Suburban Macondo

Monday, April 25, 2005

Proudly, sadly half-bright

Dear Fulbright Commission members:

It is with great regret that I write this letter to you. After five months of investigating Venezuelan baseball, exploring the country up and down and intensely immersing myself in a cultural and personal search, I write to you to resign from the Fulbright U.S. Student Program effective immediately, March 15, 2005.

It has been six weeks since the Fulbright program suspended my funding halfway through my grant period. I’ve gone through the spectrum, red to violet, livid to sullen, indignant to resigned, searching for an adequate emotional and intellectual response. The second I think I’ve grasped it all and can clearly see where I am and where I’m going, everything changes and I spin back away into indecision and doubt. The trip to Cartagena, then, was the ultimate way to let all of these emotions crash into one another over and over again. The trip had been originally booked to attend the Andean Fulbright conference, but when we couldn’t refund our tickets after receiving the committee’s decision, we were stuck going the same weekend as the conference. We were stuck going to a place where there would be other real-life, still-funded Fulbrighters walking about, the government paying for their transportation, their five-star hotel and their bottles of Águila beer.

The experience afforded to me by the State Department and IIE was truly an amazing one. My experiences here in Mérida thoroughly have changed me as an investigator and as an individual, and I am grateful for the funding that I have received during the past five months.

I alternately dreaded and anticipated interaction with other Fulbrighters. They’d be there from all over the Andes, from Bolivia to Venezuela, and I knew we’d run into some of them at one point or another. Maybe on the group tour. Maybe at dinner. Maybe after the conference, at the beach. It was bound to happen.

However, the same changes that so excited me and pushed me to think outside of the sports journalism box are the same changes that ultimately led to the suspension of my grant.

I didn’t know what I’d tell them. I was sure the other Fulbrighter here in Venezuela, who is in grad school studying frogs, would explain to them what had happened. I was sure they’d come into any conversation with a fixed set of ideas about me and about my project(s). I was sure they’d judge me as I explained myself, checking to see if I’d really merited funding in the first place.

But I tried not to worry about it. Who knew if we’d actually run into anyone, particularly with the grantees holed up in their posh hotel for lectures during most of the week. Besides, we’d be seeing Cartagena our way, in backpacker hostels and small, crowded restaurants, not in a resort in the most expensive part of the city. We’d be mixing it up in the middle of it all while they stayed out on the edges, safe. I told myself this, but after spending half a night killing cockroaches at Hostal Doral, I wondered what I had been thinking when I decided to go to Fulbright with a new project proposal.

After living in Mérida for a while, I began to realize that sports journalism was not for me. I began to think of other career options and interests, and men’s studies, which I had plunged into at the end of my collegiate career, came to the fore. Although the project I proposed to you seems to be a far cry from a journalistic project on baseball, it was not that big of a jump for someone who spent much of his time reading men’s studies theory and working at a national sports magazine.

During the first week of our trip, when we were exploring Cartagena’s balconies and forts and horse-drawn carriages and shooing away flies and vendors at Playa Blanca, we didn’t see one Fulbrighter. Not one. And so no explanations were needed. It was kind of nice.

Soon enough, though, we met a couple of them. The first one came in Taganga, a small fishing village four hours east of Cartagena. She was a journalist studying internal displacement in Colombia. She was very academic. And she knew all about me.

“You’re famous, you know,” she told me. I didn’t, but I had a hunch.

The experience was a good one. I imagine that most people with grants like to talk about themselves and their projects, if only because they get so used to doing it in their home countries (Why am I here? Well, I got this grant from the government to …). So she talked a lot about her project. She told me about the amazing Fulbright commission in Colombia, which works out of the embassy in Bogotá but which provides support to grantees whenever they need it. People to help when you’re unsure of yourself! That would’ve been nice. When I got to Venezuela, I didn’t understand that the people at the embassy were my only contacts. When I re-proposed my project on Andean masculinity, I didn’t even forward them the e-mail.

And while I did not and do not agree with the evaluations made by the committee regarding my re-proposal—particularly with regard to the way those evaluations were expressed to me by the Embassy’s Bill Ancker—I now understand that the grant has much more to do with the project proposed, not with the scholar proposing it.

