá—one of the two Indigenous communities in the valley—are engaged in preserving, recovering, and reinventing their culture. I decided to analyze these processes of “cultural reproduction” through an ethnographic investigation of three domains of Kamëntšá culture: 1) the artisanal tradition, including beadwork, weaving, and woodcarving; 2) shamanism and traditional medicine; and 3) the festival of Bëtsknaté, the most significant Indigenous event of the year in the Sibundoy Valley, where various other aspects of Kamëntšá culture and identity coalesce. Through this investigation, I wanted to uncover how Kamëntšá cultural reproduction provides the conditions for greater cultural autonomy. For this research, I spent three months conducting ethnographic fieldwork in the Sibundoy Valley in 2022 and 2023.

But what is ethnography? In a nutshell, ethnography is the focused and in-depth observation, description, and interpretation of a certain culture—anything from an ethnic group to a musical subculture, profession, or anything else that groups of people cluster around. Ethnographers are interested in what people do and why—and how the interpretation of their doings says something more significant about how cultures and societies work, what drives people to think and act and feel certain ways, and ultimately, what it means to be human.

This means that, on the one hand, my research in Colombia was an attempt to understand what the “Indigenization of modernity” looks like in the Sibundoy Valley by interpreting how the Kamëntšá preserve and remake their culture and identity and how these processes enable their community to expand their cultural autonomy. On the other, I wanted to use the example of the Sibundoy Valley as a case study, a local answer to a much bigger question: How do Indigenous and other subaltern communities adapt to rapid changes and disruptions to their traditional lifeways while preserving who they are?

How was your experience traveling abroad? Did you face any challenges?

Since I was lucky enough to travel a lot before beginning my research, the experience of being abroad was not very challenging. Actually, I love the daily discovery and growth that comes with international and intercultural travel. The culture shock that can accompany fieldwork is known to pose challenges to first-time ethnographers, so my prior long-term travel experience definitely gave me an advantage here.

Of course, there’s a big difference between traveling for leisure or work and traveling for research. The hard part was learning how to become a first-time ethnographer without formal methods training or direct supervision in the field! These challenges came in the form of establishing rapport, building connections in my field site, and navigating the language barrier. The good news is that everything becomes easier with time as you start building a network and get into the rhythm of conducting research activities (like attending events, conducting interviews, visiting contacts, writing field notes, etc.). By the end of my first stint of fieldwork in Sibundoy, I already felt at home there!

Alas, it’s inevitable that the longer you spend abroad, the more you miss home, friends, and family. Taking the time to deal with that however you need to is important. But in my experience, making local friends can go a long way to alleviating that loneliness. Locals are often curious about foreigners, which can offer great cultural exchange and dialogue opportunities. Take advantage of it—you’ll miss it once you’re back home!

Gilman and McNair Scholar Rowan Glass riding a camel in the desert of Senegal.
Rowan rides a camel, exploring the Saharan sand dunes outside Saint-Louis, Senegal, in May 2023.

With this prestigious Scholar award, can you share tips for prospective applicants?

If you meet the eligibility requirements, definitely check whether your institution has a McNair chapter. If it does, just apply! The application process is straightforward, and the program’s benefits are considerable. As a McNair Scholar, you’ll have access to great mentorship opportunities, thousands of dollars in summer research funding and year-round academic support, and even a graduate school application fee waiver! That last point might sound minor, but it’s a major advantage when you start applying to grad programs. My 18 grad school applications this year cost me a grand total of $85! That number would probably be around $2,000 without the McNair fee waiver.

Otherwise, what you get out of the program is proportionate to what you put into it. I knew McNair Scholars who really took advantage of the full breadth and depth of the program and its resources, and the result was that they excelled in their research and set themselves up for success in grad school. If you apply, you should clearly know what you want to do in the program, how it can benefit you, and how you can give back to the McNair community. Not only will your mentors and peers in the program thank you, but you’ll be much better positioned to apply to grad school, get into your top choices, and excel when you begin your graduate studies.

And if you’re going abroad for your research, as I did, invest in a nice pair of noise-canceling headphones for those long-haul flights!

Gilman and McNair Scholar Rowan Glass, wearing an olive green jacket, sitting next to a legendary Senegalese musician, Cheikh Lô who dons a traditional conical fiber hat called a tingandé.
Rowan meeting with Cheikh Lô, legendary Senegalese musician donning tingandé, May 2023.

Afterward, you also won the Gilman Scholarship, enabling you to conduct research in Senegal! How was your experience in this program? What was the main focus of your research?

After returning from Colombia, I wanted to get my foot in the door of a new region and language. When I learned about the GlobalWorks International Internship Program at UO, a study abroad program focused on building professional skills, I decided to see the options. I didn’t want to take the “easy option” that most students seem to go for, like Italy or Spain. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I wanted something more adventurous and off the beaten path!

