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Back from Down Under: A Fulbrighter Says “Just Do It”

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As two graduate students from the U prepare to embark on their time abroad researching and teaching in South Asia, another U “Fulbrighter”—Lynnette Averill–reflects on her experience in Australia two years ago and where her path has led since returning.

The thought of working or studying abroad can seem unattainable for many students in graduate school. I desperately wanted to travel internationally and to work with leaders in my field of interest. Yet, working abroad was challenging due to a lack of financial resources and time; limited language abilities; and any number of additional factors including family and work commitments. When thinking about working and studying abroad, I thought, “Ha! Dream on. Not gonna happen!” Then, I found the Fulbright Program.

Fulbright is one of the largest international exchange programs in the world. It offers amazing opportunities for students, scholars, and professionals to undertake a variety of work, including international graduate study and training, advanced research, university teaching, and teaching in elementary and secondary schools worldwide. While the Program is sponsored by the United States (US) government, there are opportunities for both US citizens and noncitizens. I would fully encourage anyone dreaming of working and/or studying abroad to look into this program and take advantage of all it offers. I offer my experience as a Fulbrighter to share advice and helpful tips for prospective applicants.

Ali Sebaly, Lynnette and Chris Averill at the US Ambassador's home in Canberra, Australia

My year as a Fulbright Scholar at the Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health (ACPMH) was one of the most amazing experiences of my personal and professional history. It was a chance to solidify and consolidate new knowledge and skills; collaborate on a range of research projects; and build professional networks and relationships with an outstanding group of people. Additionally, I experienced Australia’s amazing and vibrant culture, people, wildlife and breathtaking landscapes.

I spent the majority of my time at ACPMH working on my project: the relationship between alcohol use and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among Australian military veterans. I also had the invaluable experience of being able to collaborate on other projects, including another alcohol-related study with the Veteran’s Psychiatry Unit. Additionally, I was exposed to a range of other trauma-related work, such as psychological first aid, trauma rehabilitation services, and traumatic injury in police and emergency responders, bush fire survivors, and international refugees. I gained a wealth of trainings and education on effective treatments for PTSD and other posttraumatic mental health problems, policy development and service development.

American Fulbrighters who did their work in Australia

How can I sum up my experiences as a Fulbrighter? It was awesome. It was an incredible journey and the best thing I have done personally and professionally. I miss it everyday—the experience, the people, the city, culture and work. Fulbright provides opportunity for academic and professional growth,

Twelve Apostles rock formation along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria

but also personal growth as they encourage Fulbrighters to work hard, but to play hard too.  I tried to be a sponge—a “Fulbright Sponge”—and soak up every experience I could.  My husband and I had many great adventures: touring the Great Ocean Road, hiking to breathtaking waterfalls, watching Little Penguins in their natural habitat. I even learned patch-working and appliqué.

Since coming home, I’ve completed all of my doctoral coursework and passed my qualifying exams. I’ve continued to gain clinical hours, work on my dissertation and start applications for internships. I work full-time at the VA in the Mental Illness, Research, Education and Clinical Center doing research, psych assessments and other things which have provided additional experience and training. I also serve on the Utah chapter Fulbright Board of Directors and am on the interview committee for the U’s Fulbright applicants. I plan to stay actively involved as a Fulbright Alum.

All the Fulbrighters meeting Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in Canberra

To the U’s new Fulbrighters I say: have a wonderful time, if you enjoy your year half as much as I enjoyed mine, you are going to have an incredible adventure.

To those thinking about pursuing a Fulbright opportunity, I offer the following advice:

1. Fill out the application. Not doing so seriously limits the chances of you getting the award and you may have that nagging “what if…” feeling for the rest of your life. You may not get the award and then you carry on with life as usual (or apply again). But, you may get the award and embark on one of the most amazing journeys of your lifetime.

2. Make contact with your potential host(s). E-mail them, call them, send a letter, meet them in person at professional meetings to network and make connections. I made contact with my hosts prior to the 2006 ISTSS Annual Meeting. I then met them in person at the Annual Meeting to discuss my application, ideas for my project, and, perhaps most importantly, to spend time getting acquainted. You will be working quite closely during your scholarship term, so you want to be sure your host is someone you get along with. And, on the positive side, even if your application isn’t awarded, you have built a professional relationship with someone you respect and admire in your area of interest, opening doors to other opportunities for collaboration.

The relationship-building will be of huge benefit, as your potential hosts can provide a letter of support for your application. Should the Fulbright Program contact them to discuss the possibility of granting you the award, they know and can speak directly about you and your work.

3. Allow ample time to gather all the necessary information and to complete the paperwork. The application requires three letters of recommendation and encourages a letter of support from your potential host institution (as this will be coming via international mail, allow extra time). Provide your letter writers with plenty of time and all the information they will need to write a letter of support.

4. Related to #3, double check the deadlines given by your home institution (likely your university). They may have earlier deadlines than Fulbright. This gives the home institution time to review each application before they interview the applicant. (There is an interview required prior to submitting your Fulbright application, but it should just consist of questions about your project and why you want a Fulbright.)

5. Engage in self-care during the application process. It can be absolutely grueling and anxiety provoking. The applications are due in September or October. You will likely find out in February if your application has made it through the first round and has been sent on to your potential host country. The end of April is the earliest you will likely be notified as to whether you did or did not receive your award. Patience is certainly not a virtue I have enough of, and I found the waiting to be excruciating. Be sure you have a great support system and tend to your anxiety should it arise.

Author on the beach in Hutt Gully, along the Great Ocean Road

6. Should you get the award, take full advantage of the opportunity. Learn all that you can, engage in your community as much as possible, engage in the culture and build relationships (personal and professional) with those you meet. Remember that you have friends and potentially a surrogate family in your fellow Fulbrighters. This should be a life-changing year. Contact me with any questions at averill.psych@utah.edu.

Parts of this essay first appeared in “Traumatic Stress Points” a  newsletter of the International Society of Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS).