Record-breaking: Nine Georgia College students named semi-finalists for Fulbright Scholarship

Record-breaking: Nine Georgia College students named semi-finalists for Fulbright Scholarship

F ifteen, the most Georgia College students ever, applied for U.S. Fulbright Scholarships this year and more than half were named semi-finalists.  

Nine Fulbright semi-finalists is the largest number in the university’s history. 

These nine students represent the best and brightest at Georgia College, mentored by our amazing faculty and staff. It’s a true testament of their excellence that they’ve been recognized as Fulbright semi-finalists.We are exceptionally proud of the work they’ve done while here on our campus and look forward to seeing the impact they will continue to have on the world through their future endeavors.
– Dr. Costas Spirou, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs

In 2017, four Georgia College students were named semi-finalists. This year, eight undergraduates and one graduate student claim the title. They represent a diverse pool, coming from all colleges at the university. 

All Fulbright semi-finalists will now be reviewed by officials in proposed host countries, who’ll select roughly half to one-third as "finalists" - the Fulbright term for recipients. Final status should be announced from embassies in countries the applicants chose no later than June.

Selection for the Fulbright U.S. Student Program is rigorous. They receive about 12,000 applications a year. In the U.S., about 1,900 grants are awarded annually in all fields of study in over 140 countries. More than 360,000 Fulbright recipients have participated in the program since its inception in 1946. 

Anna Whiteside
Anna Whiteside
“Is nine unusual? Yes,” said Anna Whiteside, assistant director of the Honors Program and coordinator of the National Scholarships Office at Georgia College. “To have over half be successful—we’ve never had that percentage of our applicants make it to the semi-finalist stage. So, that is a huge improvement for us as a university.”

“As a smaller university—in particular a public university that is fairly new to having students apply to Fulbright—having nine semi-finalists is a pretty significant number,” she said.

Semi-finalists are:

  • Senior special education major Jasia Clark of Hull, Georgia, who’s hoping for an English Teaching Assistantship to the Czech Republic
  • Senior English major Makhalath Fahiym of Brooklyn, New York, who applied for an English Teaching Assistantship to South Korea
  • Senior James Fortwengler of Alpharetta, a chemistry major and math minor, who’s vying for a chemical engineering study grant to get his master’s at University College Dublin in Ireland
  • Senior music major Madison Graham of Louisville, Georgia, who’s also hoping for an English Teaching Assistantship to the Czech Republic
  • Senior management major Julian Lopez Hanson of Gainesville, Georgia, who’d like an English Teaching Assistantship to Cyprus
  • Senior Megan Sandal of Peachtree City, with double majors in psychology and sociology, who applied for an English Teaching Assistantship to Malaysia
  • Senior Laura Swarner of Buford, Georgia, with double majors in English and theatre, who’s hoping for an English Teaching Assistantship to Bulgaria
  • Senior Amara Tennessee of Roswell, with double majors in public health and world languages, who applied for an English Teaching Assistantship to Colombia
  • Third-year graduate student Jennifer Watkins of Thoreau, New Mexico, who’s trying for a creative writing research grant to Italy

Whiteside begins talking to students about the U.S. Fulbright and other national scholarships in their freshman year. It takes several months to a year to get an application ready. She helps students navigate Fulbright’s different programs and keeps them informed of deadlines and informational webinars.

Whiteside also helps students improve their personal essays by reading multiple drafts and making suggestions for added details and striking the right tone. Then, she and a group of Georgia College professors conduct scholarship interviews. These interviews can be intense with difficult questions, but they help students clarify goals and vision.

I’d like to think that, after they finish the process, not only are they feeling more confident about themselves, in general, but also about their ability to put together any kind of application moving forward. A big part of what I do and what faculty do is help students see the reality of what they’ve accomplished.
– Anna Whiteside, coordinator of Georgia College's National Scholarships Office
“I’d like to think that, after they finish the process, not only are they feeling more confident about themselves, in general, but also about their ability to put together any kind of application moving forward,” Whiteside said.  “A big part of what I do and what faculty do is help students see the reality of what they’ve accomplished.” 

As a special education major, Jasia Clark values community service and volunteering. If she gets an English Teaching Assistantship, Clark hopes to work with three Czech charities: Czechia Against Poverty, the Tereza Maxová Foundation and People in Need. She welcomes the unease that comes with living abroad and looks forward to getting a new perspective when learning about Czech culture. 

“It is a true blessing,” Clark said about becoming a semi-finalist. “But, if I am completely honest, it is still a bit of a shock. I know there were many applicants for the competition. So, to be chosen as a semi-finalist is truly an honor.”

“Fulbright provides the opportunity to take my love of teaching to a new realm,” she said. “The world is filled with an array of cultures and backgrounds and, to be an effective teacher and leader, it is my duty to be as competent as possible, so that I can provide culturally-responsive instruction. Being placed in a country with cultural values different from my own, will provide me with this needed experience.”

Makhalath Fahiym
Makhalath Fahiym
Makhalath Fahiym graduated with a degree in English in December 2019. In addition to teaching and developing lessons, the Fulbright would allow her to work on a community-engagement project involving a series of dance workshops.  

“The application was a process full of many rewrites and multiple drafts,” Fahiym said. “But it helped me identify what I felt I could bring to the program. I am very much indebted and grateful to Anna Whiteside for her assistance during the application process. Her feedback helped me to really hone in on the aspects of my application that would help me stand out.” 

