Graduation season is upon us. Across the state, all eyes are on the 50,000-plus students getting ready to leave the University with tassels turned to the left and diplomas in hand. But as the academic year winds down, another group is quietly returning to the fold: this year’s cohort of Fulbright Scholars, most of whom are wrapping up projects and preparing to come home.

When it comes to the UNC System’s representation in this prestigious band of adventuresome researchers and teachers, 2018-19 was a banner year. Three UNC System universities ranked as top producers of Fulbright recipients.

Appalachian State University tied with College of Charleston as the top producer of faculty Fulbright Scholars among master’s institutes, and North Carolina State University was in the top five producers of faculty Fulbright Scholars among research institutions. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was among the top twenty producers of student Fulbrights from research institutions.

These are significant accomplishments, and not merely because the grants lend the institutions gravitas.

These awards recognize and amplify the global impact of the innovative research and teaching taking place in the UNC System. And when these scholars return to their home institutions, their experience and field research will enhance their teaching and service to the University.

Advancing Research and Diplomacy

A Fulbright award recognizes excellence in scholarship and supports innovative research and teaching initiatives that hinge on international collaboration. Fulbright grants fund both faculty and upper-level students to engage in global partnerships. Though no two Fulbright experiences are alike, Fellows typically live where their research is based and team with scholars and institutions in the host country.

Unlike the majority of research grants, a Fulbright Award funds an immersive opportunity, not a rigidly-defined research protocol that requires strict line-item accounting. By design, it allows Fellows to embed themselves in a research or teaching setting in another country such that a project can develop and, in some cases, evolve over a span of time.

The ultimate goal is to facilitate cross-cultural engagement. A Fulbright Award is a portal to valuable new professional relationships in other countries. This arrangement ensures that Fellows develop a deep understanding of the complexities and opportunities inherent in collaborative, international research.

The Fulbright Program’s focus on international collaboration is in keeping with the interdisciplinary teaching, community engagement, service learning, and joint research initiatives taking place at each institution.

“I’m proud of the fact that our emphasis on tackling real-world problems on a global scale aligns with the mission of the Fulbright Program,” says Provost Warwick Arden. “NC State remains committed to supporting the scholarly pursuits of those who continue to enrich our knowledge base and make us a world-class academic institution.”

This same commitment can be found across the UNC System, which helps explain the University’s stellar representation in a program that emphasizes collaborative problem-solving and promotes cross-cultural exchange.

Dr. Steve Hageman, professor of geology in Appalachian’s Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences and member of the 2018–19 cohort, has studied the effects of global warming on marine polar Arctic organisms. This work has depended on Hageman’s productive partnership with the Institute of Oceanology of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

“Many people do not realize that the Fulbright program is organized, administered, and funded by the U.S. State Department,” he said. “Fulbright’s primary mission is diplomacy, which happens naturally when people have the opportunity to get together to work toward solving a shared problem.”

A Chorus in the Forest

Dr. Susan Lappan spent much of last year in Malaysia. In the mornings, the gibbons—small Asian apes hidden in the treetops—would serenade her with song. In haunting 20-minute opuses, high-pitched, rhythmic calls oscillate between plaintive wails and joyful chortles.

As a 2017-18 faculty Fulbright, Dr. Lappan has long since returned home. But her story underscores how the two legs of a roundtrip ticket to the host country do not bookend the Fulbright experience. Its impact lingers.  

Dr. Susan Lappan (center) on a preliminary field survey in Sungai Yu, Malaysia with Adilah Suhailin Kamaruzaman (left) and Nurul Iza Adrina Mohd Rameli (right). Ms. Kamaruzaman and Ms. Mohd Rameli are graduate students in the School of Biological Sciences at Universiti Sains Malaysia.

“I spend the first twenty minutes of my day in Malaysia,” she says, explaining that she is mentally, emotionally, and strategically still deeply involved with the country nearly 10,000 miles away from Appalachian’s campus.

As a biological anthropologist specializing in primates, Dr. Lappan’s interest in Malaysian gibbons was sparked when she realized that no one had conducted significant research on them since the 1980s. In the ensuing years, the country had experienced major economic development, urbanization, and deforestation. The gap in the research meant that no one had a clear sense of how the gibbon population had been affected by these dramatic changes to the landscape.

As Dr. Lappan sees it, the end goal of the Fulbright wasn’t simply to generate scholarly publications from a pet research project. The truly valuable payoff was that it facilitated the formation of an international team dedicated to the preservation of these endangered primates.

