Featured Fellow: Katerina Yeaw
Applying For And Winning A Fellowship:
Katrina Yeaw on the Fulbright Fellowship
FELLOWSHIP I WON AND WHEN: Fulbright Research Grant, Syria, Institute of International Education, 2009-10.
MY ACADEMIC INTEREST: Modern History of the Middle East and North Africa .
THE SUBSTANCE OF MY FELLOWSHIP PROPOSAL: In my Fulbright proposal, I proposed research on women and piety in Syria, looking at the recent outpouring of female religious scholarship in the country and examining the manner in which it has an impact upon the evolution of Islamic jurisprudence. The goal of the research was to provide insight into Syrian female jurists’ scholarship and their unique perspective on the interpretation of Islam.
The study sought to address the following questions: “What precedence is there for female religious scholarship in Syria in the early modern period? How has the tradition developed over the last century? What roles have female preachers played within this tradition? How has the increased interest in religious education among women influenced its development? What historical conditions in Syria led to the decision to appoint women as muftis? What effect is their scholarship having on the interpretation of Islamic law in the country? My research on the expansion of women’s religious and legal scholarship and its relationship to women’s piety in modern Syria sought to address these and other questions at the heart of scholarly debates on the changing role of religion in Islamic societies.
LOW POINT IN THE APPLICATION PROCESS: The low point was when I was having problems reaching one of the faculty members I was hoping would write my letter of recommendation for the application. I was terrified that I was not going to get the letter in time to complete the application by the deadline, and that all the work that I had done was going to be for nothing. In the end, everything came together, but it was a stressful week or two.
HIGH POINT IN THE APPLICATION PROCESS: The high point was finding out that I made it to the second round of the application process. Although I had not been accepted yet, I still wanted to do a back flip.
MISADVENTURES DURING THE FELLOWSHIP: My arrival in Syria was pretty stressful since I was not sure what to expect, and I had not met any of the other Fulbright scholars. A driver picked me up from the airport and brought me to the hotel, but I was pretty much on my own after that. I knew that the first thing I needed to do was find a place to live, but I knew absolutely nothing about the city. I almost had an anxiety attack the first night. I soon met the other Fulbrighters, however, and we helped each other get settled.
Beyond my first few days in Syria, the majority of my misadventures revolved around the Syrian bureaucracy in one form or another and their smoke-filled offices--either in relation to our visas, residency permits, or permission to leave the country. For example, our visa requires us to cross over the Syrian border every 28 days in order to gain another 28 day extension. This may sound like a rather simple, if somewhat annoying, undertaking, considering that Damascus is only about 50km (30 miles) from the Syrian border and 127 km (around 75 miles) from Beirut through the beautiful Lebanese mountains. However, a trip from Damascus to Beirut takes on average between three and four hours. In order to cross the border out of Syria, one must first get in line to pay an exit fee of 550 Syrian pounds (around $12) then pass through passport control, followed by customs. Once you have crossed the Syrian border, you must then drive through a rather bleak “no man’s land” until you reach the Lebanese border, where you have to buy a 15-day tourist visa for 25,000 Lebanese pounds (about $17). This is made more difficult by the fact that only Lebanese money is accepted, and that there is no bank in the area, requiring you to exchange money in the street. These monthly trips became a thing of legend among Fulbrighters--from getting stuck at the border for the whole day trying to cross back, to the creepy budget hotel in the mountains that some of us stayed in during one of the excursions.
BEST MOMENT DURING THE FELLOWSHIP: Choosing a single favorite moment for my year in Syria is almost impossible. However, one memorable moment was during a trip with two friends to the Fortress of St. Simeon, which is near the city of Aleppo in northern Syria. The fortress is located in a rather out of the way location that it is not connected to reliable public transportation. We could have hired a car from Aleppo, but the guide book said that the site could be reached by taking a mini-bus from to a nearby town and then negotiating with the driver to take you the rest of the way--or, since the road was fairly busy by hitching a ride with the locals. We got out to the fortress and explored the church and surrounding ruins before heading back to Aleppo. We decided to hitchhike the couple of kilometers back to the town where we would catch another mini-bus the rest of the way. The first vehicle that we flagged down turned out to be a Kurdish family on their way to Aleppo and they offered to give us a ride back to the city. We ended up sitting in the back of their truck and chatting with their two friendly teenage sons all the way back to Aleppo. They even taught us a few phrases in Kurdish!
ADVICE TO APPLICANTS: The best advice that I can give to applicants is to start early and be prepared to rework your materials a number of times. I would suggest deciding on a country and a project and then putting together a polished draft of their fellowship proposal and personal statement and have as many people as possible read it and provide feedback. When selecting people to read it, it’s helpful to find individuals who know something about your topic, although other people can be helpful also. While I was completing my application, I had more than ten people read different drafts of my proposal including professors, former Fulbright scholars and other graduate students, friends and family members. You do not have to use all of the feedback, but you will end up with a stronger application in the end. The Fulbright website is also a valuable resource with information on the country that you are applying to, as well as contact information for past Fulbright scholars.
WHY I’D DO IT AGAIN: The time I spend completing my Fulbright in Syria was one of the best experiences of my life and I wish everyone had the same opportunity. Not only was it rewarding academically, it was a unique chance to gain firsthand experience of the region of the world that I study. There are so many experiences that I cannot even begin to describe. In addition, I now count many of the people that I met during the year among my lifelong friends. If you are thinking about applying to the Fulbright, do it! You will not regret it.
What I'm Doing Now: I am currently in the process of completing a PhD in the History of the Middle East and North Africa at Georgetown University.