Written by Carmen Marti

That’s what’s great: You go somewhere and come out with more than you expected going in.”
—Peter Kupfer
PhD candidate in musicology

As Lauren Wynne met rural townspeople during her stay in Mexico for a Fulbright-Hays fellowship in 2007, she encountered an unexpected yet revealing question: Could she make tortillas?

It was the sort of question that Wynne, a PhD candidate in anthropology, could not have anticipated before her fellowship took her to Hunuku, Yucatan, a rural region southwest of Cancun. She settled into the local culture, learned to speak the dialect, researched how the people talked about food, and cooked for herself the local diet of black beans, squash, and the occasional chicken, beef or pork.

Wynne found that the local people felt a spiritual connection to their food, which could lead to intense anxieties. For them, the urgency of the tortilla question was obvious.

“One of the signs you’re a woman is whether you can pat out a tortilla,” says Wynne. “It’s the most important task a woman can master.”

Those unforeseen personal lessons illustrate the unique benefits of doing advanced research in another country. Fulbright winners such as Wynne receive nine- to 12-month grants for teaching and research to pursue a wide range of academic interests—from drumming in Sri Lanka, to the Japanese family system, to Italian vocal music of the 16th and 17th centuries.

“The nature of the work exposed me to Russian culture and people,” says Peter Kupfer, a PhD candidate in musicology who studied 1930s film music in Russia. “That’s what’s great: You go somewhere and come out with more than you expected going in.”

Betwixt and Between

The Fulbright-Hays prize is one of the few awarded for international dissertation research and pays for living, travel, research, and family expenses. It ranges from $20,000 to $65,000, depending on the specific country. “That’s one of the nice things about the Fulbright,” says PhD candidate Joseph Yackley, who will study late-19th-century political and economic history in Egypt and Turkey. “It will allow me to concentrate on finishing my dissertation.”

This year 16 University of Chicago students accepted Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad fellowships, and another 14 accepted Fulbright fellowships from the Institute of International Education. Eight Chicago students were honored with both fellowships and had to choose between them. Counting all of the fellowships offered, 19 students won the Fulbright IIE, and 19 won the Fulbright-Hays.

Once students collect data and complete their observations, their next step typically is writing the dissertation. Jim Sykes, a musicologist who spent a year in Sri Lanka, did much writing when he returned from Sri Lanka, but he also pursued his other career—touring the country as a professional drummer with a rock band.

In Sri Lanka, Sykes studied the yak bera, a drum used in healing rituals. As part of his research, he learned to play the instrument from a ritual specialist, and Sykes was eventually invited to participate in the all-night drumming rituals himself.

It was hard work. “The reason this music isn’t well known to foreigners is because Sri Lankans don’t want the drum knowledge to fall into the wrong hands,” Sykes says. “The music is considered to have efficacy and is used to call on the divine and demons, so the drum language is considered too sacred to share.”

As a foreigner, Sykes didn’t want to be too invasive, but he was worried he wouldn’t have anything to write about when he got home. But Sykes returned home to New York with good findings. He has since split his time writing his dissertation and touring as a professional musician, and he hopes to finish his dissertation by next May.

Logistical Lessons

Kupfer spent six months last year in Moscow researching popular film music in early Soviet-era Russia.

A glitch in Russian visa stipulations required Kupfer to return to the States after a three-month stay, but the short setback turned out to be a lucky break. Before his return to Moscow, where he had found living with a family in an “old Russian apartment” to be challenging, Kupfer located two English-speaking roommates—one Russian, one American—through an information site for English-speaking expatriates.

Connecting with other students was one of the best resources Kupfer found. “They had the inside tips,” he says.

Melissa Reilly, who studies 16th- and 17th-century Italian vocal music, is preparing for a year in Venice. Handling the logistics of her move this fall has been challenging, she says. “You have to find people to help you out. I don’t know, is there a Craigslist in Italy?”

For Wynne, the fellowship instilled a new sense of pride in the United States. “It was nice to have something positive to tell people about the US,” she says. “I could tell them that I’m not rich, but I got a scholarship from my government. It opened people’s minds.”