Alumni Profile: Laura Savage

Alumni Profile: Laura Savage

Students play a board game to practice English speaking in the classroom.

First day of school, SMA Mahmudiah in Kuala Berang, Terengganu.

My vision was fuzzy as I blinked my crusty eyes open. I couldn’t tell if I was still dreaming or if the sound was somebody buzzing to get into the room. I stumbled toward the living room of the hotel suite and realized that it was just the phone ringing. I picked it up.

“Hello?” I answered, trying not to sound like I had just woken up from an embarrassingly deep slumber.

“Hi, this is your representative from the US Embassy. The State Department has just issued a level 4 Do Not Travel Advisory, we are sending you back to the United States. I need to know your final destination.”

I stuttered out a location, before clarifying with the speaker on the other end what was actually happening. Part of me still felt like I was in a dream, though I knew that the sensation of the cold tile on my naked feet was far too real for it to be a dream.

Let’s rewind a little bit.

Two and a half months prior to that dizzying hotel room phone call, I started a Fulbright grant, working as an assistant English teacher in Malaysia.

Upon starting the grant, it had been more than a year since submitting the application, as the Fulbright program in Malaysia runs from January through the end of October. From the time I received the news about winning the grant to the time I departed, I had almost nine months to prepare and I was more than ready.

Though the arduous nearly 18-hour plane ride to get to Malaysia was brutal and, by far, the longest flight I had ever been on, I was brimming with excitement at the opportunity to participate in the Fulbright program and to live in such an extraordinary country like Malaysia. I met a number of other grant recipients on the plane, many of whom I would form close friendships with and end up working with on larger projects as the year got started.

Hanging out with students after school.

When I found out my placement, Terengganu, my heart pounded wildly, and thoughts raced through my mind. How will my community react to me? Would I find friends? Will my students like me?

The following week, I met my mentor: a young, modern, energetic, and endlessly optimistic woman named Mahira. She welcomed me with open arms, as well as an open mind. She assured me that students and other teachers would love having me and that I would thoroughly enjoy my time in Terengganu, a state located on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia. The first day I met her, she invited me to her wedding the following month.

Dinner at the house of U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia, Kamala Lakhdhir, with other teaching assistants in Terengganu.

Though I was nervous in the beginning, my first day of teaching at school reminded me of my previous experiences teaching, which helped me to quickly settle in. School assembly, schedules, student speeches, announcements, eating in the kantin, maintaining class interest and control, the usual stuff, just as one would see in schools in the US and around the world.

I was there for the long haul, a whole year, potentially two or more, and I went in with the mindset of wanting to develop deep and meaningful relationships, have lasting and positive impacts that students could also take outside of the classroom, feeling connected above all else. Though at times, I undoubtedly felt like an outsider as a foreigner, with basic Malay skills, a different look, and a different religion, these differences proved no barrier to connecting with others.

The night before Mahira’s wedding, I went out with the other bridesmaids, her best friends. We talked, we gossiped, laughed, shared stories, and ate cake on the floor of the hotel room we were staying in. I didn’t feel different, I felt connected and that’s what humans crave, connection with other people.

Bridesmaids with Mahira on her wedding day.

Mahira, her husband, and I on her wedding day.

Bridesmaids on Mahira’s wedding day.


I began training for the Kuala Lumpur marathon and ran daily in the afternoons, despite the 90-degree temperatures. I formed regular routes and sometimes on days when I would mix up a route or take a rest, the neighbors would wonder where I was or why I wasn’t running. Two weeks before I got the call to be evacuated, I bought a bicycle with the intention of joining a bicycle troupe. My friend Fakhira, a fellow biker, drove me 40 minutes to pick up a bicycle and helped me select the perfect one. I went biking once with the group, we went out for food and tea afterwards, and I told them I would go biking with them weekly so I could berlatih Bahasa Melayu saya. After daily studying for a month and a half, I felt that I was really catching on to the local dialect and was determined to become conversational by the end of the year.

Eating with neighbors after going on a run.

It was heart-wrenching to call Mahira, Fakhira, students, and neighbors and tell them that I would not be returning back to Terengganu. It all happened so fast and few people saw it coming, we all thought there would be more time together. Once in a while, I think about the lesson plans waiting for me on my desk at school, the extracurriculars I was going to do with students, the field trips I had planned, the biking troupe I joined, my new, shiny, blue bicycle, my freshly painted bedroom, my Malay phrasebook, the neighbors who might wonder where I am.  It’s only natural.

The beauty of the modern-day is that even though I’m now on the opposite side of the world, I can still connect. I chat with students on Instagram, I send voice messages via WhatsApp to my friends, I still ask for recipes from teachers. I’m still here. We still exist. Those relationships transcend any program, those connections transcend any pandemic, those friendships have no borders and have no politics.  Though I might not be back to Malaysia as a Fulbright grantee, I know that I’ll be back one day and, perhaps, no longer as a foreigner but as a local who has some connections there.

Laura Savage

Fulbright Malaysia ETA 2020

April 20, 2020 0

Career Corner – What to do with your time: Invest in Yourself

Career Corner – What to do with your time: Invest in Yourself

We live in a time like no other.   Looking back, we will reflect on the surrealness of it all.   Scientists and researchers will study this period for broader understandings of human behavior.  There will be much to ponder.

But right now many might be feeling some internal dissonance.  Some may feel lost and disoriented, with the sense of much time on their hands.  Others may feel they have much more than ever before to do but are having difficulty focusing.  And many are experiencing both – bouncing daily between idleness and panic.

Job seekers might feel a sense of dread.  There is the appearance that the entire hiring world – except maybe food service, first responders, and healthcare —  is at a  standstill.  Given that,  there are steps that can be taken now, and ways of setting your thinking that can benefit you in the future.  These six steps can provide you with something meaningful to do and remain in control,  which provides not only psychological reassurance, but also invests in yourself so that when “normal” returns, you will be in much better shape than others.

Make Connections

Now is the time to make connections.  We should all, of course, be reaching out to our family and friends, and even folks we are only acquainted with who might be on their own and need our encouragement.  From  a career exploration standpoint, reaching out to possible mentors, peers, and even professionals you don’t know right now is a good investment of time.  Because many are now working from home, their daily routine has been recreated, possibly allowing for more time to connect. They might be seeking the chance to take a break during the workday.    Use LinkedIn or other means to schedule informational interviews and pursue other ways of connecting.

Confirm Before You Apply

Hiring is still taking place, especially in areas that are on the front lines of dealing with the pandemic.  In fields that are insulated from budgetary fluctuation, hiring committees are still meeting, albeit virtually, and starting dates continuing, but likely delayed.  Make sure that before you apply for a position, that you confirm that it is still available.  In government, there has been some move to freeze all hiring.  If you can, make every effort to reach out to the hiring manager before applying.  You might find a position listed as active on an aggregate site, like Indeed, only to learn upon contacting the hiring manager that the position has been pulled for the time being.

Work on Skills and Aptitudes Online

We have all gaps in our experience and training.  And we all have said “If I had the time, I’d take a course in ________ (fill in the blank).” Online learning can assist you in building a range of skills and knowledge:  from YouTube videos to asynchronistic and synchronistic formal courses at community colleges, options abound.   Language courses, tech and social media training, and certification offerings, all can be found online.   Consider taking courses that better position you to deal with financial issues like budget management or grant writing.

Good Habits and Routines: Now is the Time to Make Them Stick

It takes on average 66 days to create a habit.   What good habits dealing with not only career strategies, but with a healthy lifestyle can be started now?   If you are taking more walks, or engaging in yoga online, could you continue that once the crisis is over?  If you are making a practice now of reading journals or attending webinars in your field, then once things are back to the way they were (or almost were), you might have “hardwired” these as professional routines.

Manage Day to Day, But Create a Vision for Six Months Out

There is obviously a high degree of uncertainly right now.   Day-to-day might be devolve into a tedious routine. The conditions for looking for work will be uncertain for a while.  Make plans on a weekly basis.  What should you be doing? Set goals for the week: review your resume or LinkedIn or set up informational interviews or attend professional webinars.   But also think six months out on what you might doing. Create a vision for the future.  What kind of work would you want to do?  Maybe go back to school? (A number of universities including Tulane University are offering special enrollment and tuition discounts for returning Fulbrighters and recently Returned Peace Corps Volunteers).  A common vision among those similarly situated, fosters camaraderie and inspires collaboration.  Share your ideas (consider the implications for your field) and plans with your friends and colleagues and explore what your situation might look like in six months.  This is will give you hope and set goals to focus on.

