Fulbright is about making connections – and sometimes reconnections.
At the Fulbright Association’s 40th Annual Conference in 2017, Phyllis Bell Miller, who was displaying her research in a poster presentation, noticed the impeccable fashion of another poster presenter. As a fashion design researcher, she was specifically impressed with the African-influenced pattern of this woman’s clothing and her unique hat. The woman had an unusually familiar look about her, so Phyllis approached her to ask where she had bought the hat. The woman revealed it was from Detroit, which happened to be where Phyllis had attended high school. As it turned out, so had she. It was then that Phyllis realized why she looked so familiar: the woman was Brenda McGadney, a high school classmate whom she had not seen in the 50 years since graduation!
After this serendipitous encounter, Phyllis and Brenda found that they had more in common than their love of fashion (though this is no small point, as Brenda designs her own outfits and fashion designer Phyllis created the shawl she wore using a special knitting technique). They were two of the few African American students in Edwin Denby High School’s Class of 1968, a primarily white district. They both chose Edwin Denby for its academic excellence: Phyllis wanted to study foreign languages, and Brenda was drawn to the strong math programs that Edwin Denby offered. And, of course, they both went on to embark on Fulbright Programs, which in turn brought them to the Fulbright Association’s conference to present their work.
Brenda McGadney is a scholar and retired Professor of Social Work who does qualitative research. She earned her PhD at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, where she also completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She was awarded the Fulbright-Hays grant in 1979 to study the oral histories of African elders in francophone countries, including Senegal, the Ivory Coast, Haute Volta (Burkina Faso), and Sierra Leone. This led to additional research in Senegal in 1981, and again in Ghana in 1999. She received a Minority Research Grant from NIH (National Institute of Health) to continue her work in Ghana, where she has returned several times, including as a visiting professor at the University of Ghana’s Centre for Social Policy Studies and Social Work.
“The Fulbright Program and other international exchange programs have given me opportunities to travel, do service, teach, and conduct research,” says Brenda. “These experiences have given me an opportunity to gain authentic knowledge from indigenous persons which has helped me to address my own stereotypes and prejudices.”
To uncover this authentic knowledge, Brenda has researched under the mission of listening to the stories of indigenous people in their own words and languages, and stresses the importance of encompassing all voices in order to bring visibility to their stories. She recounts two particularly meaningful projects. The first was her research in the survival of Ghanaian children afflicted with kwashiorkor, or severe protein malnutrition occurring as a result of a child being weaned off of breast milk too early without an alternative source of important nutrients when a mother gives birth to a second child. Brenda compiled stories of indigenous micro-level strategies employed by grandmothers who, being familiar with child-rearing, were able to recognize the signs of malnutrition in their grandchildren and offer crucial support to their daughters in helping them access healthcare. The second project entailed gathering stories from women who had been internally displaced from northern Ghana to southern Ghana due to conflict between ethnic groups. She spoke with women representing both ethnic groups to discover what kinds of peace-keeping strategies they used to help stop the conflict, as well as gather their personal accounts of the war.
After graduating from Edwin Denby, Phyllis Bell Miller attended Wayne State University as an English Honors major, and earned a bachelor’s in Clothing and Textiles from Mundelein College. She completed her master’s degree in Human Environment and Design and Rehabilitation from Michigan State University, and her doctorate in Design and Communication/Journalism from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. She was a professor for 27 years and head of Fashion Design and Merchandising at Mississippi State University before retiring.
Phyllis taught computer-aided design and and cross-cultural textile and fashion design as a Fulbright Scholar to Bulgaria (2005-2006) and Mauritius (2012). Another Fulbright-Hayes grant brought her to India in 2006-2007, where she studied the apparel and textile industry. But sometimes, Fulbright leads to knowledge gained outside of the classroom. Phyllis recounts that she was advised to bring knitting needles to India, as it was a good hobby to pass the time over long bus rides. Having never knitted before, she probably would have forgone the proposition if she had not found herself stranded in the Chicago airport and decided to seek out a yarn shop while waiting for a rescheduled flight. The newfound avocation had a learning curve. “I didn’t know a lot about knitting,” she admits. “I was poking people all over the bus!” Now she not only knits masterfully, she teaches knitting and design based on ethnic influences.
As a fashion design researcher, Phyllis has a special interest in textiles and the use of ethnically-influenced patterns, symbols, and colors. One of her proudest achievements is designing Instant Designer International, an inexpensive database of garment components such as collars, cuffs, and sleeves that is just as functional but more affordable than many more expensive professional design programs. Her software portfolio also includes ApparelCAD and Display Shop. Phyllis has worked with museums, curators, and ethnographers to compile a database of information about the history and meaning behind clothing and textiles. Branching from her research work in Bulgaria, her goal is to help people appreciate their own ethnic heritage as well as provide them with a resource for items influenced by designs from other cultures. Phyllis is also a published writer and has won several awards in photography.
It is well-known that the Fulbright Program fosters connections across the globe, but Fulbright can continue to bring people together back home, too. Brenda and Phyllis’s reunion at the Fulbright Association’s annual conference was a “needle in a haystack” scenario empowered by the alumni community.
As for this year’s annual conference in November, Brenda’s work is bringing her back to Ghana for the fall semester and Phyllis may be attending Edwin Denby High School’s 50-year class reunion instead. Even so, they both intend to return to the conference in the future. After all, who can say what kind of connections they will encounter next?