Amirah Nelson ’10 from Indonesia

Amirah Nelson

We asked Amirah to answer a few questions about her Fulbright experience in Indonesia:

Amirah: My name is Amira Nelson. I’m originally from Champaign–Urbana, Illinois. I was Smith class of 2010, who opted for an ETA to Indonesia in 2012-13. Indonesia is a country where a limited number of ETA’s can apply for the second year. I was one of 3 ETA’s to do the second year 2013-14, and now I work at a mid-size, non-profit in Washington, DC. We manage a portfolio of US aid and State Department grants. I worked on two USAID scholarship programs for Malawi graduate students and Palestinian graduate students.

FellowSmithie: That’s amazing! What surprised you about yourself while you were away?

Amirah: I have always been the kind of person who can put up with a lot of suffering. While at Smith I practiced patience, but being in Indonesia taught me just how resilient I was. I lived in two different places while in Indonesia, one of which was an island of about 50,000 – 100,000 people. It was majority Muslim, pretty conservative. Then, for the next year, I moved to a city of about 200,000 people that was majority Christian and on the other side of the country. I surprised myself with my flexibility and resiliency. Fulbright definitely solidified the formative experience that started when I came to college.

FellowSmithie: What one thing prepared you the most for the Fulbright?

Amirah: It was the fact that I came to Smith on a grant, and some of those grants allowed me study abroad. I studied abroad in Australia for 11 months at the University of Melbourne. This would not have been possible without Smith’s financial support. While in Australia, I studied Indonesian. That was really the number one thing that prepared me. I was one of fifty English teaching assistants, and only a small handful had Indonesian language skills, because Indonesia does not require you to know Bahasa Indonesia to apply for the Fulbright. That put me at a competitive edge. But in terms of my experience there, I was better able to communicate with people. I had a better idea what was going on and I really helped me hit the ground running.

FellowSmithie: What did you learn about yourself during the application process at Smith? What was the most challenging part? What was the most rewarding part?

Amirah: Completing it. I applied for college and had to write applications, but I didn’t like it. What I wrote in my college application was probably okay…Smith accepted me after all! But working with the Fellowships Program (and working with Don Andrew) meant I had to respond in multiple drafts to essay prompts and re-examine, re-vision what I was trying to say. I looked closely at my personal story in order to write the Personal Statement. That was something I had never done before. Even in all the time I was at Smith, writing many, many college essays, I hadn’t written essays about myself or about my ambitions and plans for the future. Being able to complete that final project, turn it in and actually be accepted by Fulbright was the most satisfying part. It sounds silly–‘completing the application.’

Also, applying for a Fulbright forced me out of my comfort zone in terms of asking professors for advice. I asked 10 professors to read rough drafts of my application or provide feedback about plans for my side project or write recommendations for me. It was really a collaborative effort. It showed me how many people at Smith were here to support me.

FellowSmithie: What did you take away from your experience in Indonesia? 

Amirah: Two year years in Indonesia taught me to see a society where people work together to achieve the small tasks of daily life. It sounds corny, but it was really, really touching. In Indonesia, there’s this concept of a collaborative struggle to complete a goal–for example, I saw a person collecting money from the community because another person was sick in the hospital and needed help to pay the bills. Another time, a road had been washed out and the village got together to help rebuild it. Or, the time when everybody got together to set up a wedding venue in a backyard. People there are immensely gracious and kind. I can’t count the number of times I was given a ride by a stranger. Or, when I was given food by someone; it was their lunch but they told me, ‘here, you have it, just because you’re here.’

FellowSmithie: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

Amirah: Doing the Fulbright gave me real life experiences to fuel a passion, to pursue national development or international academic exchange. I majored in Econ and thought I wanted to work in sports economics. I had taken all these sports econ classes but I didn’t want to go to grad school for economics, although I thought maybe something with sports. I then started to get interested in antitrust law. I wanted to be a lawyer. I took a job as a paralegal and didn’t like that for a variety of reasons.