David J. Smith, Adjunct Faculty, School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services/George Mason University

Take Care of Yourself and Others

Taking care of yourself should be the first priority, but sometimes is the one thing that gets left off the list. This can mean different things to different people.  For some it is physical exercise, but for others, it might be an emotional need.   How are you feeling?  Are you dealing with stress, isolation, or feelings of distress?  Don’t let it settle in but take proactive steps to prevent a deeper sense of despair or unhealthy living.  And of course, check in with others: family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances.  That sense of offering yourself to others provides you with a sense of meaning, and as a result helps your own emotional state.

—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

April 16, 2020 2

Alumni Profile: Josh Leib

Alumni Profile: Josh Leib

The Power of Perspective

Leaving for Croatia

Teaching in Vukovar, a city close to Osijek

A life I built over five and a half months crumbled in three days.

Like most Fulbright ETAs, the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly ended my grant in Croatia and forced me to return to the United States. I scrambled to say goodbyes, close bank accounts, clean my house, and pack. I visited my advisor, Ivana, to say a last goodbye to her family. I brought an American football for her nine-year old son and taught him how to throw. “That was fun!” he shrieked, “When can we do this again?” I meekly smiled back at him, “we’ll find a time.” The pain was overwhelming.

Now that I’ve returned to the US, I’ve had a chance to reflect on my Fulbright grant. I think that the most valuable aspect of my experience was a series of lessons I learned during my time in Croatia that illuminated different perspectives.

Unfamiliarity characterized the beginning of my Fulbright experience. I applied for a position in a region I knew nothing about (the Balkans), in a country I had never visited (Croatia). I was then placed in the agrarian eastern part of the country (Slavonia), in the city of Osijek. Most literature on the Balkans is written by foreigners and muffles locals’ voices. That’s why, in Osijek, I searched for personal perspective. I wanted to learn about Croatia primarily through conversations with Croatians. I set off on my Fulbright ETA grant as a student disguised as a teacher.

Teaching in the American Corner

Teaching in Vukovar

My first lesson was Slavonia’s self-image. When locals discovered that I was an American, they often asked the same question: “Why?” While Americans might ask this question politely, Croatians asked me caustically, implying “Why would you ever want to come here…? Most assumed I had come to Croatia believing I would live on the Dalmatian coast, but was deceivingly sent to Osijek. “Absolutely not!” I’d assert, a little shaken that they weren’t entirely wrong. I explained that I actually was very happy with my placement. Since I wanted to develop a better understanding of Croatia, I genuinely enjoyed living in Osijek because I was able to see how Croatians lived outside of the country’s touristy regions.

I learned that because Croatians are often emigrants—with large diasporic communities in Germany, Austria, Ireland, and America—someone voluntarily contradicting this trend was baffling. Slavonians regularly complained about Croatia’s weak economy, massive brain-drain, and corrupt government. This image of Croatia differs greatly from how many Americans see the country—as pristine beaches and the shooting location of Game of Thrones—and was an eye-opening experience for me. To Croatians who actually cope with the hardship of living in Croatia, touring the country was one thing, but choosing to live here—and not even on the beach!—was insane.

Lecture to Economics students

The next lesson I learned was Croatians’ understanding of time. While Americans obsess over productivity and efficiency, Croatians value socializing. Early in my grant, I had coffee with some of my students from the university where I taught. I drank the espresso in five minutes, chatted for fifteen more, and then got up to leave. “Pomalo,” (slang for “relax”) they said, “What’s the big rush?” An hour and a half later, they were all still on the same coffee and we were all still chatting. Spending large portions of the day unwinding with friends and family is Croatia’s national pastime.