I guess it was the faceless nature of the program that bothered me. There were two Fulbrighters here, but it seemed like they didn’t want to deal with us at all. You’d think that in a country that carries constant travel warnings the embassy would want to keep tabs on the government-funded scholars in the country. Then again, maybe not. That would mean getting to know them, contacting them often, actually working at something.

Soon we moved on from Taganga to Parque Nacional Tayrona, a beautiful coastal area filled with rocky, tumultuous beaches, ruins and all sorts of jungle animals. There we met one more Fulbrighter, a fiction writer working in Cusco, Peru, home of the Inca empire. She was working on a historical novel about Inca women sacrificed by their own people. Intense stuff. Anyway, she and her husband had both heard a lot about me at the conference, and my suspension had started a bunch of conversations about the actual goal of the program—was it cultural exchange, as Fulbright advertises, or was it project funding?

More interesting, though, was the discussion they had about the increased politicization of the program. Apparently, the Fulbright was not administered by the State Department until several years ago. Now that it is, who’s to say that they don’t want to keep a small number of Fulbrighters in Venezuela, a country whose president once called Bush a “prick” on national television? And who’s to say that changing your project from one the embassy and state department really liked wouldn’t affect how they judged your new proposal? (As I was told by the immortal Bill Ancker, the embassy was working hard to accentuate the positive interactions between Venezuela and the United States, and baseball was the one thing the countries had in common. "We really liked the baseball project.")

As Bill told me on the phone Monday, “Unfortunately, we have to evaluate you on paper.” On paper, my project apparently did not stand up to the rigorous standards of the Fulbright program.

In some ways, I was probably better off not knowing what other Fulbrighters felt. This writer, Rebecca, spent a lot of time with us in Tayrona, and it was refreshing to mull over our frustrations with the program, conversations that made me realize that I hadn’t had much of a connection to anybody during my grant period in Venezuela. I had been a freelance grantee, far from the embassy and lacking guidance throughout one period in my life in which it would have been really helpful. Having an academic community, or at least a support system, around me certainly would have helped. Knowing the people in the embassy trusted me and were interested in my personal growth would have been nice, too.

But in the future I urge you as a committee to stand behind the hundreds of researchers, reporters, artists and writers who earn Fulbright grants every year. We are driven, successful and thoughtful people who want to work and study and understand the cultures in which we are living. At times, we even change our minds about what it is we want to be researching, reporting or creating. Remember that you chose us scholars and thinkers not only for our projects, which are often fascinating and eye-opening, but also for our personalities, our past experiences, and our dreams. Trust that we, as dedicated grantees, will make the right decisions with regard to our career goals and interests.

By the time we left Tayrona, the Fulbright experience had taken on a whole new meaning for me. In some ways, I came to understand that when I applied for the grant, back in Fall 2003, I was the perfect candidate. I had been successful in my field, I had in-country contacts, and I had an interesting, multi-faceted project that would inform one culture about the other. (And it was a project about baseball.) But by the time I received the grant, in the late spring of 2004, I was not nearly as good a candidate. I was starting to think about a fiction-writing career, or an academic one, and sports journalism didn’t interest me nearly as much as it once had. Of course, Fulbright never knew this.

And most importantly, get to know us. Don’t wait until regional conferences—get out and meet the people you are funding. If you do that, I’m sure this program won’t be solely about proposals and check-signing, but rather about people and the amazing visions they aspire to understand.

I hope to leave it all behind now, to move forward with my writing and my individual studies. I hope to forget about the frustrations of these past six months, about the indecision I’ve suffered through since last summer. I hope to do what I want to do, what I need to do. And I hope that at some point, Fulbright understands that they could have handled my situation differently, and better.

Because, in the end, not every decision should be made on paper.


  • Ian,

    I'm sorry you feel so badly about losing your scholarship. I thought it was history to you. Since you appear to be reaching out for understanding, I will offer some thoughts, albeit maybe not what you may want to hear, on the subject.

    You need to let it go, and you need to let it go without resentment. You tried to change the rules of the game in midstream. They said, How? You showed them. They said, No. If any blame is to be placed maybe it should be on your shoulders not theirs?

    You're a very good writer and young in age. I enjoy all that you write (except the bowel stuff). Change course with confidence and carry on but do so with modesty not pride. Look forward to the next great adventure!!!

    With love, Paul

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:49 PM  

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