Then I decided to apply for a Fulbright. I thought, ‘I am going to bite the bullet and am going to commit to doing this application. If I get in, I get in. If I don’t get in, I don’t get in.’ I did a total 180. I then minored in Third World Development Studies. Being in Indonesia and seeing NGOs working on the ground and hearing about the problems that happened when development is done incorrectly from the people those projects were supposed to help gave me the fuel to claw my way into an international development non-profit.

Right now I work in an exchange arm of development–this just means people come here to be educated or trained or they go to third-world countries to be educated or trained. Education is really transformative. I would love to go into the field and implement the project myself, but in order for this change to be sustainable, it needs to be done by people from that country. This is my way of giving back and facilitating the training people need to make change in their own country. I like that for now.

FellowSmithie: Last question: how would you encourage a current applicant to stay on track?

Amirah: What worked for me was just to inform everybody–especially professors–that I was applying for a Fulbright, that I was doing this application. I reached out to a lot of professors for help, and they were more than willing to help me, which was amazing. But this also gave me the psychological push that I really needed to complete the application, because it was a collaborative effort. So many people helped me, and there was no way I was going to quit. That’s my tip: just involve as many people as possible!

Sarah Tucker ’13 from Indonesia

I’ve had a wonderful experience thus far in Indonesia. A few weeks ago before the Eid Islamic Holiday, I was asked to serve on an election committee for Indonesia students to study in America.

Serving as a panel member for the Fulbright Scholarship Election Committee, I was given the task to review Indonesian applicants for Masters and PhD programs in the United States. Let’s say it felt slightly strange being on the other side of this process, since only a short 18 months ago, I was applying to be accepted into Indonesia. Reading the applications and proposed studies, allowed me to gain a better understanding of topics of focus in Indonesia and what it takes to succeed in education here.

When asked how she will adjust to academic rigor in America, one brilliant Fulbright candidate explained that in Indonesia and many developing nations, students have to be that much more creative and dedicated to their studies to overcome the shortage of experienced teachers and the absence of learning materials. I recollect on all of the assistance the educational system in America has provided to allow me to get to the places I have been and feel extremely blessed.

My experience at Smith College surrounded by women thinking about global solutions and in particular the ideas shared between cohorts of Smith Fulbright Fellowship applicants has now not only been useful as becoming a grantee, but also in nominating other grantees. Serving on the committee, I feel my Fulbright experience has come full circle. I can truly understand this program as an exchange of thought, culture, and people.

With all this being said, I am looking to extend my research in Indonesia. And last but certainly not least, thank you!!! You were a wonderful mentor.

Caitlin Jordan AC ’13 from Indonesia

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I chose Fulbright because I knew that I wanted to gain more experience living and working outside of the U.S. to prepare for a future in international relations. I also wanted to know what it was like to be a teacher and to learn about school systems in other countries that I could share that knowledge. Furthermore, I didn’t want to commit to a long length of time abroad – like 2 years of Peace Corps – at the time that I applied to Fulbright.

When I got to my location, I first unpacked and organized my new room! I always like to spend a few hours upon arrival to a new place doing these things because it helps me to wind down after traveling and create a space that is truly ‘mine’ to come back to right away.
When things are everywhere or packed up all in suitcases in my living space, I can’t relax and focus on what truly matters – living and teaching here in Indonesia.

I brought my stuffed tiger (given to me by my grandparents) and a small beanbag turtle (via Japan-America Student Conference 64) with me because they both remind me of home and the friends that I’ve made in my life’s journey. I wouldn’t be where I am right now if it wasn’t for the family and friends I have made along the way and having a reminder of them halfway across the world is a daily comfort.

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The trip to get here was long; both in time spent on a plane and to become a Fulbrighter in general! Where I live in Indonesia – a city called Pangkal Pinang, which is the regional capital of a medium-sized island called Bangka – is just about equidistance from my home in Massachusetts. It took about 24 hours of total time on a plane (Boston – New York – Hong Kong – Jakarta – Pangkal Pinang) and another 9 or so sitting in airports waiting for my connecting flights. It was long but I met up with some of my fellow ETAs throughout the journey and made some new friends along the way!

