Our Best & Brightest Go Abroad

Our Best & Brightest Go Abroad

by Carolyn Arnold

Over the years, Fairfield University students have built a strong reputation for successfully applying for and receiving prestigious Fulbright Scholarships, the U.S. government’s flagship international educational exchange program. More than 60 Fairfield students have received the coveted scholarship and studied and taught in all corners of the world. Just recently, the Fulbright Program announced that Fairfield University was among the nation’s 14 top-producing schools in its category.

“Working with our Fairfield students who apply for Fulbright fellowships is one of the most rewarding experiences I have had as a teacher and mentor,” said Dr. Janie Leatherman, professor of politics and director of the Fulbright Program at Fairfield. “It is truly exciting to see how our students work for months or even a year or more with the support of many faculty and advisers on an idea that has captured their imagination.”

In the 2012-13 academic school year, three students, as well as biology professor Dr.
Brian Walker, won scholarships that sent them to Ireland, Thailand, Jordan, and Brazil. Three more young alumni recently recalled their Fulbright experiences, which took place in 2008-2009, and talked about how the opportunity helped shape their careers.

Michael Davis ’08

The environmental impact of ethanol production

For Michael Davis, a double major in international studies and individually designed major in the College of Arts and Sciences, a willingness to “go with the flow” and integrate with the local people helped him adapt and thrive in Brazil.

Davis decided to apply for a Fulbright scholarship to Brazil after he spent a semester studying abroad in the country. His research project investigated the environmental impact of ethanol production. Today, Brazil is the only country that uses ethanol as a complete gasoline substitute, and is the world’s largest producer of sugarcane-based ethanol.

“I wanted to research the institutional history of the biofuel program in Brazil, because they have something that we don’t have: an ethanol option at every gas station in the country. They’ve had that since the 70s and were able to build up a national industry and nationalize it,” he said. “When I was first there [studying abroad] I saw people putting alcohol and natural gas in cars and wanted to explore that, but didn’t have time to do it.”

Davis conducted his Fulbright research in 2008-2009 at the University of Sao Paulo, the largest Brazilian university and one of the country’s most prestigious educational institutions. At the request of his program director, he assisted in designing a curriculum for a two-week intensive course on biofuels. The course was targeted towards doctoral and post-doctoral students and taught by government employees from Brazil and the U.S., including the USDA, Department of Energy; industry leaders, such as Petrobrás and DuPont; and both Brazilian and American research institutes.

Originally the course was very science focused and Davis worked to ensure that it was also accessible for non-science students. “It was fun to be in the room with the others who were designing the course and add my two cents,” he said. The project was commissioned for publication, which Davis helped to organize and write.

Today, Davis is completing law school at the University of Connecticut and interviewing for positions at district attorney’s offices to pursue a career in criminal prosecution. This may seem like a far cry from his work in Brazil, but Davis noted that the Fulbright program was really twofold. “You have the academics and then you have the connection with the people — and that’s the part that I took the most to heart.”

Prior to his Fulbright, Davis trained in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, which he was able to continue once he was there. “I spent a lot of time training and I think of that as my cultural passport. I was able to go places that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to go and meet so many different people. All of your differences really go away as soon as you put on the kimono and step on the mat,” he said.

His time building relationships with people at the university and in the city helped him expand his people skills. “Prosecution is a people business,” he explained. “You have to be able to connect with a variety of people and do it genuinely. My time in Brazil taught me that people are people and we all have the same basic needs, desires, and wants. When you understand that, you can connect with anyone at an equal level.”

Kathleen Bakarich ’08

The impact of international financial reporting standards on German accounting

“International accounting standards was a hot topic when I was an undergraduate student,” said Kathleen Bakarich, who graduated with an accounting degree from the Charles F. Dolan School of Business. “Germany had recently adopted EU standards and I was interested in what the effect would be.” A strong Fulbright proposal grew out of her curiosity.

Bakarich was interested in doing research internationally following a positive intersession trip to Florence between her sophomore and junior year. She felt confident that a Fulbright would be a good way to gain more international experience. As a student in Fairfield’s Honor’s Program, Bakarich, (with the help of her accounting advisor, Dr. Joan Van Hise), developed her Fulbright thesis in her junior year and completed much of the initial research in advance of when it was time to formally apply.

