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This year’s group of Fulbright recipients includes dozens of former student-athletes

Every year, more than 2,000 U.S. college graduates disperse to more than 140 countries around the world through the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, a U.S. government international educational exchange program. Former student-athletes have regularly been among the mix — but this year, for the first time, Fulbright administrators have a sense of how many are fresh off the court or field after issuing a survey of its 2018-19 cohort. More than 100 were former NCAA student-athletes.  

These former college athletes were selected from among 10,000 applicants to pursue Fulbright English teaching assistantships or research opportunities in a foreign country. But their athletics experience is one asset that stands out on their resumes — and several say it continues to benefit them today.  

“So many of the skills college athletics develops in you are transferable to the Fulbright experience and to living and working and teaching in a foreign country,” says Moira Duffy, a 2018-19 Fulbright English teaching assistant in Bulgaria who played basketball at Sioux Falls. “College athletes know what it’s like to be outside your comfort zone. They know how to thrive in that environment.” 

Champion caught up with six former student-athletes-turned-Fulbrighters currently making an impact in cities around the world: 

CHAMPION MAGAZINE: Why did you apply for a Fulbright fellowship? 

DUFFY: My oldest brother did Fulbright in South Korea in 2013-14. I really love what the program stands for and that it’s all about cultural immersion and engagement. I wasn’t able to travel or study abroad in college, so I didn’t really have that opportunity of experiencing other cultures. My university didn’t have an established Fulbright committee — we had never had a Fulbright before. They put together a committee of professors just for me and reviewed my application and prepared me for interviews. I’m really thankful for their support throughout the whole process. 

ANNA FIGUEROA: I was interested in pursuing something post-graduation that would take me abroad. I majored in political science and Spanish/Portuguese. Fulbright really called to me because there’s a flexibility to choose your country that you could spend your time in. 

BEN PEREZ: This is actually my second time I applied to the program. I applied once my senior year of college and made it to the semifinalist round. I ended up not getting it. So I went off to grad school, and I’ve been working on my Ph.D. in material science and engineering for the past 2½ years. But I still had this urge to reapply for the Fulbright program. I decided it would be a great opportunity to apply again and take a little sabbatical from my Ph.D. in order to do something I love.  

MAX SMITH: I was set on returning to sub-Saharan Africa. My parents worked there and took me along as far back as I can remember. As I grew older, I returned on my own, most recently for a study-abroad semester in Cameroon and an internship in Guinea-Conakry to conduct research on local agencies in the adoption of mobile phones. I was drawn by the challenge of being selected and the thought of spending nine months in Togo, a country I had not been to, gaining knowledge hard to find squeezed between binder’s boards in a library. 

CM: How did your time in college athletics prepare you for this Fulbright experience?  

DUFFY: When I decided to do Fulbright, I knew I wanted to go to a country where they played basketball. The Fulbright Bulgaria program stood out as the right fit. We play pickup basketball a few times a week, guys in the community and me. My Bulgarian is not very good, and I don’t communicate very well with them. But it is such a perfect example of how universal sports are because I’ve developed these great friendships with people, having spoken very few words with them. I also help coach a team at our high school. I’ve gotten to know the students so much better because I play basketball with them.  

MAGGIE JACKSON: The teamwork aspect — I know I have to build my own network. It’s about who you know, figuring out who can help you. That’s really important. I also think when you’re traveling and with the kind of research I do, a lot of it can be physical. One example: I went to a factory in Shanghai to look at rooftop solar panels. They were like, “Here’s a three-story ladder you have to climb up.” I don’t think any of the men expected me to put on a hard hat and climb up it, but I did. I think coming from sports, you can push yourself and you know what you can do physically, and you have this determination to do it. 

WAYNE ZHANG: Diving is a sport where every day you have to face your fears by jumping off something and doing flips and twists. People always ask, “How are you not scared?” And I’m like, “Of course I’m scared!” I think that sense of fearlessness and adventure is something I try to carry with me in other parts of my life. Being able to do those types of things every day and get in this mentality of confronting things that may feel uncomfortable helps me develop a mindset of wanting to do this crazy thing and move to a completely different country where I know nobody.  

CM: What advice do you have for current student-athletes who might be interested in applying to the Fulbright program?  

FIGUEROA: Don’t assume that you have to have these long-term abroad experiences. I was a little concerned that by not having a long-term abroad experience, that would hurt my application. Even if you have a strict regimen and you can’t go abroad in college, you can gain experiences that are relevant. 

JACKSON: A lot of people think “I’m not qualified” or “I don’t know if it’s for me.” That’s how I felt for a while. You never know unless you try.  

PEREZ: I did more research the second time I applied on what Fulbright was looking for. They’re looking for someone who’s flexible and who’s had some teaching or coaching experience in the past. I did some tutoring in college, but most of my experience working with kids is through coaching. So I worked on pulling up those ideas of coaching and getting that across on paper. And then taking the time to edit and edit and edit my application.  

ZHANG: Even if you’ve never lived abroad before and you thought you couldn’t do it because of your athletic schedule, post-graduation is the perfect time to do so. At the end of the day, it’s a really challenging experience, but it’s something that’s so rewarding.  

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Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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