Alexander Allison (B.A., history, ’15) is one of several College of Arts and Sciences students who have won a Fulbright scholarship. He learned of the English Teaching Assistant award for the 2016–17 academic year while teaching English in Barcelona, Spain. The Fulbright allowed Alexander to spend a year in Quibdó, Colombia, teaching English and researching civil conflict. He recently let us know how his award year went.
Though Alexander says he lived in a “nice apartment” in a “bourgeoisie district,” he was next door to a post-conflict zone “where a lot of the violence in Colombia’s civil conflict took place. This is the poorest region in Colombia by far. Many basic needs like potable water, paved roads, and stable electricity aren’t met. I went from Barcelona to that. It was pretty shocking.”
Teaching English as a foreign language at the Technological University of Chocó was enlightening for Alexander. It exposed him to some harsh truths about the civil conflict in Colombia. “Everyone who lives there are either members of an indigenous tribe or decedents of slaves brought there to work in gold mines. Once slavery was abolished, people went out into the jungle, and they just started working the land. During the conflict, armed groups would show up to people’s homes and relocate [them]. That’s what happened with most of my students.”
“There’s nothing that could have prepared me for it,” Alexander says. “There’s no orientation, no books. There are no documentaries, no classes. You can show pictures, but until you’re there no one will ever be able to really appreciate it.”
Alexander’s journey to Colombia was assisted by several professors and advisors in the our Department of History, to whom he is grateful. “All the staff are really intelligent, they give wonderful classes, and they know how to help you improve your research and your writing. Dr. Livschiz and Dr. Weiner were the two people who really inspired me. Dr. Toole was the one who approached me about Fulbright.”
Alexander has some advice for other students thinking of studying abroad: “The first month is going to be very challenging… you may think you speak [the language] very well, but you’re going to have trouble communicating. And then you feel uncomfortable because you are put in totally different social contexts. At the beginning it will undoubtedly be difficult, but after a couple months, things will certainly get better. You have to be willing to adapt.”
Winning the Fulbright provided Alexander with more than he expected. The cultural insight of living in Quibdó made him “a lot more sensitive to violence and poverty. It was probably the most meaningful experience of my life.”