At the University of Frankfurt, Bakarich lived in a dorm with other German students, where she quickly improved her language skills. “I took German in high school, but switched to Spanish in college,” she explained. Prior to arriving in Germany she brushed up on her skills but noted, “When I was in Germany, I was at a much higher language level.”

In addition to her independent research on accounting standards, she took several courses (taught in German) on comparative German accounting, senior-level accounting, and corporate finance. Her research, which she submitted to the Fulbright commission in Germany, discussed the changing mindset of German auditors and accountants, transitions which, she reported, were difficult for the more conservative culture.

While her research was often independent, she gained valuable experiences at the German university. “It was great getting to know the people. I made many good friends, and living in the dorm really gave me a chance to interact with everyone,” she said. “You really feel like an ambassador, which is in line with the Fulbright goals.” Bakarich would often chat with Germans about U.S. culture, social norms, and especially politics because she was in Germany during the 2008 U.S. political elections.

Upon her return to the U.S., she began a position at McGladrey, a public accounting firm in Manhattan. She had already interned there while at Fairfield, and was offered a job following graduation, which she deferred for the Fulbright scholarship. She worked for three years as an auditor for McGladrey and in that time received her CPA for New York.

Last August, Bakarich was accepted to a Ph.D. program in international accounting at the City University of New York. Ultimately, she wants to teach at the university level. “I tutored in accounting while I was at Fairfield and it’s always been a goal of mine. I wanted to work for a few years and get experience and my CPA, but teaching is what I’ve always wanted to do.”

Left: Kathleen Bakarich ’08 in Germany; Right: Michael Davis ’08 was able to continuehis practice of Brazilian Jui Jitsu during his Fulbright experience in Sao Paulo.

Left: Kathleen Bakarich ’08 in Germany; Right: Michael Davis ’08 was able to continue his
practice of Brazilian Jui Jitsu during his Fulbright experience in Sao Paulo.

Matthew Ryder ’07

A population’s chance for assimilation found within

Matthew Ryder was already in China when he applied for his Fulbright scholarship. He had graduated in 2007 and, following graduation, worked over the summer to save money for a semester at Beijing University, rent, and a one-way ticket to China. Once there, he lived in a former communist work unit (not the most comfortable of places) and began his research on education opportunities for Chinese
moving to Beijing from elsewhere.

While at Fairfield, Ryder changed his major within the College of Art & Sciences several times before settling on a double major in Philosophy and an individually designed major focused on China. He developed an interest in the country after taking a religious studies course with Dr. Ronald Davidson. “Once I designed my own major on Chinese studies, I did two capstones, one of which was on internal immigration. I made the argument that education was one phenomenon that would open Beijing to the next generation of students who went to live in the city.” Other professors helped guide Ryder’s Chinese studies, including Dr. Danke Li (history) and Dr. Joy Gordon, in the philosophy department who encouraged him to apply for a Fulbright.

After spending six months in China, Ryder applied for and received a Fulbright for 2008-2009 to continue his research on access to public and private education and the opportunity for social mobility. He ended up staying in China until the early summer of 2010.

Before 2006, Ryder had never taken any Mandarin language courses and while he did take an intensive language studies course at the Monterey Institute of International studies, he said, “The way I learned a lot of my Mandarin Chinese was through the relationships I built and the people I met along the way.”

He spent a lot of time in a small migrant community outside of Beijing, where he made friends with many families. His research consisted, among other things, of four case studies of two students who went
to public school and two who went to private school. He studied the different types of education offered and the educational access available to students. “This research was the beginning of a bigger study on what access to education meant to students and families in the long term,” Ryder said.

At the conclusion of his research, Ryder presented his findings in Hong Kong, at several universities, and at educational conferences. He moved back to the States in 2010 and he said, “took a shot and moved to New York without a job and started applying to positions. I was lucky enough that I was offered a position at the nonprofit Asian Americans for Equality, to design education programs for recent immigrants from Asia.”

Ryder worked at the nonprofit for two years. In May 2012, he was accepted to a master’s program at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His program focuses on his growing specialty — immigration policy, with a focus on education for families.

He expects to graduate in 2014 and said that his career will be pointed towards educational policy and programming for immigrant students, either in the U.S. or internationally. “Personally, I think it’s one of the most important avenues for development and is the key avenue for any family to provide for a better life for their children or the next generation.”