Soon-to-be-UT graduate Kristen Murray is undoubtedly the best argument for making sure to check junk email folders.
Murray, who will graduate May 5 with a bachelor of arts degree in global studies, received a prestigious gift last week — an email from J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board representatives notifying her that she’d been selected a Fulbright student ambassador to Mexico.“I’d been waiting to hear because it’s been hard to plan the next year until I knew,” Murray, a Toledo native, said and chuckled. “My friend had just asked about it and said, ‘Whatever happens, happens for a reason,’ and there was the letter in my junk mail.”
Murray will be an English teaching assistant in a yet-unassigned area of Mexico from September 2018 to May 2019. The Bowsher High School graduate also submitted a plan to create a volleyball team in her Mexican community or participate in an existing program.
“They really want you immersed in the local community when you’re not teaching,” Murray said. “I played volleyball and coached seventh grade, freshman and varsity while in college, so it will be a great way to tie together all of my passions.”
The Fulbright Award is named for former U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright, who in 1945 introduced a bill to promote goodwill between the U.S. and other countries. Today, the program awards 3,500 student scholarships each year in research, study and teaching to 140 countries.
Being selected a Fulbright scholar is a competitive and, as Murray discovered, a lengthy process. She applied in summer 2017, was notified that she was a finalist in January (via an email in her junk folder), and endured a tough interview before receiving last week’s notification.
Murray’s global studies advisor, Dr. Jetsa Cáceres, associate professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration, said the award will have benefits beyond her time in Mexico.
“It’s a huge deal,” Cáceres said, noting that only 54 Fulbright Awards to Mexico are offered. “It gives students an opportunity to live abroad for a year and experience cultures, languages and opportunities they’ll never get in a classroom.
“Fulbright scholars have gone on to be Nobel prize winners, leaders in business, government and academia, and global trailblazers. If I was on a hiring committee and I had a choice of a candidate who had a Fulbright experience and one who did not, I’d choose the Fulbright scholar without even thinking.”
The Fulbright Award is another step toward Murray’s eventual goal of working in the U.S. Department of State with a specialty in Latin-American relations. She’s had internships in Peru, Cuba and Ecuador, and was elected by the Organization of American States as an international observer of the Ecuadoran election process in 2017.
Calling the experience “amazing,” Murray recalled, “I got to see firsthand one of the cornerstones of democracy, a presidential election in a different country. I got to talk to everyone in the town where I was living about the elections, including different groups such as Afro-Ecuadorans and indigenous Ecuadorans about the political climate and how it affected them.”
Murray understands the current U.S. political climate will be a topic of keen discussion once she arrives in her assigned city.
“I definitely think I’ll get a lot of questions about the current administration and the situation here in the U.S.,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons I should go. I think it’s important that people judge our country not only on news and policy, but from meeting me as a U.S. citizen and knowing me as an actual person.”
This summer, she’ll study for her GRE so she can apply to graduate schools in December. She plans to earn a master’s degree in Latin American affairs.
With an “about 80 percent” fluency in Spanish, Murray also intends to use her time in Mexico to master the language while immersing herself in the culture of its people.
“I think it’s important to understand the countries we’re creating policies with and making deals with,” she said. “A lot of times, the voices of those who are most affected by policy are left out of the discussion. I want to try to change that.”