Later, Fahiym plans to earn dual masters in English and library science at the University of South Carolina. She’d like to work in a public library system or school library, where she can apply her knowledge of literacy and ESL (English as a Second Language) learning. 

James Fortwengler used his past undergraduate research at Georgia College and multiple summer REUs (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) to help him become a Fulbright semi-finalist. He hopes to get his master’s in nanomaterials chemistry by studying one year in Dublin, Ireland. This would greatly aid his research later in life on renewable energy generation and energy storage. 

“I'm shocked and happy. I wasn't expecting to make it this far,” Fortwengler said, “but I think it's thanks to the great mentorship at Georgia College, both from the chemistry department as well as from Ms. Whiteside. Without her help, I wouldn't have made it this far.”

James Fortwengler
James Fortwengler

Whether he becomes a recipient or not, Fortwengler intends to pursue graduate school, then get a Ph.D. in materials chemistry. Someday, he’d like to work with renewable energy technologies at the U.S. Department of Energy. The Fulbright would help him gain valuable knowledge needed to pursue these dreams, as well as open “a tremendous amount of doors around the world to work on collaborative research.”

After studying abroad with the Georgia College Jazz program, Madison Graham wanted to return to the Czech Republic. Fulbright was a perfect opportunity to do this. When he’s not teaching English, Graham would volunteer at a Basic Art School, the primary venue for art education in the Czech school system. He also plans to join a Czech performing ensemble and explore the country’s rich culture. 

Madison Graham
Madison Graham
“While studying abroad in the Czech Republic last summer,” Graham said, “I had several opportunities to observe parts of the Czech education system, particularly the approach to music education. I was impressed by the size of music programs in the country, as well as the depth of knowledge that is taught there.”

He hopes to work in arts education, after getting a master’s degree. The Fulbright would help him add diversity and a global perspective.

“As a musician,” he said, “the opportunity to live in the heart of the Western music tradition is quite exciting.”

A business management student, Julian Lopez Hanson wants international experience and to immerse himself in a new culture. Heading to the Island of Cyprus would enable him to spend free time volunteering with local Cypriot NGOs (non-governmental organizations).

Last summer, Hanson traveled in the Netherlands and Europe. He now wants to fully occupy himself in a new culture and community by sharing the English language.

“I'm very happy to have gotten this far in the competition. I'm an optimist, and I'm confident in my chances at being awarded the grant—knock on wood,” Hanson said. “If I'm not awarded the grant, no worries, because I'll have an even stronger application for next year.”

The communication skills learned in Cyprus, with its array of peoples and cultures, would prove invaluable in the future. Hanson hopes to work as a nonprofit consultant.

Megan Sandal believes her background in psychology and sociology will help her adjust to the Eastern-Pacific culture of Malaysia. She plans to teach English, centered around artistic expression, and start an art club.

“I see it as a mutually beneficial experience that will help me grow as a learner,” Sandal said. “Being an educator allows the teacher to learn as much as the student.”

“I haven't wanted to celebrate this accomplishment too much,” she said, “because being a finalist is the ultimate goal. Until I get that notification, I will be holding my breath.” 

In the future, Sandal wants to go to graduate school for behavioral pharmacology, then get her Ph.D. to help people who suffer from drug dependence and abuse. Malaysia has decriminalized drug abuse. Sandal looks forward to gaining insight from its government policies. 

Laura Swarner is passionate about storytelling and hopes it’ll help Bulgarian students develop their English language skills and become fluent. She also looks forward to studying the country’s art and architectural styles. 

“I am really honored and humbled to be considered,” Swarner said. “I am also very grateful to my mentors in the theatre department, who encouraged me with everything that I’m doing this year, and the people who wrote my recommendations and Anna and the National Scholarships Office.”

“I have felt very supported throughout this whole process,” she said, “and I cannot thank everyone enough.”

Swarner hopes to get her master’s in scenic design and work as an artist telling stories that “are important and relevant to the modern world and help shift perspectives.”

Amara Tennessee, lived in Ypane, Paraguay, for nearly a year after high school, where she worked as a medical volunteer and solidified her Spanish. She sees the Fulbright as “an amazing opportunity to travel and share my culture,” while learning about Columbia. Tennessee hopes to host a program on health behavior and attitudes there, while teaching English.

“There is very little representation of African-American women globally,” she said, “and I feel as if I can serve as an introduction to an underrepresented group of people.”

In the future, Tennessee hopes to work in global health, reducing the incidence of chronic disease through health education and programming. Eventually, she wants to go to graduate school and, ultimately, empower people to improve their health.

Graduate student Jennifer Watkins loves to travel. That’s one of the reasons she applied for the Fulbright. It’ll also give her the chance to work on something “close to my heart,” her family history. When Watkins first thought of applying, her focus ideas were vague. Whiteside helped her zero in on a proposed project and keep her on track.

As a recipient, Watkins would spend a year in Italy doing research for a book, telling the story of her two great-grandmothers and their immigration journey to New Mexico in the early 1900s. 

“Family history has always been of interest to me,” Watkins said. “I also think that women's stories often get lost when we talk about immigration. There are lots of books already written about the men who came to America. Though it is a bit selfish to want to tell my own family story, I think the story of these women might resonate outside of my own family.” 

In the future, Watkins hopes to travel more with the Peace Corps, an organization she volunteered with three years before coming to Georgia College.