Coffee with friends

As an American raised on phrases such as “time is money,” I never was able to fully adopt Croatians’ ability to relax. Conversely, a common Croatian idiom is “tko to može platit,” or roughly translated, “Who can pay for this?” A more comprehensive translation might read as “No one could put a price on how great this experience is.” This phrase describes invaluable, outwardly unproductive moments when the speaker is particularly relaxed, likely on a beach with a coffee and a cigarette. I asked my friend who taught me this phrase if it applies to family moments, like watching your kid walk for the first time. “No,” she shrugged with a smile, “someone could pay me to miss that.” According to my Osijek friends, relaxing is true happiness; money is only a means to achieve this goal.

My next lesson was historical context and occurred unexpectedly. I got coffee with my advisor on my last day in Osijek. She thought that I was making the right decision to leave. Hand-rolling her cigarette, she told me “You don’t know what a crisis looks like—what food shortages and economic uncertainty is—but we do. This is not something you want to experience.” She was referring to the brutality that Osijek endured during the Yugoslav War in the 1990s, and she made me think about how hard life has been at certain times for Slavonians.

Book reading at the American Corner

I placed myself in my region’s timeline. I tried to imagine a scenario in which Osijek was my actual home. Where a disease had decimated the population and livestock, or a foreign army was invading, or an authoritarian government was rising to power—all of which had happened in Osijek.

As I considered the hardships Slavonians endured over the past hundreds of years, my own situation did not seem so dire. Historical contextualization gave me a different perspective to see my own circumstances. Instead of lamenting the shortening of my grant, I began to appreciate how phenomenal my Fulbright had been up until the pandemic.

And this leads to the ultimate lesson that I learned in Croatia: every aspect of my grant offered me a new perspective. I am immensely grateful for the inimitable five and a half months Fulbright provided me. The early termination of my grant does not diminish the value of this past year. As an ETA, I immersed myself in Osijek and absorbed all the lessons the city had to offer. My experiences from this past year are not simply negated because I am now here and not there; they stay with me as valuable lessons, indelible marks that will forever enhance my perspective.

Josh Leib

Fulbright ETA Croatia 2019-2020

April 13, 2020 0

Alumni Profile: Arcadia Trvalik

Alumni Profile: Arcadia Trvalik

Fifty-four weeks ago today, I read the word “Congratulations,” upon opening my email; my first thought was, “wait…what?!” Upon receiving my Fulbright grant, I was astonished and euphoric, my excitement vibrating in the background of every conversation I had with colleagues, friends and family for months to come. How much has changed in these fifty-four weeks.

Talking to SMK Hosba students my experience as an Emergency Medical Technician in America.

For my grant, I taught at SMK (national secondary school) Hosba, in Changlun, Kedah, Malaysia, nestled just thirty minutes from the southwestern border of Thailand. Driving to school the first morning, through rolling blue hills shrouded by mist and set against the backdrop of a coral sunrise, my nerves quaked, but were soon remedied. I felt instantly welcomed into the SMK Hosba community by my new colleagues; my teacher mentor, Madam Noorita; our principal, Mr. Mazlin; and the unflaggingly friendly students. Not a single day passed that I was not offered breakfast, lunch, a snac k, a treat, another snack, a dessert, or a “teh tarik” – Malaysian milk tea. Never before had I realized the impact of a simple offer of nasi lemak could have on making me feel more invited and less “other,” in a place where I was very much so. I was amazed, challenged, and occasionally caught speechless by my students’ questions during discussions in class:

“Miss Cady, what was World War I?”

“Miss Cady, do you like Justin Bieber?”

“Miss Cady, do you like Malaysian food? What’s your favorite food in America?”

“Miss Cady, have you been to New York City?”

“Miss Cady, why do you want to be a doctor?”

Following up on these questions and seeing where those discussions led were some of my favorite moments at school. Among my students were aspiring doctors, lawyers, engineers, and teachers; fashion designers, photographers, artists and detectives.

Assisting a student with a grammar exercise.

Swiftly, smoothly, weeks flowed into the next as challenges slowly seemed less daunting and relationships became stronger. After several months of planning, budgeting, working with local community members and colleagues, I led a weekend English program for twenty outstanding students about sustainability, global supply chains and environmental stewardship, including a local hike and a beach clean-up. I coached the choral speaking team (kind of like spoken word poetry in English, as a group), and at our regional competition, the team took second place. I joined Zumba classes with my students, and assisted my school’s chapter of the Red Crescent Society. In early March, my school was given the prompt for the annual English drama competition – multilateralism and global partnership.

