GENESEO, N.Y. -- When asked to explain what winning a 2018-19 U.S. Student Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) award to Uruguay means to her, Sarah Simon ’17 replies in Spanish, “No fue el pez el que descubrió el agua” or “It wasn't the fish that discovered water.” This maxim has guided her journey since Geneseo.
“When you graduate from college, it is up to you to decide whether and how you want to expand your fishbowl, or if you just want to jump out of it.” Simon has realized that she’s ready to make that leap.
After graduating from Geneseo with a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in geography, Simon began interning for Latin American News Digest as a translator and interpreter. Presently, she is serving as a volunteer English teacher with the non-governmental humanitarian agency WorldTeach at the Centro de Educación Continua in Quito, Ecuador where, while teaching English writing to college students, she is earning her Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certification.
Although she teaches English writing, living and working in a Spanish-speaking community has influenced her own non-fiction and poetry. She recently published a poem, “La mujer como yema,” along with its English translation, in The Journal of Latina Critical Feminism and also recounts her time in Quito on a personal blog.
As for future plans, the Fulbright experience will be just one more step in her overall life strategy.
“I know life enough to know that a plan can implode in mere seconds. As a volunteer teacher abroad, first in Ecuador and then in Uruguay – I am working slowly, and cautiously, along that plan, knowing that my experiences teaching, improving my Spanish, and meeting people could do nothing but help me grow along the way, both in ways that I expect and don't expect.”
A second but related maxim guiding her decision making is attributable to the transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau: “We hear and apprehend only what we already half know.” Simon feels that her lifelong work is not so much about transcendence, as “It is to be in, to be doing, to be looking at myself from a distance and expanding.”
She did not start out seeking a Fulbright specifically, but emerged from Geneseo with a “general intent to improve myself in order to serve others. My undergraduate experience was humbling; I came in thinking I knew a lot, and came out knowing that I knew very little. I realize that now is the time to really learn, to be uncomfortable and grow from it.”
Since 1985, Geneseo has had 24 Fulbright award winners with 20 awards coming since 2010. For the 2018-2019 applicant period, Geneseo had a record 19 applications, with eight of the applicants becoming semi-finalists, also the highest number in the College’s history. Simon is the fourth of those semi-finalists to win a Fulbright and joins Leandra Griffith ’16 who earlier won for Belgium, Matt McClure ’16 who will spend next year in South Korea, and most recently Amanda Langan ’18 who won for Argentina. Three semi-finalists Martin Beach ’14 (Malta), Sarah Phillips ’18 (Colombia), and Shauna Rickets ’18 (Bulgaria) were named alternates, with one semifinalist Reba Schnyder ’18 (Senegal) still awaiting notification.
For Simon, serving abroad is what she feels she needs to do now.
“I am fluent in English and have various tools to teach it: teaching and tutoring experience; a psychology degree; a young person’s verve; a silly spirit; and, most importantly, empathy,” she said.
Simon knows that learning about English-speaking culture can be a great advantage for her present Ecuadorian and future Uruguayan students.
“I want to help them bolster their marketability, understand the BBC, develop the vocabulary to sing along to Bob Dylan ballads,” she said. “As a volunteer teacher, I will serve my students, helping them make English serve them.”
During the summer of 2015, while studying abroad in the Czech Republic, Simon had a painful realization that inspired her to learn Spanish past the intermediate level.
“My memories of the trip revolve around limitation: Feeling limited to the stereotypes of a naïve American, limited in my ability to communicate in a language other than English,” she said. “It seemed everyone in Central Europe had their native language, some Russian, and at least functional English under their tongue. The only things I had beyond standard English were a few pompous SAT vocabulary words. For the first time in my life, I saw myself – an anthropomorphic fish – in the fishbowl.”
As part of the Fulbright process, seniors and alumni who apply through Geneseo go through an internal application process. A committee composed of faculty and staff review applications and interview applicants, ultimately making a recommendation to the commission about each. This year’s faculty members included Assistant Professor of French Kate Fredericks; Associate Professor of German Cyndy Klima; Professor of Theatre Melanie Blood; Assistant Professor of History Megan Abbas; and Adjunct Lecturer in English and Languages and Literatures Wes Kennison. From Geneseo Study Abroad, Associate Director Sam Cardamone, Assistant Director Emily Froome, and Advisor Emily Cole also participated in this collaborative and supportive interview process.
Improving her Spanish abilities is key to one aspect of Simon’s plan – to attend graduate school to train as a psychologist.
“In such a person-centered field, I know that Spanish ability will make me an apt advocate of and resource for Spanish-speaking clients,” she said.
An incident she experienced while interning at a U.S. substance abuse clinic – which involved a Hispanic client – left her feeling frustrated by the lack of linguistic flexibility and cultural awareness of the staff.
“Spanish is not just about saying the words with a jarring and almost condescending accent, but saying them with respect, humility, and awareness. It is only right to do this now – when a diverse and rich Spanish-speaking culture is becoming the fastest-growing population in our country,” she said. “The U.S. is basically on its own continent, but it has become – by its own proverbial ‘American dream’ – home to the world. But still, ‘American’ is a misnomer, a thing of power. Shouldn’t all people who inhabit the North, Central, and South be called ‘American’?”
Earlier in the year and for the first time in the College’s history, SUNY Geneseo was named a Top Producer of U.S. Student Fulbright awards for 2017-18, a recognition the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs announced in its annual article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Six Geneseo alumni won U.S. Student Fulbright awards for 2017-2018, placing the College third among all 742 Carnegie classification master’s degree institutions. Geneseo was the only dedicated SUNY institution to be named a Top Producer of U.S. Student Awards in any category -- bachelors, master’s, research, or special-focus four-year.
The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government and aims to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries. Fulbright alumni have become heads of state, judges, ambassadors, cabinet ministers, CEOs, and university presidents, as well as leading journalists, artists, scientists, and teachers. They include 59 Nobel Laureates, 82 Pulitzer Prize winners, 71 MacArthur Fellows, 16 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients, and thousands of leaders across the private, public and non-profit sectors. Since its inception in 1946, more than 380,000 “Fulbrighters” have participated in the Program.
The U.S. Student Fulbright 2019-2020 competition, which is open to students and recent alumni, is administered at Geneseo by the Director of National Fellowships and Scholarships, Michael Mills, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 585-245-6002. An informational session about the 2019-2020 competition will be held on campus on April 19th at 4:00 pm in Milne Library 104. More information about the Fulbright and other nationally and internationally competitive scholarship and fellowship programs can be found online.
As a teacher who is now celebrating another wonderful teaching, traveling, and cultural opportunity, Simon has some advice: “Teach what you know, stay curious and pursue what you don't.”
And for graduating seniors and alumni feeling unsure about or confined by their present situations, she recommends making the choice to take a chance: “Jump out of the fishbowl when you find yourself drowning in your own natural habitat."