When I learned that Senegal was an option and that the internship there was paired with intensive French study, I applied. At the same time, I sought funding through the federal Gilman Scholarship, which helps low-income, high-potential undergraduates study abroad. Gilman, paired with several internal UO study abroad grants and scholarships, ended up covering the entire cost of my two-month internship and language program in Senegal!

I was in Senegal between late April 2023 and late May to intern with a group called GEEP. Translated from French, the name is the Group for the Study and Teaching of the Population. GEEP is a Senegalese NGO headquartered at Cheikh Anta Diop University, Senegal’s leading university, in the national capital of Dakar. GEEP primarily works on issues related to youth development, public health, and sexual education in primary and secondary schools throughout Senegal. They have two main projects: 1) the design and implementation of effective and culturally appropriate pedagogy, mainly targeting issues such as gender-based violence, female genital mutilation (sadly common across much of West Africa and the Sahel), teenage pregnancy, STDs, health and sanitation, and related topics; and 2) the formation and coordination of youth clubs at affiliated schools, intended to be vehicles for students to encourage healthy and responsible behavior among their peers.

As a research intern for GEEP, most of my days were spent reading pedagogical reports sent to the HQ by teachers at schools around the country. I would code these reports for details on the curriculum’s strong, weak, and central themes implemented over each semester at each school. I would then write up documents summarizing my findings and crafting recommendations for pedagogical improvements.

I also spent part of the internship conducting visual ethnographic documentation to compile a short documentary about GEEP’s work and its consequences for the communities they serve. Over the two-month internship, I recorded hours of footage of field trips to schools and interviews with GEEP personnel and students. Unfortunately, all this footage was mysteriously lost towards the end of the internship, probably due to data corruption. Though unfortunate, this experience taught me a valuable lesson about data security and the utility of backups! Since I’ve continued my videography work since the internship, I’ve become much more careful about keeping my footage secure.

A secondary project during the internship involved working with a feminist community radio station in Dakar called Manooré FM – La voix des femmes. This collaboration spawned a continuing relationship; I am currently organizing a fundraiser to bring donated radio station equipment from Oregon to Senegal to help Manooré FM rebuild after a fire destroyed much of their stock. This experience also gave rise to an enduring interest in community media.

Gilman and McNair Scholar Rowan Glass sitting at a table with brightly colored and checkered tablecloth, with Manooré FM radio staff members.
Rowan meeting with the staff of Manooré FM radio in Dakar, Senegal, May 2023.

What were the key takeaways as a Gilman Scholar? How did this opportunity impact you personally and professionally?

One of the biggest takeaways of my time in Senegal was the feeling that I’m capable of making significant pivots and transitions in my academic and professional career. Having focused on Colombia and Latin America during my undergraduate research, prior travel, and language studies, Africa was all new to me. However, in just two months, I was able to apply my skills and make a difference within a totally different geographic, cultural, and professional context—not to mention that my French improved tremendously after two months of total immersion and intensive study!

This experience taught me that I’m capable of adapting and even excelling when plunged into radically new circumstances—a valuable skill for an anthropologist, but also vital for intercultural competence and professional flexibility in general.

One of the reasons why I chose Senegal for my internship was also to determine whether I would be interested in doing more work or research there in the future. While this is still on the table for my future career, my time in Africa also taught me that, in the short term, Latin America is where I want to remain during the next steps in my career development.

After graduating, you have worked on many different projects, including translation, freelance journalism, and international documentary filmmaking projects in Greece, Morocco, Mexico, and Colombia. How have these experiences been for you?

After graduating with my BA, I built on my interest in visual methods by attending the Athens Summer School in Visual Ethnographic Practices, where I produced my first film, which was recently screened at the 14th edition of Ethnofest – Athens Ethnographic Film Festival. The documentary explores the lives of two chefs from Turkish Kurdistan who left their homeland to build new lives in Athens. By interweaving their life stories, this film explores the meanings of movement, food, and freedom at the interstices of place and belonging. My experience in the summer school gave me the practical and theoretical training necessary to use visual ethnographic methods throughout my career. After Greece, I built on these experiences by attending a photography workshop in Fes, Morocco with Nikos Economopoulos of Magnum Photos. While in Morocco, I also covered the aftermath of the September 2023 earthquake in the Indigenous Amazigh communities of the High Atlas.

In preparation for graduate studies, I am currently pursuing long-term interests in journalism and documentary filmmaking. Particularly relevant are two documentary projects I am producing for the independent media collective The Modern Insurgent. The first, based on fieldwork I conducted in Morocco in October 2023, profiles the history of desert blues, a music genre pioneered by Tuareg nomads of the Sahara in the context of dispossession and exile during the decolonization of Africa. The second, a collaborative endeavor with a Mexican anthropologist and photojournalist I met during the Athens summer school, took place in southern Mexico in December 2023 and January 2024, focusing on the legacies of the Zapatista uprising at its 30th anniversary.

