Ten LAS students and young alumni offered Fulbright grants

Sixteen grantees from U of I are tied with the most ever offered in one year on campus
Fulbright recipients
(Clockwise from upper left): Amanda Oversen, Folashade Olumola, Damir Vucicevic, Janani Comar, Ksenia Polyarskaya, Carolina Bieri, Aeriel Burtley, Jan Balan, Owen MacDonald, and Sophia Ebel.

Ten students and young alumni from the College of LAS were offered Fulbright grants to pursue international education, research, and teaching experiences around the globe this coming year. They were among 16 total students and alumni from the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign offered grants through the program.

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program builds international relationships to help solve global challenges. This flagship international educational exchange program of the U.S. government awards grants to students based on their academic and professional achievement, as well as their ambassadorial skills and leadership potential. The Fulbright student program will fund approximately 2,200 U.S. citizens to live abroad for the 2022-23 academic year.

“After a couple years of reduced study-abroad opportunities, it is exciting that borders have reopened and Illinois students and alumni have been selected to take part in the amazing adventure that is study abroad as a Fulbrighter,” said David Schug, the director of the National and International Scholarships Program. “In fact, the 16 grantees from U of I match the highest number selected in our university’s history.”

“The disciplinary range of those awardees is also notable, with students from the fine arts, social sciences, humanities, and the sciences all being selected,” said Ken Vickery, the director of fellowships in the Graduate College. “Fulbright welcomes students of all stripes, and it’s great to see so many of our students, from so many departments, taking advantage of this extraordinary opportunity.”

The LAS students and young alumni who have accepted Fulbright grants include the following:

Jan Balan, from Chicago, a graduate of Whitney M. Young High School, has received a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to Spain. Balan graduated in May with a BA in teaching of Spanish. Since her freshman year, she has served as a teacher’s aide in a bilingual elementary school tutoring both Spanish and English. Balan also has volunteered and played piano for blind adults at the Friedman Place in Chicago. In Spain, she said she hopes to incorporate music into her classroom activities and use music to connect with her local community. After her Fulbright, Balan said she plans to earn a master’s degree in foreign language education and aspires to become a high school Spanish teacher.

Carolina Bieri, of West Dundee, Illinois, is a doctoral student in atmospheric sciences. She earned a bachelor’s degree in atmospheric science from Cornell University with a minor in climate change. Bieri was awarded a Fulbright grant to collaborate with scientists at the Universidade de Santiago de Compostela in Spain on improving a computer model used for climate predictions. She said this kind of interdisciplinary international scientific collaboration is critical in confronting the global climate crisis and developing climate change mitigation strategies. While in Santiago de Compostela, Bieri also plans to work with the university’s Office of Sustainable Development to develop community events aimed at empowering school-aged girls to devise solutions to climate change-related problems.

Aeriel Burtley, of Chicago, a graduate of the British School of Chicago, has earned a Fulbright grant to teach English in Sofia, Bulgaria. Burtley graduated with a BA in political science in December. On campus, she facilitated leadership workshops for two years as a Graf Intern at the Illinois Leadership Center and for three years worked at the Bruce D. Nesbitt African American Cultural Center improving the retention of minority students at Illinois. Burtley also served as a Design Your First Year Experience course instructor for the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences and tutored adult students in English at the Urbana Adult Education Center. Burtley currently is a workforce development specialist for New York Courts, facilitating the professional and holistic development of noncustodial fathers. After her Fulbright year, Burtley said she aspires to serve as a linguist for the Federal Bureau of Investigation after receiving a juris doctor.

Janani Comar, of Downers Grove, Illinois, has accepted a Fulbright-Nehru Student Research grant to India to study how non-elite writers and communities participated in the shaping of Hindu ethics in colonial times. Comar earned her master’s degree in religion in May 2019 before beginning a doctoral program at the University of Toronto. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from the California Institute of Technology. In India, Comar plans to conduct her study by developing relationships with scholars of folk performance and artists, accessing local manuscript material, and working with scholars to translate Indian texts. She said she also plans to continue training in the Indian dance form Bharatanatyam and in martial arts to engage with other members of Indian society. Comar said her career goal is to become a professor who broadens her students’ cultural understanding through teaching courses in Hinduism, empire, and religious narratives.

