Could Fulbright Lay Groundwork for Peace?

Originally posted: June 24, 2011

Kat Alexander (center) celebrates receiving the Presidential Medal with Padmini Coopamah (left) and Spencer Bakich, her professors in the government and international affairs department.

Kathryn Alexander ’11 will make an impact in the world, maybe as an academic, maybe as a peace builder or conflict analyst. Exactly how she will contribute isn’t known to her yet, but she expects the 10-month Fulbright English Teaching Assistant grant she has just been awarded will help clarify what she wants to do.

Alexander is going to Turkey for the 2011-2012 academic year and while she doesn’t know her university assignment, she believes it will be outside the urban centers of Ankara, Istanbul or Izmir. That suits her, because she sought the prestigious scholarship to begin to understand Turkey’s complicated relations with its neighbors — and ultimately to apply what she learns in broader contexts.

“One can never hope to understand a conflict unless one has made the effort to know the people involved,” she says. “By learning as much as I can about Turkey and its people, culture and language, I hope to make use of that knowledge in the future when treating Turkey as a case in analyses of foreign policy or domestic politics.”

Her natural openness made anthropology professor Debbie Durham confident in her chances for landing one of the student grants, which are highly competitive. Durham, who lived in Turkey in 2007-2008 as a Fulbright research scholar, served on the College’s Fulbright Committee.

“I always thought Kat was the perfect candidate,” she says. “She is not only intellectually curious, she is fascinated by the people themselves, and will find them as generous and welcoming as she hopes.”

Alexander graduated summa cum laude in May with a Bachelor of Arts in government and a French minor, following an exemplary career at Sweet Briar. Her achievements include earning the Presidential Medal, the College’s highest student award.

Under the ETA grant, she’s required to teach English 20 hours a week. The rest of the time, she’ll study the language and culture and work in the community. She may coach girls’ soccer or organize local theater projects, activities that play to her own passions and skills and that will allow her to interact with and to know her neighbors.

Alexander grew intrigued with Turkey when she attended the Peace and Conflict Resolution program through American University’s Washington Semester in the spring of her junior year. Through the coursework and a visit to the country, she became more aware of its importance as a global crossroads where East and West converge and its role as a secular but stable democracy in a majority-Muslim nation. Studying its regional relations awoke a latent personal curiosity as well: Her grandfather had emigrated from there.

“Peace and conflict is one facet of my interest in Turkey but I’m also approaching it from a political science standpoint and a fascination with that part of the world in general,” she said from her home in Marshall, N.C., where she is coaching a summer soccer camp for kids.

She plans to earn a doctorate in political science and to specialize in the region encompassing Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. Turkey’s influence in the neighborhood — like a “planet that pulls everything else into its orbit” — makes understanding it central to understanding the region, she says.

Alexander worked closely with the Fulbright committee on her application, but also credits her government and international affairs professors and many others at the College for supporting her. She especially appreciates associate dean of academic affairs and professor of chemistry Jill Granger, who advised her on several scholarship applications. “Without her help, I don’t think I would have survived,” she says.

Granger flips the praise, saying, “I think I am the one who was lucky to have Kat as my first ‘subject,’ ” in reference to new formal responsibilities on Sweet Briar’s External Awards Committee.

“It was a real pleasure to work with her on her applications, primarily because she was working so hard on them. … You don’t often find in students today that they have that kind of attention to detail, respect for the process, appreciation for nuance, and willingness to draft and re-draft, and work until it’s as good as it can be,” Granger says.

“I could keep going,” she adds. “I’m a big fan.”

From Durham, Alexander took both Turkish lessons throughout her senior year and the professor’s advice to dig into Turkey’s history, culture and politics as well as the language.

“Learning a language with an anthropologist — that’s a blast,” she says.

When Durham heard Alexander had received the grant, she congratulated her student on “winning” the Fulbright in Turkish. “ ‘Kazandin!’ ” she wrote in an email, which means “You won.”

She explains, “The word for ‘to win’ — kazanmak means ‘to earn’ and Kat has truly earned this opportunity and honor.”

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