Fulbright Reflections with Lauren Forbes

By the Drexel Fellowships Office

Wenchi Crater Lake trip - Fulbright Scholar Lauren Forbes

Lauren Forbes (Public Health, MPH ’13) recently returned from her year abroad as a Fulbright Student Scholar in Ethiopia. The Drexel Fellowships Office worked closely with Lauren on her Fulbright application and they were very excited to hear about her experience. 

This summer, the Fellowships Office is working with a new group of Fulbright applicants for the 2015-16 grant year. Drexel students and alums who are interested in applying or want to learn more about the program and how the Fellowships Office can provide support, please visit the Fellowships website. The Fulbright US Student Program campus deadline is September 4 and the national deadline is October 14. 

What did you do as a Fulbright Scholar in Ethiopia?

I ended up doing something very different from what I proposed in my application, but somehow I think I expected that. My proposed project was a tentative adolescent reproductive health project, but I was informed at the last minute that my affiliation would no longer be able to host me. Subsequently, an advisor connected me with World Vision Ethiopia (WVE), where I ultimately worked with the Education Department to design an early childhood development (ECD) program for community-based resource centers that would be piloted in rural communities across the country. While at WVE, I also helped to write a community mobilization toolkit that will be used by field staff for conducting participatory research across all sectors and supported the expansion of a highly successful literacy boost program.

What was the most rewarding and the most challenging part of the experience? 

Definitely the relationships that I was able to build with my coworkers. There was never a dull moment with them, and they always made me feel welcome despite the language barriers. Outside of the job, my most rewarding experiences were working with the preschool Sunday School class that I volunteered with on Sundays and the 5th grade class at a local elementary school that I worked with during the week. The 5th grade class had a welcome song that they sung me every time I came to work with them! It was incredibly humbling to see the dilapidated conditions in which they were learning, and yet their fervor for learning and hospitable welcome to me as an outsider.

The most challenging part was my inability to go into the field, which was due to management decisions outside of my control. Going into “the field” is a part of any international development work, especially as a public health professional, because without seeing the local context and interacting with the people who will be impacted by the program, one really can’t design a program localized for the community it will affect. City life in Ethiopia is vastly different from rural life, and I worried about how the lack of visits in the field would compromise the quality of my work and somehow invalidate my experience in Ethiopia. Ultimately I realized I was still contributing in a meaningful way to the organization by laying the framework for this ECD program.

Was there a particularly surprising or memorable event from your time abroad that you feel comfortable sharing? What did you learn from it? 

I learned endless life lessons from some of my most trusted taxi drivers. Most of the drivers who I relied on worked in my neighborhood and gave me many rides around the city, as I only sparingly used the more common and less reliable minibus transport. Over time we developed close relationships, and I would often ask them about the health of their families and children while we drove around the city. Upon finding out about my own marital status, many of them would proceed to give me unsolicited dating/marital advice in broken English, and their opinions varied from “You’re getting older, it’s time to get married now and start having children” to “You are still so young – don’t get married unless he’s the right one.” Rather than being offended, I was entertained by the irony of it all, and delighted that they felt comfortable enough with me to give me this life advice like I was their niece or little sister. And the joy and excitement that they seemed to have when talking about their own families was contagious, despite the obvious hardships and economic stressors that they faced working in an industry with very little regulation and virtually no job security.

Did you have a support network while you were there? If so, can you tell me how you built that and what kind of support you received? 

I had a tremendous support network while in Ethiopia, which was key to making this such an enjoyable experience and smooth transition into Ethiopian culture. My primary foundation was my friends and family in the U.S whom I regularly kept in touch with via Skype, email, and my blog. I also had the support of my coworkers and senior management, all of whom I built strong relationships with. I had friends through the church I attended, who often gave me advice on where I could find certain items and other things important for new arrivals. Some of them also hosted me for holiday dinners like Ethiopian Christmas and Easter; thanks to them, I never had to spend a holiday alone. I had an expansive network of expat and local friends whom I met mostly through my roommates and other Fulbrighters, so not only did I get to meet people from all over the world but it was also great for professional development and networking purposes since many of us had similar interests. Finally my roommates and downstairs neighbors – we all became the best of friends. In fact, we still keep in touch regularly and are planning our reunion in the U.S.

Has your experience as a Fulbright Scholar changed you (or your ideas/goals/beliefs, etc.)? If so, how? 

This Fulbright experience has reminded me that to whom much is given, much is required. I saw this demonstrated by those like Haile Gebreselassie, the great Ethiopian distance runner, who is one of the wealthiest men in Ethiopia. He and many others continually give back to fellow Ethiopians through philanthropy projects. This attitude of altruism and social responsibility reminded me of my own responsibility to support those who are disadvantaged in my own community in the U.S. I have come to realize that the urban poverty challenges facing African-Americans have much in common with urban poverty in many African nations, and my goal is to work on integrative solutions to collectively and sustainably address these issues.

The Fulbright experience also enabled me to see the amazing transformation of Ethiopia, which I think is largely unknown to the rest of the world which continues to view the country as the epitome of poverty and suffering. Not only is Ethiopia one of the fastest growing economies on the continent, but also the health sector has been revolutionized by the massive health extension program (HEP), which has brought primary healthcare and health education to millions of rural Ethiopians.

I have also grown through this Fulbright experience to be increasingly comfortable with starting a conversation with complete strangers and interacting with people who have very different circumstances and backgrounds than my own. I feel confident that I can adapt well to any situation that I find myself in, whether that be a social event with friends or a career related event where I am suddenly put on the spot. For some, this might be second nature, but for me this is something that developed over time and will be great benefit throughout the rest of my life.