Fulbright Ambassador: Cultural knowledge helps in science lab

Zig Hampel-Arias went to meet a friend for dinner in Bariloche, Argentina. He was new to town and just learning his way around.

When Hampel-Arias arrived at the restaurant, he was surprised to see his friend with two other people. But he didn’t mind being joined by others.

He greeted his friend, and then turned to the others, a father and daughter.

“And so I reached over and kissed the guy and daughter on the cheek and was like ‘Nice to meet you.’ They were like, ’Great to meet you. How are you doing? What’s your name?’” says Hampel-Arias.

It then hit him: Not only did he not know these people, neither did his friend. He had just kissed two random strangers waiting in line at the restaurant.

But that didn’t matter. They were in Argentina.

“The funny thing is if I did that [in the United States], it would be awkward. There, it wasn’t awkward at all. We ended up sitting down with them and talking for a while,” says Hampel-Arias, who had come to Argentina as a Fulbright scholar.

Today, he laughs about the restaurant encounter, but continues to see it as an important cultural experience. As the new Fulbright Alumni Ambassador at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, he shares his experiences as part of his efforts to encourage prospective Fulbright applicants.

The Fulbright program was created in 1945 to foster mutual understandings between the United States and other cultures through exchanges.

“I lived in a town very similar to my hometown,” says Hampel-Arias, who was born in Mexico and raised in the United States. “I got to experience a part of Argentina that very few people get to see. Most people think of Buenos Aires and the big grasslands, which are still very Argentinean, but there is this whole other part that is very European influenced. They have this subculture there where it is like Wild West almost.”

He explains, “It’s that connection with people that you really want to find, that you really hope for when you go somewhere. I think what keeps some people from traveling is they’re a little scared of these new people, they don’t know much about them. But you won’t get to know unless you talk to them.”

Zig Hampel-Arias
Zig Hampel-Arias

Hampel-Arias sees his cultural experiences as important not just personally, but also for conducting his research at Argentina’s national nuclear laboratory, where he was investigating why some equipment had become less sensitive. In addition to applying his background in science, he had to find ways to break cultural barriers in his lab.

“The scientific process is the same for everybody,” he explains. “It is how you go about getting there that’s much more subtle.”

This experience goes to the heart of the Fulbright program – building on the idea of international partnerships. These experiences cut across a wide array of disciplines, not just scientific research.

Erin Crawley, the international fellowships advisor at UW–Madison, works with undergraduate, graduate and PhD students on developing Fulbright applications that range in topics from cultural to educational.

“There is actually a big range of types of grants,” Crawley says. “The most common type of grant applied for are the research ones. But those may not be tied to an academic degree program.”

She adds, “There is a public policy grant. There is something called mtvU grant which is the study of contemporary music and culture. There are a lot of artists, whether they are musicians, visual artists, spoken word, and creative writing, who can apply to do a project.” Another popular grant is the English Teaching Assistantship which places people all over the world to teach English.

All of these grants, including the one Hampel-Arias received, fall under the larger umbrella of the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. Applicants must be U.S. citizens and have a bachelor’s degree, but not a Ph.D.; currently enrolled students and alumni may apply.

UW–Madison generates about 60 applications a year, with 10-20 usually being accepted. Crawley has worked to build the program on campus, and welcomes the assistance of Hampel-Arias as a Fulbright Alumni Ambassador.

“A lot of what he is doing is helping to promote it, helping to encourage it. He is happy to meet with students if they want to talk to somebody who recently had one,” Crawley says.

Hampel-Arias encourages interested students to attend information sessions, but he is willing to talk with them outside of those sessions.

He and Crawley have scheduled several sessions this semester because it is a good time for people to begin their applications. The application process for the Fulbright U.S. Student Program formally begins in early September and spans the full academic year.

“Sometimes people are really nervous. They are like ‘Fulbright has such a big reputation and it’s only for people who aren’t in my league,’ and often times it’s: ‘No, you are a really strong student. This is the kind of thing you should be applying for,’” Crawley says. “And you can get advice, you can get help. You don’t have to do it in a vacuum.”

Both Crawley and Hampel-Arias encourage students to ask questions, seek help and start early.

Hampel-Arias connects his work in Argentina to his current graduate studies in physics at UW–Madison. Now, he has turned his attention, though, to a new laboratory north of Puebla, Mexico, where he is studying gamma rays.

“I think the reason I am here is because of my experience in Argentina,” he says. “Although I have this directed research, I think my really big focus and me being on this project is trying to form these connections between Mexico and the U.S. and forging these collaborations so that we have this synthesis of ideas towards a solution, and in this case, a scientific one.”

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To learn more:

  • Next information session for the Fulbright U.S. Student program: Wednesday, Feb. 13, 3:30-4:30pm in 336 Ingraham Hall.
  • Next information session for Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship: Thursday, Feb. 21, 4:00-5:00, 336 Ingraham Hall.
  • Contact: Erin Crawley, Fellowships Officer, 328 Ingraham Hall; phone: (608) 262 9632; email: fellow@intl-institute.wisc.edu

— by Jeff Cartwright