As for the trip to become a Fulbrighter being long too, as an Ada Comstock Scholar, I had a few stops and starts on my educational pathway. The 10-year gap between graduating from high school and graduating from Smith was both wonderful and difficult and taught me a lot about myself and about the world. Even when I graduated from Smith in 2013 – I didn’t expect to become a Fulbrighter two years later! I’ve found though that life sometimes has a funny way of setting you on the paths you need; just not in ways you may expect.

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Something I have never done before is scuba dive! I actually have not done this in Indonesia yet either but I’m really looking forward to learning over the next few months so that I can experience all the stellar diving spots that that I plan to visit after my grant year is over. 

I was surprised by the friendliness of every person I have so far met in Indonesia. I have made countless new friends as well as new families here. People say hello whenever I pass by on my bike rides to school or to the markets and shops. I am invited to dinners, outings, or just to come inside for a drink and to talk, any and all times of day. It may partly be because I am the first foreigner (bule in Indonesian) that some in my medium-sized city have seen, but I think it is mostly that Indonesians are the kindest, friendliest, most wonderful people in general. They share even if they do not have enough to share because it’s a part of their religious culture and because they know one day it will be returned.

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I love going to school everyday! Being surrounded by the students and teachers on an almost daily basis is something I look forward to all the time. Whether I’m teaching, working on lesson plans at my desk (which usually turns into talking with teachers), chatting with the lunchroom workers, or watching a teacher’s singing contest, there is always something happening on campus and I love taking part in whatever I’m invited to (and even things that I am not).

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When I am teaching I try to make it as fun as possible for my high school kids. Learning is hard, learning English harder. Added to that is the challenge that many of the students I teach won’t even need to use English in their daily lives after they graduate. Due to all of these factors, I try my best to make what they have to learn as engaging and interesting as I can. I’m hopeful that it will spark further interest in English outside of the classroom and if not I hope that the activities I include at least help to make class exciting. 

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At the end of each day, I take a moment to breathe. Indonesia is a majority Muslim country and as such, five times a day I am surrounded by the call to prayer (azan). My favorite thing to do is sit outside on the porch of my house around 5:30pm, listening to the evening call to prayer (Maghreb) and watching the clouds and the sun set past the houses in my neighborhood. It is in those moments where I take that deep breath and reflect on the day. (There is still a bit of the day left by then but usually it’s taken up with eating and getting ready to go to sleep.) 

When I tell others about my Fulbright experience so far I tell them that I haven’t stopped moving or learning from the second I stepped off the plane in Jakarta. Every day is new, different, and exciting. Whether it’s shopping by myself in the traditional markets, experiencing a sudden concert on a Saturday night in the city center, hanging around with friends talking late into the afternoon or evening, or driving four hours to a deserted but beautiful beach, there is always something to do outside of my time at school. At the Pre-Departure Orientation before I left, a previous ETA had this piece of advice, “Say yes to everything.” I’ve been doing just that and it’s helped to shape my experience so far into something incredible.

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I want to tell a Smithie thinking about applying for a Fulbright DO IT, DO IT, DO IT!

Regardless of when you apply, the Fulbright experience and the process to get there will change your life.

If you’re not sure about it senior year, keep it in the back your mind for later. I did and I ended up in Indonesia! Fulbrighters are selected for their experience as much as for their ideas to research or their desire to teach. If you go out and teach, tutor, or do research for a few years, it will only help your application. Also don’t let age be a barrier, I am currently the oldest of the ETA cohort in Indonesia (at 31 years old) and there are many other Fulbright ETAs spread out across the world that are older too.

Smith’s application process can be draining – it takes weeks and sometimes months to whittle down a grant essay and personal statement into one single-spaced page with a lot of late nights, hours spent hunched over questionnaires and wording, and possibly tears in between.

However, it is absolutely worth it and not just if you win. The act of working on the application alone leads to many lessons about yourself – what experiences shape you, what your future might look like – and which of those experiences you can draw on in situations that you find yourself in as you move past college. (It also provides valuable experience writing grant proposals, which is always a useful skill to have!) So, if you’ve been thinking about it, take the leap. Send that inquiry email, go and talk to Ryan or Don. It’s hard, but you’ll be glad you did it regardless of the outcome. I promise.