Eight months ago, I returned to the United States after completing a Fulbright Public Policy Fellowship at the Anti-Corruption Bureau of Malawi. I now live in Richmond, Virginia and serve as a federal judicial law clerk to Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. I am thankful for the Fulbright Public Policy Fellowship and the experience I gained working with the government of Malawi, for it has enriched and informed my experience with the federal judiciary.
When I first heard of the Fulbright Program, I assumed it was an opportunity that wasn’t available to people like me. I was a senior at Yale University when I first heard about the Fulbright Program from friends who were applying. However, I noticed that my classmates who were applying were mostly wealthy and white. I am an African American first-generation college student from a lower income background. I did not see people from my own background going abroad, and, at the time, I did not see the value of the Fulbright Program. What was the point of spending a year abroad if it didn’t directly lead to a job? Little did I know that I would be proved wrong on both points.
It was not until after I received my law degree from the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, while I was working as an associate at a large corporate law firm based in San Francisco, California, that I heard about the Fulbright Public Policy Fellowship from a friend. He told me that the Fulbright Public Policy Fellowship is designed for early- to mid-career professionals and required work experience and either a J.D. or a Master’s degree. I had a gap year between my upcoming federal trial court clerkship and my federal appellate court clerkship, so I decided to throw my hat in the ring and apply for a Fulbright placement in Malawi, despite never having set foot on the African continent.
The ten months I spent in Malawi flew by and constituted one of the most formative experiences of my life for three reasons. First, I was able to make a unique contribution as a Fulbright Fellow precisely because I was neither wealthy nor white. The diplomatic community and the international aid and development community are still overwhelmingly white and privileged spaces. As a black first-generation professional and Fulbright Public Policy Fellow, I rebutted the neocolonial narrative that it is only white and wealthy individuals who enter black and brown spaces as benevolent helpers. By representing the Fulbright Program and, by extension, the U.S. Department of State, I showed people that blackness can also represent giving versus merely receiving. My presence replaced narratives of dependency and helped local communities begin to see themselves as empowered instead of resigned to continue cycles of victimization because of their racial background. Representation matters. Through my experience working in Malawi I returned to America with a newfound resolve to use my voice, often the only black voice, in spaces of privilege and power, to continue to disrupt similar narratives that are circulated within the United States. My time in Malawi demonstrated to me both the unity and diversity of the black experience throughout the African diaspora in a way that provides me with a nuanced cultural lens that will make me a better lawyer and civic leader.
Additionally, even though the Fulbright Public Policy Fellowship has not (yet) led directly to a job, it has given me much more than I could have asked or imagined. I returned from Malawi with a host of friends who I keep in touch with regularly. I formed personal and professional relationships with Malawians and other expatriates who represent extensive and powerful networks. Moreover, I now have the self-confidence to be in dramatically different environments both professionally and socially and rise to the occasion and succeed. A vocational or degree program could not have given me the tools that I picked up during my ten months in Malawi. I know that I will be a better lawyer and engaged citizen because of the experience that I had abroad. I am grateful to be numbered among those who have been equipped, trained, and launched through the Fulbright Program and excited to see the impact that current and future Fulbrighters will have on the world.
Finally, my time in Malawi has inspired me to work to strengthen our governmental institutions domestically. The impact that the United States has in Malawi as a cultural and political force cannot be overstated. My Malawian friends throw Frozen-themed birthday parties for their children. Malawian dance clubs play hip-hop music from New York artists. Political developments in the United States were the subject of daily discussions at my workplace. The United States has an incredible amount of influence on places like Malawi, where our actions are closely observed and often mimicked. Noticing this dynamic encouraged me work to strength our domestic institutions upon my return to the United States. If America’s position in the world is going to create ripples of influence, I want to help ensure that what we export represents the best that our country has to offer. For example, Malawi has rampant issues with corruption, including in their judiciary. Learning about this corruption motivated me to become a law clerk for the federal judiciary and support my judge as he makes decisions upholding the democratic ideals that our Constitution enshrines. I realize that it is not my job to change places like Malawi; however, my hope is that I can contribute to inspiring Malawians to rid their justice and other governmental institutions of corruption by working to maintain the high standards of a fair and impartial justice system in the United States.
Fulbright to Malawi