1946 Society Member Spotlight: Leland Lazarus

Leland Lazarus is a Fulbright to Panama alum, current member of the Fulbright Association Board of Directors, and a current 1946 Society member.

To learn more about the 1946 Society, please visit the 1946 Society webpage. 

Q: Leland, can you share some background information about yourself?
A: I’m originally from New York, although my parents are both from Panama. Growing up, my mom spoke a little bit of Spanish in the household, but I didn’t really have a strong understanding or affinity to the country of my heritage. So, I always yearned to go back, spend time there, and meet family members – but I never had the opportunity to do so in my youth. Then college rolled around, and I was able to finally go to Panama for a few summers to teach English in a rural area and to do some research. After college, I got a Fulbright Award to spend the full year in Panama and to teach English at the University of Panama. That was an amazing experience, because I finally got to spend a large amount of time in the country of my heritage. I got to meet some family members who were still there, and I was finally able to really connect with that side of my culture.

Q: Could you tell me more about your Fulbright to Panama in 2013? What was that experience like?
A: The first thing that stood out to me was that Latin America and the Caribbean are just as diverse as the United States. Being an Afro-Latino or Afro-Panamanian, there are so many people of Afro origin, of Chinese origin, etc. I think that a lot of Americans feel that the U.S. is the only truly diverse country in the world, which is not true. So, it was great to be in a country where the people walking around looked like me. Another thing that I’ll never forget is my students. I was teaching them English, but they were also teaching me parts of Panamanian culture that I didn’t know about: local slang, specific regional cuisines, things like that. On weekends, I would hang out with some of the students. They would host me to hang out with their families. Today, I still keep in touch with some of them. In fact, I still talk to one of them almost every Sunday.

2013 Fulbright to Panama

Q: You expressed that during your time in Panama, you bore witness to a system where disadvantaged college students were not afforded the chance to develop their English skills. Can you describe how the Fulbright Program educates international students about their opportunities?
A: While I was in Panama, I found that if you were of a lower socioeconomic status, you didn’t really have the opportunities to learn English. In a country where the Panama Canal is such an important waterway for international trade, English is really a necessity. In such a service-oriented economy, that means a student who does not have a good command of English is unfortunately at a gross disadvantage. I think that, for me and the other Fulbright English Teaching Assistants, having the opportunity to, in our own small way, reduce that gaps between the socioeconomic classes was an amazing opportunity. That’s happening every year for hundreds of students all around the world right, as Fulbrighters go abroad and teach English or do a research project in developing countries all around the world.

Q: Following your time in Panama, you joined the Fulbright Association, and, separately, you established the Dream Scholarship. Can you tell me about how the scholarship came about?
A: Once I had identified this gap between the socioeconomic classes, I would even see it within classes. Students of the same year might both be English majors, but one student had a much better control of the language — even close to an American accent — and the other could not even speak a word. It made me think: “How could it be that these two students were from the same class?” It made no sense. Additionally, many students just didn’t have the opportunity to study abroad. I understood from my own language-learning experiences with Spanish and Mandarin that the only way to really improve a foreign language is to go to a country where that language is spoken and really immerse yourself one hundred percent in that culture. What I wanted to do was to create a scholarship or non-profit to allow students from these lower socioeconomic and marginalized areas to have the opportunity to study abroad in the United States.

Leland with his Fulbright mentor, Herma Williams, at the 2021 Fulbright Prize Ceremony (March 2022)

Q: I was also hoping we could also touch on the 1946 Society, which was initially established as a collective of Fulbright Association supports in 2015, and is now a full community of almost a hundred members. What is it about the 1946 Society, and the Fulbright Association in general, that keeps members fiscally and emotionally invested in its further development year after year?
A: I think over the years, meeting more Fulbright alumni, you hear the same story that Fulbright helped change their lives. I mean, it absolutely changed mine. It put me on the path to a career in international affairs. It was through my Fulbright experience that I ended up learning about the State Department and a career in diplomacy. Being a citizen diplomat encouraged me to then apply for the Foreign Service, which led to my current position at the Department of Defense. This is the story not just for me, but for so many Fulbright alumni. They also agree that fostering mutual cultural understanding is critical, especially nowadays when in so many countries around the world, and even in some areas in the United States, we see the rapid spread of populism and nationalism. I think organizations like the Fulbright Association are so important to keep those connections between the U.S. and countries around the world.

Q: I understand you’re closely involved with the Fulbright in the Classroom. Could you share your experiences with the program and why it is so important?
A: Fulbright in the Classroom is one of our flagship volunteer programs, where Fulbright alumni around the country are able to go to local high schools and middle schools and even colleges to share their Fulbright story in front of student audiences. The goal of course is to encourage more students to consider applying for the Fulbright once they attend college or are about to graduate from college. For me, one of my main goals is to increase diversity and inclusion in the ranks of our Fulbright alumni network, and I will never forget that when I was doing my Fulbright, I was the only person of color. There needs to be more Fulbright scholars who look like America because by doing so they are sharing the richness of our U.S. diversity. [Fulbright grantees are] breaking down barriers and stereotypes that other people and other countries around the world might unfortunately have about people of other backgrounds. So, that’s why I do Fulbright in the Classroom. I’ve done maybe five or six presentations so far for high schools in D.C. and in New York. A couple weeks ago, I did one for high school and middle school students in Cleveland, with the idea that hopefully these young people may be seeing themselves in me. They could say, hey, if this Afro-Latino guy from New York can live in Latin America and live in China and speak these languages, then I can do it too.

Leland sharing his story, virtual Fulbright in the Classroom session.

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