Recent grads do world of good as Fulbright students
Meera Nagarajan’s path to Athens, Greece, as a Fulbright U.S. Student began when she read an article about hungry Greek children picking through school garbage for food. Their school didn’t offer lunches; their families were too strapped to send food.
In the accompanying New York Times photo, a father peers into a fridge populated only with condiment bottles. Nagarajan had heard this story before — from clients at the food pantry where she volunteered just blocks from Ohio State’s Columbus campus.
“When they open the fridge, they just have ketchup and white bread,” she said.
As an undergraduate researcher and nutrition science major, Nagarajan studied how nutrient levels affect food pantry clients; she found that 50 percent of them skip meals and suffer from poor diet. The overall rate of food insecurity is likely closer to 60 percent in Greece, a country racked by economic crisis and an exploding refugee population.
“Greece is facing a very similar trend that we have faced . . . where this is a high-income country in which families can’t afford food anymore,” the recent graduate said.
The parallels spurred Nagarajan to apply for a Fulbright U.S. Student award to conduct independent research with the Program on Food Aid and Promotion of Healthy Nutrition, or DIATROFI, which provides lunches to Greek schoolchildren. She will travel to Athens in September to study how the program impacts children’s health.
“If they’re doing something different and it’s working,” she said, “can I bring that back to the U.S.? Can it help improve health outcomes and nutrition outcomes?”
Eradicating hunger in both countries means sifting through layers of challenges: Does eating nutritionally depleted food create health problems? Will people eat unfamiliar, healthier food if they’re unsure how to prepare it? Does the stress of seeking food affect health, or even the ability to find food?
Nagarajan spent her undergraduate career finding answers and raising awareness about hunger. She created Food Fellows, a pilot program to educate interdisciplinary students about food issues through community service. She helped screen a documentary on hunger and coordinated a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Challenge for students to live on a food-budget of $4.50 a day.
Living on rice and beans that week, she “felt tired.” Others, she knows, struggle so much more.
“I thought about food all the time. What if I had kids? What if I had to pay utilities or had health issues? I can’t imagine how stressful that would be.
“That constant cycle of never having certainty can mess with your metabolism but also impact your health,” she said.
Addressing hunger in Greece poses tougher obstacles still. The country’s economy has tanked; unemployment is at 25 percent. One million refugees have arrived since 2015, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees; they face severe malnourishment.
“I’m interested just to be in that space at this time to see what’s going on. It will be a huge learning opportunity,” Nagarajan said.
She will carry to Greece lessons learned at the food pantry on Fourth Street in Columbus.
“When I had those one-on-one conversations with clients — really listened to their stories — that’s what changed it for me,” she said.
Nagarajan plans to attend medical school after returning from Greece.
Foreign language grad finds ‘pura vida’ in teaching
Costa Ricans don’t drink from paper cups on the go. That’s why Mo Burke can’t wait to return as a Fulbright U.S. Student in February.
“Coffee is a way to unify people; you sit down with people and you talk,” said Burke, a foreign language education graduate who studied internationally in 2014 and found Costa Rica’s “pura vida” lifestyle restorative.
Teachers at the school where she interned took two coffee breaks daily to discuss work and life; her witty host grandma, 95, greeted her with a cup after school.
As a Fulbright awardee, Burke will teach university English for 10 months, possibly in Heredia or another city.
“From a very young age, I loved being a mentor,” she said. “I like to help others have that ‘lightbulb’ moment when they figure it out.”
She aspires to visit all 21 Spanish-speaking countries.
“Everyone is in a rush to get that first job. I want to travel and have these experiences because those are lessons I can apply in the classroom.”
TESOL grad ‘drawn’ to other cultures
What hooked Marcus Michael on the idea of teaching English in Bulgaria as a Fulbright U.S. Student? Was it online photos of red clay roofs snuggled in mountain shadows, or Roman baths coursing with mineral waters?
Was it musings of another EHE graduate, Sarah Craycraft, BA ’13, whose Bulgaria blog opined about leaving behind her illuminati-debating, coffee-chugging students?
Michael, a teacher of English to speakers of other languages (TESOL) graduate, had traveled and yearned to teach overseas. In China and Vietnam, he fell in love with the culture, the people, the cities.
“Man, I’m drawn to this,” he said.
Bulgaria, it turns out, is the third most-preserved country in the world. An outdoorsy-type, Michael is captivated. In August, he will teach grades 8-12 in small-town Kyustendil. He and his dog (which he hopes to take) will go skijoring, or dog-drawn skiing, in the surrounding valleys.
“This will be an awesome career start for me,” Michael said. “It’s exactly what I want to do.”
Until he goes, he’s cramming language lessons, meeting with former Fulbright students and doing some musing of his own.
Immigrant’s granddaughter finds her roots
Though orphaned at a young age, Mika Sasaki’s Korean grandmother had deep connections to the country she left behind. Sasaki loved hearing her granny reminisce about life in a faraway town.
But, “I always wanted to speak to her in her home language,” she said.
Now, she can. Sasaki will travel to Korea in July to teach English as a Fulbright U.S. Student for one year. It will be her fourth trip there; she graduated with a dual degree in English language arts education and Korean in May.
Her first trip there almost didn’t happen. In high school, she wanted to go to the Dominican Republic. Her parents encouraged her to discover her roots instead by taking a language course in Korea. Reluctantly, she took their advice . . . and never regretted it.
Nearly all of her grandmother’s relatives in Korea had died, but she found “family” there nonetheless.
“I really fell in love with Korea,” she said. “The culture is very familial. You refer to strangers as ‘older brother’ and ‘older sister.’ It’s a very close-knit culture that I really, really love.”
Sasaki dreams of creating an international school in America, which — like the Fulbright program — fosters mutual understanding between countries.