Gold’s Fulbright experience comes back to benefit UW–Madison students

If Susan Dillon Gold hadn’t received a Fulbright grant seven years ago to teach reproductive health classes to HIV-positive adolescents in Kenya, an entire community would likely not exist today.

While doing two months of volunteer work in a Kenyan orphanage in 2003, Gold, a University of Wisconsin–Madison graduate and nurse, became aware of how little people living in that area knew about HIV. That inspired her to apply in 2007 for a Fulbright grant to return to Kenya for 10 months and evaluate “an adapted curriculum for HIV-positive adolescents about reproductive health,” she says.

The Fulbright Program, founded in 1946, is a competitive, grant-based initiative “designed to increase mutual understand between the people of the United States and the people of other countries” and provide individuals like Gold opportunities to engage in rewarding and often life-changing cultural immersion.

While in Africa, Gold conducted classes in an orphanage and at community-based clinics in the slums of Nairobi, working with HIV-positive adolescents.

“They were all expected to die,” Gold says.  “Now, with the availability of medications and accurate information, they can live a long, healthy life and protect themselves.”

Now a nurse clinician working in the Infectious Disease Clinic at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics in Madison, Gold returns to Kenya every year, taking 10 undergraduate students with her to teach the classes and observe and participate and support HIV care.

(Healthcare in Kenya: Infrastructure, Challenges and Successes is offered through the International Programs office of UW–Madison’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.)

Her Fulbright work and subsequent efforts have produced a positive ripple effect of service-learning and global engagement on campus.

Susan Gold with a student in Nyumbani Village Kitui Kenya
Susan Gold with a student in Nyumbani Village Kitui Kenya

Having Fulbright alumni on the UW–Madison campus benefits the entire community, says Erin Crawley, adviser with International Fellowships Office.

“The benefit in a larger institutional setting is that you have people at the faculty level who have had a significant amount of time abroad,” says Crawley, who works with students and alumni applying for Fulbright programs. “They’ve had the opportunity to get language fluency, cultural fluency and have the experience of doing research abroad in sometimes unfamiliar environments.”

Fulbrighters on campus can provide valuable advice for and share experiences with students interested in applying, she adds.

“I could say, so-and-so’s here, you might want to talk to them about what it’s like to do research there,” Crawley says. “Oftentimes they also will give talks through various sandwich seminars or area studies programs through their own departments that highlight the research that they were able to do.”

She emphasized the importance for students who might apply “not to make assumptions about what the Fulbright funds without reading about it and without talking to people about it.”

For instance, undergraduates or recent grads who are not looking for research-based grants for master’s or PhD programs might be interested in the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, which offers such opportunities as the English Teaching Assistant (ETA) Program, teaching English in a country where people have minimal contact with Americans, or the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, a new program centered around covering globally significant issues using digital media.

“Sometimes what happens is, especially students who may have not had as much experience or opportunities to apply for grants, they’ll look at the Fulbright Student website and be a little overwhelmed about how to assess the information,” Crawley explains. “Don’t assume that you have to work on this all on your own.”

As a veteran of the Fulbright application process, Gold describes it as “thorough and … very true to the meaning of Fulbright.” She advises students to “spend some time learning about the history of Fulbright and spend some time on the website and see what they do.”

She explains, “It’s not just money for research; I think people get that confused.”

She emphasizes the need to understand that the goal of Fulbright is “to increase awareness in the world by exchanging cultures. I think you need to understand the fundamental reason why the Fulbright program was initiated and why they’re awarded and see how you can fit into that.

She adds, “It’s competitive, but if I can get one, anyone can.”

Susan Gold with Professor Ndeti from Nairobi University, who was a Fulbrighter in 1967.
Susan Gold with Professor Ndeti from Nairobi University, who was a Fulbrighter in 1967.

Reflecting on her experience, Gold says the most significant impact was that, “personally and professionally, Fulbright gave me time.”

“It wasn’t just going over there for two weeks or three weeks; it was immersing in the culture and in the life. It allowed me to develop relationships that still resonate in my life,” she says, adding that one of her Kenyan colleagues recently visited Madison for two weeks.

Gold has nurtured her invaluable experience in all aspects of the Fulbright program into life-changing engagement and awareness that she can now pass on to others, both on campus in Madison and across the Atlantic Ocean in Kenya.

She is thankful that her Fulbright experience has had such a life-changing impact in Kenya, and that she has been able to share her passion on the Madison campus.

“So many HIV-positive adolescents have the knowledge they need now to live a full life, and I know more about what it’s like to be HIV-positive in this world,” she says. “So many lives have changed.”

— by Haley Henschel

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