McNair and Gilman Scholar Rowan Glass, wearing khaki pants and black leather jacket, crouching to weave palm fronds.
Rowan in Colombia weaving the palm fronds used during the Kamëntšá festival of Bëtsknaté, February 2023.

With so many experiences, where do you hope to go next? What would be your ideal career in anthropology?

One of my most exciting next steps has been participating in the EthnoKino Doc Impact Lab for Mov(i)ement Fellows, a new mentoring and fellowship program for emerging filmmakers. The fellowship is hosted by EthnoKino in association with Animating the Commons and other partners. According to the fellowship website, “The aim of the mentorship is to assist emerging filmmakers from around the world to ideate, develop, and complete a draft of their original film screenplay with accompanying impact campaigns and distribution plans.” Check out Dr. Eda Elif Tibet’s wonderful interview with ProFellow for more details about EthnoKino!

As a Mov(i)ement Fellow, I have honed my skills in documentary filmmaking, visual anthropology, and impact-driven social science by filming a documentary about biocultural diversity and rights in the Indigenous communities of the Sibundoy Valley. I want to use my film as a platform for my collaborators in Sibundoy to share their struggles for more just, sustainable, and diverse territories of life. I plan to return to Colombia for additional filming before finishing the production process, submitting it to festivals, and looking for distributors.

I was also involved in a second documentary project in Colombia in 2024, a collaborative venture between EthnoKino and the Changemakers program at the Wyss Academy for Nature. For this project, I collaborated with Colombian biologist and filmmaker Laura Gómez Unda to produce a short documentary about El Porvenir Nature Reserve, a bioreserve in a heavily deforested region of Colombia. Our film will be entered into a competition with the other Changemakers films, and if selected, it will be screened at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland and EthnoKino festivals worldwide. After these exciting audiovisual projects, I look forward to continuing my pursuits in visual ethnography, photojournalism, and documentary filmmaking!

Having just returned to Oregon after four months of filming and reporting in Mexico and Colombia, I’m now preparing to move to Indiana to begin a fully funded Folklore MA at Indiana University Bloomington. There I’ll continue my research on the Sibundoy Valley while building skills in applied folklore and public practice. As part of my full funding package, I’ll also be taking on a range of graduate assistantship assignments; my first will be an editorial assistantship with the Journal of Folklore Research. I’m looking forward to taking the next steps in my academic development at Bloomington!

Following my MA and eventual PhD, my ideal career in anthropology would be to do ethnographic fieldwork for as long as possible before settling into a tenured academic position that would enable me to continue the socially impactful research I’m passionate about. I also want to continue my non-academic journalism, writing, and filmmaking commitments since I believe anthropological insights must be made public to make the most significant difference. However, I remain open to seeing where else my career might take me, whether within academia or beyond!

And finally, do you have any tips or advice for other prospective anthropologists and fellowship winners?

Tenacity and grit are the most important factors when applying to fellowships and other competitive programs. It’s a fact that almost everyone who submits applications for competitive programs will get a few rejection letters. You win some, you lose some. The essential question is whether you accept defeat at the first rejection letter or redouble your efforts. A great piece of advice I got in the McNair program, which I’ll always remember, is that if you don’t apply, you already know your chances. So keep your head up, research, prepare the strongest application you can, and cross your fingers—something will always work out, even if it takes a few tries to get there!

It’s also important to consider why you’re applying to a particular program and what you want to get out of it. Are you applying just to add another line to your CV? Or will this experience give you a leg up academically, professionally, or personally? What are your objectives and expectations for the program? Do you want to develop new skills and knowledge, collaborate with certain mentors or peers in the program, or apply the skills you already possess to a definite problem? These are all valid reasons to apply to certain programs, but you have to be sure of your specific reasons. Being clear on this point will ensure that you can make the case that you are the candidate best fit for the program.

Finally, be daring. I wouldn’t be where I am today, and I couldn’t have accomplished all that I have without taking a gap year to backpack across Latin America after graduating from high school. Everything I’ve done since then is, in some way, the product of that first leap into the unknown. Now, you don’t have to do anything that crazy but try to remember the old saying that “fortune favors the bold”—whatever boldness might look like for you.

Good luck out there!

Thinking about pursuing a PhD in anthropolgy? Check out Fully Funded PhD Programs in Linguistic Anthropology.

McNair and Gilman Scholar Rowan Glass head shot image, wearing a scarf around his neck and a black leather jacket.Rowan Glass is an anthropologist, multimedia journalist, writer, and filmmaker from Oregon. His research, reporting, and travels have taken him from Indigenous territories in Colombia and Mexico to primary schools in Senegal, Kurdish restaurants in Greece, and music festivals in Morocco. In all his work, Rowan endeavors to help tell engaging stories about underreported people and places through incisive research and creative endeavors. Whether at a keyboard, behind a camera, at home, or in the field, Rowan is always looking for the next chance to apply his skills to both creative and socially impactful ends. Rowan holds a BA in cultural anthropology from the University of Oregon and is an MA student in folklore at Indiana University Bloomington.

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