Gina Elia’s Fulbright Story of Chinese Literature and Language

May 30, 2024
Fulbright winner Gina Elia, wearing a t-shirt and shorts and holding a red umbrella, stands next to a bear statue with Chinese characters in the midst of an urban courtyard.
Gina next to a statue of a teddy bear in New Taipei, Taiwan, where she lived during her fellowship year.

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program for Study/Research allows for individually designed study/research projects that will take place during one academic year (9-12 months) in a country outside the U.S. Applicants design their own projects and will typically work with advisers at foreign universities or other institutes of higher education. The study/research awards are available in approximately 140 countries. For recent BA/BS graduates, graduate and doctoral students, and young professionals, including artists, musicians, writers, journalists, and those in law, business, and other professional fields. Undergraduate and graduate students must apply through their institution; professionals and former students can apply through their alma mater or at large.

Gina Elia is a storyteller, researcher, freelance writer, and Mandarin translator who teaches high school Mandarin Chinese at North Broward Preparatory School. Gina holds a BA in Comparative Literature from Cornell University and a PhD in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from the University of Pennsylvania. In 2016, Gina spent a year conducting research in Taiwan through the Fulbright Study/Research Award Program. In this interview, she shares her background, fellowship experience, and tips for aspiring applicants.

Tell us about your background and professional journey. What led you to study East Asian languages and civilizations?

I loved learning, and always knew I wanted to pursue my academic education as far as I could, which probably meant earning a PhD. I loved literature and foreign languages, so I majored in Comparative Literature as an undergraduate at Cornell University, focusing on literature written in English, French, Chinese, and a little German. Of all of these languages, my major focus was Chinese, simply because the language had fascinated me since I had begun studying it in high school. 

I applied to PhD programs in Comparative Literature, East Asian Languages and Civilizations, and French departments depending on the strengths of the relative universities in which I was interested, and ended up accepting an offer in an East Asian Languages and Civilizations program at the University of Pennsylvania. During that program, I realized that my interests were mainly focused on Chinese literature, so my research shifted away from Comparative Literature to become more wholly grounded in Chinese literature.

Gina Elia, a woman in a black and white dress and holding an umbrella, stands next to a moss-covered tree in a misty forest.
Gina pictured visiting Alishan, a mountainous scenic area in central Taiwan.

What led you to apply for the Fulbright U.S. Study/Research Award to Taiwan in 2016? What did your research project focus on?

In my graduate program, I continued pursuing opportunities to improve my Chinese language ability, as I am a non-native speaker of the language. I participated in the Inter-University Intensive Mandarin Chinese Program at Tsinghua University in Beijing one summer. That got me to a level where I could tell if I could just spend a little more time immersed in the language, I would be conversationally fluent. 

I returned to the U.S. after that summer chomping at the bit to get that opportunity to return to a Chinese-language environment, and spent my fourth year of graduate school applying for grants to reside in China or Taiwan for one or two years for language improvement and for dissertation completion. Of those I applied for, I ended up getting the Fulbright U.S. Study/Research Award to Taiwan, which funded one year of dissertation research in Taiwan with the opportunity to spend two months of that time in mainland China. My research project was my PhD dissertation, which was a study of the significance of religion in the literary works of three Chinese authors from the 1920s: Bing Xin, Su Xuelin, and Xu Dishan.

Afterward, you worked as a freelance essayist, Mandarin translator, and teacher. How did you make this career pivot, and did your fellowship experience inform these professional choices? 

I eventually figured out that I was more interested in language study than I was in research, so after graduating from my PhD program, I found a job teaching Chinese at an independent prep school in South Florida. My spoken Mandarin would never have been good enough to teach it full-time, including IB-level courses, if I hadn’t spent that year in China and Taiwan due to the Fulbright Fellowship, so it was foundational to me being able to pursue this career. 

I’ve also separately always had an interest in writing, so I am happy that moving away from a research-driven career has given me more time to gain experience in freelance writing and translation. At this point, I have numerous publications in literary journals and online outlets that I would not have had time to accrue in an academic career, and I am also working on a translation project commissioned by an organization I used to be a member of at the University of Pennsylvania. The fellowship experience was also integral to this freelance career, as my first publication as an adult was an article published in Taiwan’s CommonWealth Magazine about my Fulbright experience entitled “The Native Speaker: A Category in Need of Rupture.” I am happy that even though I graduated five and a half years ago and did not pursue an academic career, I am still actively engaged on many levels with work that has to do with what I studied and researched, in large part thanks to the experience I gained from the Fulbright Fellowship.

Gina, wearing a blue floral shirt, stands by a fence. Behind her is a hot spring surrounded by green hills.
Gina at the Beitou Hot Springs in Taipei, the city where she conducted her dissertation research during her fellowship year.

Can you share some tips and advice for aspiring fellowship applicants?

It is important to network with as many people as possible. Find clubs and organizations of interest to you, or create ones you would like to see around you that you don’t. If you work already, get involved in your job, whatever that looks like–join task committees, offer to advise clubs if you are a teacher, participate in volunteer outreach, etc. These opportunities help you to gain experiences that matter to you, and you never know which particular experience will convince a fellowship committee that you have the background and potential they are looking for, so the more you accrue, the better! 

These opportunities are also a great way to meet people, and the more people you know, the more likely you are to find out about great opportunities, so getting out into the world and participating in it is a virtuous cycle. When you want to apply for a fellowship, do your research into what the committee is looking for and what it has tended to fund in the past. Analyze the bios and projects of past fellowship recipients. Reach out to them and schedule an informational interview to find out what helped them secure the fellowship and what doing it was like. Start working on your written materials early and seek out feedback and constructive criticism from others, which will help you craft them in a way that convinces the committee as much as possible that you exemplify what they are looking for and will achieve whatever the deliverable is. Be specific; have a plan. This will help convince the committee that you have a clear roadmap to achieving whatever they would like to see by the end of the fellowship.

Want to learn more about Fulbright projects in Asia? Read about Miles Iton’s work in language and hop-hop in Taiwan next! And be sure to bookmark the Fulbright program to your free ProFellow account.

Gina Elia teaches Mandarin Chinese at an independent high school in South Florida. Originally from Boston, She earned a PhD in Chinese literature from the University of Pennsylvania as well as a Bachelor’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Cornell University, and has traveled and lived extensively throughout China, including on a Fulbright Fellowship. She has published several academic articles on early 20th-century Chinese literature, and her freelance articles on Asia and language have been published on the TED-Ed platform and in Eclectica, Psyche, Sangam Literary Magazine, Taiwan’s CommonWealth Magazine, The China Project, and Genealogies of Modernity.

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