Fulbright: Teaching and learning from each other

Editor's note: The following is part one in a series of short articles by Mississippi State faculty and administrators about their experiences in the Fulbright Scholar Program. In addition to Thailand, MSU Fulbright Ambassador Stephen Cottrell has received a Fulbright grant to Japan and will represent MSU on a Fulbright scholarship in Vietnam this fall. For additional information about the program, contact him at wec3@msstate.edu.


By Stephen Cottrell
Assistant Director
MSU International Institute

On June 13, 1966 I was introduced to war about 30 klicks south of Danang, Vietnam. For the nearly half century since, my life has been profoundly influenced by that introduction. The English novelist George Orwell best captured my young “bush” Marine experience with his penetrating words: ”If the war didn’t kill you it was bound to start you thinking.”

In 2006, I learned that an Arkansas senator had provided me a vehicle to put my “thinking” into action through the U.S. Department of State Fulbright Scholarship program. Senator J. William Fulbright’s philosophy of beating the swords of war into the plowshares of peace through international education exchange was the perfect goodness-of-fit for both my past life and present career at Mississippi State University. Subsequently, I applied and was awarded my first Fulbright grant.

In late 2007 my scholarship took me to Mae Jo University (MJU) in Chiang Mai, Thailand. In some surreal way it was a type of homecoming since I had spent months in that city as a Peace Corps language trainee in 1972. My first impression was how much Chiang Mai had grown. In large part, the city’s expansion was the underlying reason for my returning 35 years on. My Fulbright project included providing lectures on the geography of urbanization and exploring with MJU faculty core issues pertaining to Thai urban migration. Specifically, we collaborated on sustainability models that could enhance life quality for both the local Thai and surrounding hill tribe communities.

As an agricultural institution, MJU has had a long exchange history with MSU. During my brief tenure, I was introduced to several Thai administrators and faculty who hold MSU degrees and a few students who had spent short stays at MSU studying horticulture. Both faculty and students were very patient with my long forgotten Thai language skills and seemed very impressed that I could remember anything after so long a hiatus. Many of our breaks were spent helping me refresh my vocabulary. The students’ eagerness to learn English and my struggle to remember Thai placed this gray-haired “farang” (Thai for foreigner) and his students on a somewhat level playing field as we taught and learned from one another. Some of the students that MSU has hosted since my visit were faces whom I had met during those informal breaks.

In preparing this article many remembrances were stirred by jottings from my well-worn journal. Through dog-eared pages and penciled notes I was warmly reminded of late night chats over cool drinks with Thai colleagues about our different beliefs and how we acquired them. We often ended our evenings agreeing that believing is a lot easier than thinking... but not as much fun! Mr. Orwell and Senator Fulbright would be proud.

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