GENESEO, N.Y. -- On an autumn day in 2005, just after Thanksgiving, Kate Dunn first opened a National Geographic magazine and immediately fell in love with the world.
As a 12-year-old growing up in the village of Katonah, N.Y., she had a fondness for nature and dreamed of exotic places that she could only visit in books and on TV. On that Friday, she peeled back the glossy cover and became entranced by an article entitled, “Cruelest Place on Earth,” detailing the culture, desert landscape, and social climate of Africa’s Danakil Desert. Right then, Dunn made a promise to herself, vowing to become a global citizen when she got older, and spent the next few years preparing by devouring travel books and magazines. Today, Kate is living that reality in Bintulu, Malaysia, a coastal town on the island of Borneo, participating in the U.S. Student Fulbright Program as an English Teaching Assistant (ETA).
Fulbright U.S. Student awards are among the most competitive grants or scholarships in the country, conferred through the Fulbright Program, the U.S. government’s flagship international exchange program, designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and people of other countries.
An alumna of SUNY Geneseo, where she received her bachelor’s degree in 2015 in communication, Dunn applied to serve in Malaysia because she “wanted to deepen my understanding of the world and experience full cultural immersion in another country. Drawing from my personal travels abroad and love for my home country, I aspired to be a representative of the United States, a cultural ambassador, facilitating global conservation and group activities that lead to positive social change.”
College graduates who serve as Fulbrighters meet, work, live with, and learn from the people of the host country, sharing daily experiences. The program is open to graduating seniors and recent bachelor's degree recipients. After Geneseo, Dunn worked as an editorial assistant for the Empire State Development Corporation “I LOVE NY” campaign and for numerous conservation organizations, including the Environmental Defense Fund and the Bedford Audubon Society. She even served as a Communications and Web Intern for the U.S. Forest Service in Hungry Horse, Montana, one summer in 2013. Yet, while she enjoyed these domestic experiences, the desire to see and experience more of the world tugged at her.
“I wanted to be a storyteller, one who supports and shares the narratives of international communities. In order to satisfy my desire to learn, I searched for opportunities that would allow me to travel to an entirely new country with cultures and perspectives that could offer a broader view of the global community.”
Dunn was hugely influenced by a semester-long study abroad experience she had at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands in 2014, which showed her that “when you travel to a new place, the friendships you build are the greatest windows to learning about and relating to new cultures.” She believes that “personal connections can prompt dynamic and diverse conversations, which allow for a deeper, more impactful understanding of one another. This method of hands-on learning strengthened my philosophy of travel as an educational tool and ignited my desire to teach and learn about all world.”
By the summer of 2016, Kate was ready for a change and began her search for international opportunities, settling on Malaysia, “a multicultural country in Southeast Asia whose diversity is as vibrant as its landscape, which seemed like the ideal place to expand my cultural understanding and gain experience in the classroom.” At that point, Dunn was a bit stumped as to how to achieve that goal, asking, “How does one pick up their life and move to another country in a feasible, productive way?” Her education at SUNY Geneseo had equipped her with the skills and confidence to reach for new opportunities, no matter the obstacles. Reflecting on her experience in the Netherlands, she revisited the College’s Study Abroad Office and learned about the U.S. Student Fulbright English Teaching Assistant program.
In January 2018, Kate flew to Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia, to join a cohort of 100 Fulbright recipients to begin their 10-month grants as English teaching assistants in secondary schools all across the country. Today, Kate is living out her Fulbright year in Bintulu, a coastal town on the island of Borneo. Located between Indonesia and the Philippines, Borneo is considered to be a biodiversity hotspot with dense jungles, river ways, and a trove of endemic species.
The island’s cultural diversity is as vibrant as its landscape, as her state, Sarawak, is home to over 12 indigenous groups known as Dayaks, each with their own language, traditions, and rich history. Kate felt instantly welcomed in the community, and her school, SMK Kidurong, is filled with students eager to engage and connect in and outside of the classroom through sports, after school clubs, or by simply chatting at the lunch table. Recently, her friendships with students and teachers have evolved into an exchange of language lessons.
“By discussing our interests, hobbies, families and aspirations for the future, we engage in conversations using a spectrum of languages from English and Malay to Iban and Sarawakian dialects. These spontaneous, authentic moments make me feel closer to my community and increasingly grateful for my time here.”
One hallmark of the U.S. Student Fulbright program is the cultural immersion and exchange these placements offer for young Americans to serve as ambassadors of the United States and to learn alongside community members in an exchange of cultural traditions and language. Even though she has only been in Malaysia a short while, Kate feels her relationships are “fresh and blooming. I am eager to get to know my community, bond through mutual interests, and be inspired by new ones.” The Fulbright grant offers “a clear platform to demonstrate personal interests and foster education through collaborative learning environments.”
To that end Kate has started a Newspaper Club at SMK Kidurong to give students a platform to discuss topics they care about including science, technology, art, social justice, mental health, and feminism. Kate hopes the newspaper “will serve as a creative, supportive space for students to express themselves, learn from one another and foster intellectual freedom.”
Additionally, as part of a supplemental project encouraged by Fulbright, Dunn will host two “English Camps,” which are informal collaborative events held outside the classroom where students practice English through hands-on activities, games and other projects with their classmates. The first will explore environmental stewardship and celebrate Earth Day. These camps will be co-hosted by four other American ETAs stationed nearby in Bintulu, allowing Kate’s students to engage with and learn from their peers in other schools. The second camp will focus on the theme of artistic expression through poetry, improvisation, and painting activities that will prompt them to use English and strengthen their language skills.
So, what does Kate want to do when her Fulbright year in Malaysia is over?
“I aspire to be a cultural communicator, one who supports and shares the narratives of international communities,” she said. “I want to facilitate conversations about the way immersive education leads to positive change, fosters compassion and builds relationships amongst nations.”
The career she will choose may be in editorial writing, educational institutions, or diplomacy, but she is leaving her plans intentionally flexible as she hopes her experience in Malaysia will enhance her “knowledge of world cultures, build my communication skills and strengthen my ability to problem solve in multifaceted situations.” Through immersion, she hopes to “deepen my knowledge of the cultural diversity in Southeast Asia. I am challenging myself to speak in Malay and Iban languages whenever possible, thus, I hope to increase my communication abilities in multicultural settings and enhance my skillsets as I balance planning, travel, and supporting the goals of my community.”
Whatever she ends up doing in the future, Kate has come far from that November day in 2005 when she first opened a National Geographic magazine and fell in love with the world, vowing to one day set out from her New York home to find it. For now, she is content in Malaysia, helping to teach English and experiencing all that the people and culture have to offer. But next year, that familiar yearning will return, and she will set out to continue her education in a new place, with new people, on a new adventure.