Career Corner: What Was Your Motivation for a Fulbright Experience?

Career Corner: What Was Your Motivation for a Fulbright Experience?

As I write this I’m preparing for a two-week vacation to Korea. The reason for visiting Korea is to pick up our daughter who is currently on study abroad there. She has been at Yonsei University in Seoul since February, and we are looking forward to seeing her and learning about her experiences (WhatsApp is nice, but not the same as seeing someone in person!). She is an early elementary education major at Towson University near Baltimore, and notwithstanding the heavy academic requirements in her program, she was determined to fit in an experience abroad.

David J Smith — career coach, author, and Fulbrighter

And my wife is just back from the Dominican Republic where she took students on study abroad. She teaches at Montgomery College near DC. As a nursing instructor, she has long felt it is critical for her students to be exposed to multicultural environments, particularly situations where patient care is approached differently.

Our first major family trip was to Europe the summer preceding my Fulbright in Estonia. Though our daughter was only four at the time and our son was nine, the experience had a seminal impact on them. After winding our way from Paris to Estonia, we lived six months in Tartu where I taught at the university. Our daughter was in a pre-school where Estonian was the language, and our son in an English based international school where most of the other students were from Nordic countries, particularly Denmark. For him, the experience affected his decision to study in Istanbul when he was at the University of Maryland, and then join the Peace Corps, teaching in Namibia.

For our daughter, her interest in Korea was also influenced by the fact that she is Korean. We welcomed her into our family when she was five months old, and returning to her birth land was an opportunity for her to connect in a deeper way with her identity. She has always viewed herself as a “Twinkie” (the quintessential American snack cake) – yellow on the outside, and white on the inside: looks Asian, but is white in every other way.

I don’t think most of us naturally gravitate toward international travel and exploration. There is comfort in being at home. But likely there was something in your formative years that moved you to explore globally. Maybe you had parents who exposed you to travel, or had an international friend when growing up, or wanted to connect with your roots. Or maybe you were motivated to visit a country because of a cultural draw: many of my daughter’s other study abroad friends in Korea are into K-Pop.

What was the motivation for you? Reminding ourselves of that can be important in thinking about our professional life. Identifying that motivation and sharing it during an interview can humanize us and create a connection with others similarly interested in experiences abroad. A Fulbright is a big step for many, and the chances are that many “baby” steps got you to that point. What were your baby steps? Identifying them is important in recognizing our growth, but also it can be important for stories that we share with others, particularly youth, in inspiring them to take the leap you did. You just might be cultivating Fulbrighters of tomorrow.

—David J. Smith

David J. Smith (Fulbright Scholar, Estonia 2003-2004) is a career coach and the author of Peace Jobs: A Student’s Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (Information Age Publishing 2016). He is on the career advisory board of the Peace and Collaborative Development Network. David writes regularly on career issues at He can reached at

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