“Many people have the idea that Fulbright work comes to a conclusion when the scholar returns home, but my work will continue for years into the foreseeable future,” Lappan explains.

Working with “really fantastic partners from the School of Biological Sciences at the Universiti Sains Malaysia,” Lappan is helping to create a gibbon conservation action plan for the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

In addition, the team has developed community engagement strategies, which specifically target Malaysian school children. By raising awareness of what will be lost if the gibbons disappear from the landscape, the team hopes to instill an interest in conservation.

“There are plenty of other endangered species, but the gibbon is the most conspicuous. Most people will never see a tiger or a Sumatran rhino, but the gibbon song is audible for up to a kilometer,” she explains. “The people experience the gibbons on a daily basis, even if they don’t actually see them hiding in the treetops. They are an aesthetically important component of being in Malaysia. Our research and outreach have focused on keeping them as the voice of the forest.”

Dr. Lappan didn’t leave that work behind when she returned to Boone, NC. When she says that she begins her day in Malaysia, she’s not describing a wistful daydream. Whether by phone or by email, she is in daily contact with the team in the field. This sustained effort is especially critical to any conservation initiative, where end goals are almost always distant. Reversing the fate of an endangered species is years in the making.

Global Reach, Local Impact

Residents in host countries aren’t the only beneficiaries of all this work. When Fulbright recipients return home, their research and experiential knowledge shape how they teach and serve the university community.

Case in point, Lappan’s daily dial-ins frequently provide discussion fodder for her class on primatological field methods. Her colleagues’ anecdotes about the challenges they are facing in the field become real world case studies. Their videos and photographs capture the triumphs and challenges of research practically unfolding in real time for students to dissect.

Lappan enlists upper-level students to help her process what her team collects.  This provides valuable experience analyzing data acquired through field research and even opens the door to new research opportunities.

For example, Lappan and an undergraduate student in biology have been working together to conduct a musical census of sorts—they use field recordings of gibbons’ songs to estimate the animal population. After hours of listening, something else about the ethereal calls piqued the student’s curiosity: male and female gibbons typically sing “duets” to one another, but in many instances the male’s voice gets louder and carries further, as if he’s communicating with a remote partner rather than the female nearby.

This curiosity has led to new project. In addition to helping estimate abundance, the student is also analyzing the architecture of the primates’ song, trying to determine how the gibbons target one another. Lappan’s work, in other words, has served as a springboard to help a student advance to the next stage of a research career: harnessing critical inquiry skills to develop original research opportunities.

In addition to helping students, Lappan also helps her peers, leading workshops to help departing Fulbright Scholars prepare for their journeys.

Learning Through Giving

Fulbright recipients aren’t just faculty, either. Throughout the UNC System, service and teaching coalesce. The sheer diversity of UNC-Chapel Hill’s student Fulbright recipients reflects how curricular and extracurricular activities can promote international awareness and stir a passion for outreach.

Student Fulbright grants come in two forms. Some students are primarily involved in teaching English. This year, UNC-Chapel Hill Fulbrights have been scattered across the globe in countries such as Russia, South Korea, Vietnam, Jordan, and Spain. Research is not the central focus of their experience, though it is an ancillary pursuit.

Others have earned scholarships to advance their scholarship on topics such as Greek archeology, forestry in the Galapágos Islands, Roman history and the economic impact on the Iberian Peninsula, and neuroscientific analysis of Chinese-English bilingualism.  

What unites all of these students is their commitment to service, according to Iyman Ahmed, program manager for UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center for Global Initiatives.

“Our Fulbright presence speaks to the quality of the training our students receive. The university encourages students to go above and beyond their classroom activities to give back to the community,” she explains. “For example, many of this year’s Fulbrights have dedicated themselves to helping recently-arrived immigrant families in Chapel Hill to learn English. They use those skills to apply for the Fulbright, and then they go abroad and learn. So there’s a cyclical process that all feeds back into our emphasis on learning and public service as complementary pursuits.”

An Investment with Returns

In short, the value of a Fulbright experience is broadly distributed and long-lasting, benefitting  communities at home and abroad and for generations to come.

The commencement season might create the impression that energies flow through the University in one direction. But the Fulbright recipients are a powerful reminder that the UNC System’s primary output—intellectual capital—is actually an investment with returns.