“Miss Cady, what is ‘multilateralism’?” Fatin, one of the members of the choral speaking team asked me, looking confused. “I’ve never known this word.”

SMK Hosba Choral Speaking Team wins second place at the regional competition at Universiti Utara Malaysia on February 16, 2020.

Multilateralism, I explained to Fatin, Aiesya, Syaza, Ayu and the rest of the students, is when multiple groups work together to solve a problem. “It’s like seeing something from many sides,” I added. “Usually, it’s used to describe when many different governments or organizations are working on something together – like the United Nations.” The students nodded. I prompted the students for a topic.

“Coronavirus, Miss Cady?” Fatin offered. We nodded in unison. The virus, like a hum, had quietly played in the background nearly my entire time in Malaysia – it could not be ignored.

So went the week leading up to our March break. We stayed after school; picked characters; detailed our plot line. Twenty-four students jumped on the opportunity to become involved.

“Can I be the Prime Minister of Turkey?” Sarah asked. “How many COVID cases does Turkey have?”

“I’ll be a doctor from the United Nations,” Nurin declared, “but I think let’s have many doctors, right? From the different countries? So they work together? Maybe all the doctors work together, so they find the cure, then tell the countries, maybe?” Ideas flew around the room, in English and Bahasa Melayu, as 24 high school students in rural Malaysia furiously worked to put together the best English drama in SMK Hosba history.

“Miss Cady,” Fatin asked. “This makes me so nervous. I hope that COVID does not come here.”

“Me too, Fatin.” We shared a distant gaze out the window of the classroom, into the jungles of rural Kedah, into the future, and what was to come.

Beach clean-up and sustainability discussion at Pantai Merdeka beach, in Kedah, Malaysia.

Five days after my conversation with Fatin, I landed home in the United States, evacuated due to the rapidly evolving COVID-19 situation. While seemingly everything has changed since we planned the coronavirus play – in my own life and across the world, and in ways we will be working tirelessly for decades to fully understand – some things have not. My students still frequently reach out to me on WhatsApp, and through my teacher Instagram (@cikgu_cady); they are still fantastically respectful, and curious about life in America. Teachers and friends I made in my community reach out as well, all wanting to make sure me and my family are well in the midst of such unprecedented times.

We are now navigating a new ambiguity, a new unknown as a global community. As an EMT, I am preparing to join the front lines fight against coronavirus, and trying to figure out how to do so as safely as possible, without exposing my family, friends or partner. My students, upon hearing my plans, have been incredibly uplifting and supportive, from their own shelter-in-place and quarantine orders on the other side of the world.

Fulbright Malaysia ETAs have dinner at the Ambassador’s Residence, January 8th, 2020.

I am so honored to have had the chance to continue to build connections and community across the globe as a Fulbright grantee – to be welcomed with open arms, and warmly supported during my transition home from the other side of the world, in a time of great unknowns and change. To the next passionate, accomplished and driven applicants who have an exciting email to open in their future – congratulations. I wish you the best of all the unpredictable and wildly wonderful moments that lay in your midst. And if you were looking to refresh your memory of the meaning of multilateralism – I know twenty-four proud and accomplished scholars that would be more than happy to help.

-Arcadia Trvalik

Fulbright Malaysia ETA 2020

April 6, 2020 0

Fulbrighter on the Front lines of COVID-19

Fulbrighter on the Front lines of COVID-19

Dr. Jamie P. Morano explains COVID-19 and answers common questions.

Dr. Jamie P. Morano, MD, MPH, is a Fulbright alumna Hong Kong University 1998-1999,  Associate Professor of Infectious Diseases at the USF Morsani College of Medicine and serves as Medical Director, Disease Control, at the Florida Department of Health – Hillsborough.  She completed infectious disease training at the Yale University School of Medicine, internal medicine training at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center,  and completed a Masters of Public Health at Harvard University. She brings both real world clinical and public health experience from the field.


March 25, 2020 0