Noaquia Callahan: Helping minority students apply for, receive Fulbrights

Noaquia Callahan was visiting members of Iowa’s Congressional delegation in Washington, D.C., in 2016, working to convince them to maintain funding for the prestigious Fulbright grant.

The issue became much more pressing to her later in the day when she discovered she’d been awarded one of the international research scholarships herself, to study in Berlin.

The award ended a long wait for Callahan to receive recognition for her outstanding academic work. Just a few years earlier, she had never even heard of the Fulbright scholarship, despite having studied German since high school, earning a dual bachelor’s degree in German and sociology as an undergraduate, and spending a total of two years studying in Germany in high school and college. No one had ever suggested she consider applying for a Fulbright or any other international study grant.

“No one during my undergraduate years ever mentioned to me that I’d be a good candidate for a Fulbright,” says Callahan, who is African American and who earned her BA from her hometown’s California State University–Long Beach. “When I looked into it on my own, I saw there was nobody who received grants who looked like me.”

Callahan’s experience is not unusual. Diversifying the applicant pool for the Fulbright has been a decade-long goal of the U.S. State Department, which administers the grant program that allows American students and scholars to study overseas for one year. But the push has yielded only marginal results in some cases: Just 5 percent of scholarship grantees are African American.

Callahan is part of that small cohort. Now a UI doctoral candidate in the Department of History, she’s spending this academic year as a Fulbright Fellow at the Free University Berlin’s John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies. She was one of the candidates selected for one of the prestigious Fulbright U.S. Student awards to Germany in 2016 and received the Germanistic Society of America Scholarship.

“Learning that I’d been selected for this award—of which I was previously unaware—was humbling,” says Callahan, who received about $110,000 in national and international fellowships and grants beyond the Fulbright as a UI student.

But she hasn’t forgotten the frustrations she faced getting to this point, and she’s developing a peer mentorship program to help other minority students who want to learn more about the Fulbright and other competitive study abroad fellowships. She started developing the program in 2014 as a graduate fellow in the Obermann Graduate Institute on Engagement and the Academy and is rolling it out this spring as a pilot co-sponsored by International Programs at the UI.

Callahan’s program, the Diversity International Scholarship Academy (DISA), is composed of a series of workshops with International Programs that will be held this spring. The workshops will focus on the needs of students in underrepresented groups and will show them how to turn their academic interests and life experiences into compelling application materials. It also will teach participants how the scholarships can help them professionally.

More importantly, the program will answer questions asked specifically by minority students and scholars, the kinds of questions Callahan had a difficult time answering as an undergraduate.

“I aim to turn the practice of gatekeeping, whether intentional or unintentional, to coveted opportunities on its head by arming students with information and sharing resources,” she says. “There is room for all students to thrive. I am the product of exceptional mentorship I’ve received in offices and departments across the UI campus, which include the Office of Graduate Inclusion, Department of History, Graduate College, and International Programs, just to name a few.”

Callahan has worked closely with Karen Wachsmuth, the UI Fulbright Program adviser in International Programs, who promotes and develops the initiative on campus. Wachsmuth has been working for five years to increase the number of UI minority student Fulbright applicants, and says she has seen more minority students interested in the program.

“The workshops will show paths to students that lead to the Fulbright,” says Wachsmuth. “Why is the Fulbright important? What doors do these fellowships open? How can you maximize your life experience, academic skills, and extracurricular activities that show your ability to represent your country abroad? Minority students need to believe that they can be as successful as other UI applicants, particularly since the UI was recently named a top-producing institution of Fulbright students nationally.”

BJ McDuffie, a contracted program officer for the U.S. State Department, has met with Callahan and is thrilled for her to get the program off the ground.

“It’s a unique program, especially in that it’s coming from a student and a Fulbright alumna, and I know of no other program like it at any other U.S. university,” says McDuffie, a UI alumna. “As one of our key goals is increasing the diversity of Fulbright recipients, our hope is that she’s successful developing a program that can help us fulfill that goal.”

Callahan hopes the pilot will lead to a model for a program that can be shared with other colleges and universities.

She plans to return to Iowa City to complete her dissertation and continue to build the DISA program. A Dean’s Graduate Fellow, she hopes to pursue a career in international education upon graduation.

A meeting of the Diversity International Scholarship Academy (DISA) for students and scholars who want to learn more about the Fulbright and other international study scholarship programs will be from noon to 1 p.m. Monday, March 6, in the International Commons, 1117 University Capitol Centre.

Callahan will lead the workshops via Skype from Berlin along with Wachsmuth and Douglas Baker, an African American graduate student in the UI’s School of Music and fellow Fulbright grantee who spent last year in Japan studying Japanese classical music. Baker is the UI Fulbright Alumni Ambassador and DISA on-campus leader.

Callahan’s experience is not unusual. Diversifying the applicant pool for the Fulbright has been a decade-long goal of the U.S. State Department, which administers the grant program that allows American students and scholars to study overseas for one year. But the push has yielded only marginal results in some cases: Just 5 percent of scholarship grantees are African American.

This story, by Tom Snee, originally appeared in the February 21, 2017, edition of Iowa Now.

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