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IOWA CITY — When University of Iowa senior Ajla Dizdarevic learned in March 2020 she was a finalist for a prestigious Fulbright English teaching assistantship to Croatia, her enthusiasm was tempered by the many unknowns and precarious state of the world — plagued by a fast-spreading pandemic.
Upon learning her award might be truncated from a full academic year to half — with its original start postponed from last year until this March — Dizdarevic packed her bags and moved instead to Serbia in October 2020, hoping to get the most out of her international experience despite COVID-19.
In the Serbian capital of Belgrade, the 21-year-old Waterloo native got a job, began volunteering, found an American roommate and landed an apartment near a popular pedestrian hub.
Then she waited, finally beginning her Fulbright assistantship in October, a year after she took the leap from Iowa to Eastern Europe.
Like other award recipients from the upended 2020-21 term, Dizdarevic said she’s glad to get any experience at all through the esteemed Fulbright program — the world’s largest international exchange program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2021.
“We were all so nervous that it was going to get outright canceled, so I'm extremely happy and grateful to be in Croatia — in country,” Dizdarevic told The Gazette over Zoom from the coastal nation where she moved from Serbia for the start of her assistantship at the University of Osijek.
“Even though a lot of social things are kind of limited … I'm still happy to be here and be able to do what I can do,” she said. “I'm just happy they didn't cancel it.”
Top Fulbright producer
The Fulbright program, like most everything else, saw massive disruption last year — like for two University of Northern Iowa 2020-21 Fulbright students who deferred their awards to spring 2021 and even then started online.
“The deferrals and semester online were directly related to COVID-19 as the U.S. Embassy was not issuing student visas at that time,” according to UNI spokesman Steve Schmadeke.
The UI in May 2020 announced that 24 students and alumni had landed 2020-21 Fulbright awards to conduct research, teach English or undertake some other creative project — setting a campus record. They were selected from among more than 10,000 students nationally, and nearly half the 51 UI applicants who completed the Fulbright interview process were chosen.
Because the virus complicated many of those awards, 13 deferred from last year until the 2021-22 academic cycle — joining this year’s nine student and three faculty Fulbright winners from the UI.
“Fewer Fulbright awards were issued this year due to the global COVID-19 pandemic and deferrals for awards given for 2020-21,” according to UI International Programs.
In that 2020-21 term, the UI for the sixth straight year was named a top-producer of Fulbright students nationally, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which tied the UI for 12th among doctoral institutions, just behind the universities of Michigan and Southern California but ahead of Stanford and Duke universities.
Over its six years of elite production, nearly 100 UI students have received awards to more than 30 countries.
UI International Programs Dean Russ Ganim said in a statement the university is “especially proud of this year’s Fulbright recipients, as their awards display patience and determination in the face of COVID-19.”
“These newest members of the UI Fulbright family were undaunted by the obstacles imposed by the pandemic and their persistence was rewarded in prestigious placements to teach and conduct research all over the world,” he said.
Despite the setbacks, though, the 2021-22 Fulbright cycle is moving forward as normal. Or as normal as possible — given that COVID-19 remains a present threat around the globe.
UI graduate Cameron Keomanivong, 23, from Mount Pleasant, like Dizdarevic, had to stay flexible to make his 2020-21 Fulbright award happen — agreeing to a 5,522-mile redirection from Laos, where he was originally headed, to Sicily, Italy.
“My grant to Laos was canceled again for the 2021-2022 academic year,” Keomanivong said, telling The Gazette his plans to start medical school prompted him to take a country reassignment option instead of waiting longer for Laos to open up.
“In August 2021, I was notified of my reassignment to do an English teaching assistantship in Italy,” he said. “They gave me 48 hours to decide. But I jumped at the opportunity. I eventually found myself in Syracuse, Sicily on Oct. 19.”
Although his Fulbright experience so far has been far from what he expected, Keomanivong said, “That's not necessarily a bad thing.”
“With little knowledge about the culture and language, I was excited to use this opportunity to achieve my goals of exchanging culture,” he said. “My cluelessness has actually made this such an impactful experience thus far. My lack of knowledge has led me to ask the locals so many different questions when it comes to language, food, holidays, and other topics of Italian culture.”
COVID-19 remains an issue, of course, he said.
“At school, we have to show them proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test result before entering,” Keomanivong said. “We also have what is called the ‘green pass’ that is used to provide the same information. Outside of school, many places may ask for these documents.”
In nearby Serbia, COVID-19 is impinging on recent UI graduate Jackson Guilford’s Fulbright experience as well — with his country reporting among the highest incidence rates in the world.
“It hasn’t really started yet,” Guilford, 23, said of his English teaching assistantship. “The academic year started at the beginning of October. They’ve been having classes. But it's been kind of difficult to find out where I fit into that — mostly because of COVID. Because they're mostly online, so it's just really difficult to figure out how to insert me into the classroom.”
With “sky high” COVID-19 rates and restrictions to match, Guilford’s community also has many shuttered restaurants, bars and cafes.
“It's tough because a lot of the Fulbright is community engagement, and community engagement is just really tough right now,” he said. “It's definitely making it a little bit more difficult to talk to people and meet with people.”
Tennis — one of Guilford’s favorite pastimes — has been a highlight, though, and a way to interact with his international community.
“Serbia has a lot of really good tennis players,” he said. “That actually has been probably the best part of my experience so far … Because it’s a COVID-friendly activity, I've been able to meet a lot of people playing tennis.”
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