Mike Jones

How did you choose where you would apply to go with a Fulbright Grant? My choice of Rwanda was for several reasons. The first is that my (master’s) thesis research was in Southern Africa (Malawi) on the economics of grain storage. I wanted to work in the East/Southern African region with storage problems again, though in a different country. Two of the attractive prospects were that Rwanda has a small size to facilitate “country wide” research and its French speakers offered the opportunity for me to capitalize on my existing language skills. It also helped that I had a colleague connected with a Rwandan professional who could serve as my in-country link. This was a secondary consideration, however, as several contact options existed.

Who is the most interesting person you met? Olivier Muhirirwa. He watches American news broadcasting everyday through satellite television and knows more about US politics than most Americans. He learned English this way, bridging from strong French. He was an ethnic Hutu, the dominant ethnic group whose leaders led the genocide against the minority Tutsis in 1994. However, his father was a doctor and was murdered during the genocide by Hutu troops for refusing to let Tutsis die in the hospital. A background like that will humble you in a second, though I met too many people with similar genocide-era stories.

Rwanda has such a tumultuous history. How did you deal in advance with safety concerns? Great question. That is certainly the overwhelming Western understanding of Rwanda's current political status–though it's actually quite the opposite. Rwanda was actually the safest country I have ever visited in Africa. After such a terrible 90s period, they have swung back to strict security control and rapid economic growth. I researched the situation before I applied. The main preparation was convincing my mother the "conventional wisdom" was no longer applicable!

What research did you conduct on your Fulbright? Grain storage economics, essentially quantifying the extent which insects cause economic losses for small producers by destroying their food stocks and the stocks they hope to sell.

What was the best thing that happened on your Fulbright? My work in grain storage was directly translated into action, as a USAID project picked up the improved storage technology I was researching. They linked me with the Rwandan Ministry of Agriculture’s Post-Harvest Task Force and demos were conducted in about 1,000 villages.

Really? We have a fabulous picture of you with a gorilla. That’s not at the top of the list? It's close! That was an experience of a lifetime and Rwanda has one of the few natural mountain gorilla habitats left in the world. There is a look of understanding in their eyes that I have never seen before in any animal. Also – the gorilla tracking was with my (then) fiancée, so seeing her for the first time in four months was pretty special too.

What other experiences would you like to share? I was engaged the entire nine months that I was in Rwanda. Another research fellow had a long distance boyfriend. The third had a husband at home. It is extremely difficult to leave loved ones to pursue opportunities like Fulbright – even painful, especially for those left behind.  This does not mean this option should be off the table for you if the benefits outweigh these difficulties. Know that others have tried and succeeded before you. If this is your situation, make sure they come and visit to understand why this environment has (or will) changed you and understand the project you are committed to on the ground. This will make it a more positive experience you can share later. All three of us left with relationships tested strongly, but healthy and intact. I got married 5 months after returning.

How does the Fulbright fit into your life plan? Academic or institutional research is in my “hopeful” future. The Fulbright period is by far the most flexible and concentrated research time you will ever have in your life, as long as you set yourself up well and are realistic about expected output. It provides great preparation and publication opportunities if this is your goal.

How helpful was NISO and Purdue’s support? The feedback from NISO’s faculty committees for the Fulbright US Student Program significantly strengthened my application. The grant application (particularly the Statement of Grant Purpose) is a very different style than, for example, an NSF funding application. Contextualizing your document to their requirements takes specialized knowledge, which they readily provided.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell Purdue students about your experience in applying for, receiving, and living a Fulbright? Be realistic about what you want to accomplish. Be flexible, be targeted, take responsibility, and have fun!

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