Sophia Ebel, of Champaign, and a graduate of the University of Illinois Laboratory High School, was awarded a Fulbright combined award to Austria. There, she will teach English at a teacher training college while also conducting research on the representation of refugee narratives within Austrian secondary school classrooms. Ebel graduated in May as a Bronze Tablet Scholar and member of the Campus Honors Program and James Scholar with majors in comparative literature and Germanic Languages and Literatures, and minors in French and Arabic studies. While in Austria, she plans to host English-language cooking classes and expand a local library collection through book drives and fundraisers. After her Fulbright year, Ebel said she plans to stay in Austria to pursue a master’s degree before attaining a PhD in the U.S.

Owen MacDonald, from Overland Park, Kansas, is a doctoral student in history. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history, Latin American and Caribbean studies, and political science, and a master’s in African and African American studies from the University of Kansas. He was offered a Fulbright to conduct research in northwestern Brazil on an early 20th-century effort to construct a railroad that would have transported rubber from the Brazilian interior to foreign markets. MacDonald said while the railroad was a commercial failure, its reliance on Black Caribbean migrant workers profoundly shaped local communities. He hopes his project will make an important contribution to Brazilian labor history. While in Brazil, MacDonald said he looks forward to sharing his love of the sport of strongman, and his competitive experience as Topeka’s second strongest man, with local fitness enthusiasts.

Folashade Olumola, of Homewood, Illinois, and a graduate of Homewood-Flossmoor High School, has earned a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Award to teach university students in Turkey. Olumola graduated in May with a political science major. She was a James Scholar honors student and spent the spring 2022 semester studying Arabic in Oman as a Boren Scholar. At Illinois, Olumola served as a residential assistant and volunteered as an English conversation partner with the Intensive English Institute. She also served as a teaching assistant intern for an introductory course in the College of LAS to familiarize incoming international students with campus culture and complemented this work as a global leader for the Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations to connect domestic and international students. Olumola said she aspires to work as a foreign service officer for the U.S. Agency for International Development under the Bureau of Development, Democracy, and Innovation.

Amanda Oversen, of Highland Park, Illinois, and a graduate of Highland Park High School, has been awarded a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to Spain. Oversen graduated in December from the College of Applied Health Sciences with a major in speech and hearing science and a minor in Spanish. At Illinois, she served as a teaching assistant in the Child Development Laboratory. Oversen also served as a camp counselor at the Center on Deafness. While in Spain, Oversen said she plans to learn Spanish Sign Language and connect with the local deaf community, as her goal is to become a bilingual speech-language pathologist for elementary school-aged students. She also is interested in how to cultivate cultural-linguistic diversity in the American school system. After her Fulbright, Oversen said she plans to enroll in a master’s program for speech-language pathology.

Ksenia Polyarskaya, of Vernon Hills, Illinois, and a graduate of Adlai E. Stevenson High School, has accepted one of 10 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Awards to teach at higher education institutions in Kazakhstan. Polyarskaya graduated in May as a James Scholar honors student with a BMUS degree in instrumental music from the College of Fine and Applied Arts, with minors in Spanish, business, and English as a second language. A first-generation American from Transnistria, Polyarskaya earned TESL certification and spent two years on campus as a course instructor for college freshmen. She also worked as a Graf Intern with the Illinois Leadership Center co-facilitating educational workshops and spent a semester guiding low-income, minority high school students preparing for college. Post-Fulbright, Polyarskaya said she hopes to attend law school to further her goal of advancing accessibility to international education as a human rights advocate and international law attorney.

Damir Vucicevic, of Hamtramck, Michigan, was awarded a Fulbright to conduct research in Belgrade, Serbia, on Yugoslav-Egyptian relations during the Cold War. Vucicevic earned a bachelor’s degree in history and political science from the University of Michigan, Dearborn and a master’s in history from Tufts University. Vucicevic is a doctoral student in history, and his dissertation examines the extent of Yugoslavia’s influence on the broader Non-Aligned Movement that sought to establish a neutral “third way” within the geopolitical climate of the Cold War. While in Belgrade, Vucicevic hopes to use his own experience as a Yugoslav-American, along with his proficiency in Arabic and Serbian, to serve as a cultural ambassador between the U.S., Serbia, and recent Arabic-speaking migrants to the country.

The Fulbright program is jointly administered at Illinois by the National and International Scholarships Program, which works with undergraduates and recent alumni, and the Graduate College Office of External Fellowships, which supports graduate students. Additionally, Illinois faculty members, returned Fulbrighters and staff with geographic and programmatic expertise review student application materials and conduct candidate interviews.

Applications are open for students interested in pursuing studies, fine arts, research or English teaching assistantships under the Fulbright for the 2023-24 academic year.

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Illinois News Bureau and College of LAS