Fulbright friendly
Support at home prepares Latin Americanists to win prestigious awards for research abroad.
By their numbers alone, Chicago's Fulbright fellows are an impressive bunch. Nationwide, the University boasts the highest percentage of students receiving Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Fellowships, and it consistently ranks first in the overall number of students who win graduate or undergraduate Fulbright-IIE U.S. Student Program Fellowships. Graduate students who land the awards for research in Latin America constitute an especially strong cadre. In the past 11 years, 63 Chicago doctoral students have received Fulbright fellowships to pursue dissertation topics in the region, more than those from any other U.S. university. Currently, about ten percent of social-sciences graduate students focus on Latin America—and they constitute 28 percent of the University's Fulbright winners for the current academic year. Nine students in the departments of history, anthropology, and sociology received Fulbright awards; their respective projects will take them to Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Panama, and the Dominican Republic (see sidebar). For most, the six-to-12 month fellowship is not a first foray into the field but the logical next step in a long-term research project.  

A new view of Mexico

Jaclyn Sumner in Mexico City.
History doctoral student Jaclyn Sumner, AM'09, will spend her Fulbright-Hays fellowship year in Mexico researching ethnic and regional politics during the presidency (1876–1910) of Porfirio Díaz. "Scholars have traditionally conceived of Díaz as a dictator who used coercion and repression to govern," she says. Sumner intends to challenge that view by showing how political negotiation built a broad coalition that sustained Porfirian rule for three decades. She is focusing on the state of Tlaxcala and its indigenous governor, Próspero Cahuantzi, a Díaz ally who held power from 1885 to 1911. In Mexico City, Sumner is consulting national archives and university libraries; she also expects to mine state, local, and private archives in Tlaxcala. "I hope that I can find enough interesting material to write a really good dissertation," she says. "To do good work, you really need to get lost in the archives here." A fourth-year PhD student, Sumner says having 12 months in Mexico will be useful for "making connections and establishing myself, because your dissertation ends but the project continues." The fellowship period is "not just about procuring documents—it's also about forming relationships while we're here." In Chicago as well as in the field, relationships prove crucial to the success of graduate students from the moment they first apply for Fulbright awards. "I wrote dozens of drafts of my application and my advisers all read it and gave me feedback—and so did my peers," says Sumner. "It's really important to have that kind of supportive community. That has made all the difference."  

Finding "backstories" in Brazil

Matthew Barton in Rio de Janeiro.
Matthew Barton, AM'07, a fifth-year PhD student in history, garnered back-to-back Fulbright awards for research in Brazil. Both grants have helped him advance his dissertation project, which analyzes why the federal government failed to extend national institutions to the province of Minas Gerais from 1840 to 1871. "The Brazilian state is viewed as massively successful, even as the most successful state in nineteenth-century Latin America," explains Barton. "That's by and large correct, except for Minas Gerais. It's the one province where they had this continual failure in trying to accomplish the primary goals of state consolidation," such as collecting taxes, recruiting soldiers for wars, and establishing transportation networks. After spending nine months reading government documents in Rio de Janeiro—Brazil's former capital—Barton will shift his focus to smaller, previously untapped archives in Minas Gerais. "To find some of the backstories of what was going on in Minas, I'm going to be reading the private correspondence between politicians that wasn't necessarily going through official bureaucratic channels." Ultimately, he hopes to incorporate theoretical insights from several disciplines into his historical analysis of nineteenth-century Brazilian state building.  

Thinking small in Panama

Third-year sociology student Laura Goodrich, AM'10, departs in March for Santiago, Panama, in the rural province of Veraguas. She plans to use her six-month Fulbright U.S. Student Program award to gather data on social aspects of entrepreneurship and economic development. "Traditionally, research in economic sociology tends to be very large scale. We like to think about GDP per capita and international markets and global trade," she says. "What I'd like to add to this picture is the importance of very small-scale—perhaps unnoticed—actions and habits that contribute to an entrepreneur's success or failure." Goodrich will conduct statistical analyses of the database of a bank that has made loans to 15,000 microborrowers. She plans also to interview and observe borrowers and loan officers and will ask them to photograph the things that are most essential to their businesses' success. The combined strategies, she hopes, "will provide a more colorful—literally—vision of what's actually going on" at the grassroots level. "There is a lot of enthusiasm about small-business owners forming part of important emerging markets for economic expansion. The problem is that we know very little about their day-to-day operations and challenges," says Goodrich. "I hope to shed some light on the social and economic experiences of the empanada vendor, the independent taxi driver, the woman operating a salon out of her home."  

From CLAS, resources for research

Many Fulbright recipients build the foundation for their dissertation work with preliminary research travel and language study. "The University's Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS) is wonderful in being able to provide funding for predissertation research trips," says Barton. His current Fulbright-Hays award is underwriting his fifth research trip to Brazil. Both he and Sumner obtained Tinker Field Research Grants through CLAS and departmental support for summer travel early in their graduate studies. As a result, they became savvier researchers and stronger candidates for subsequent funding. On average, CLAS awards 35 Tinker grants annually for exploratory research, "which means we can get our students into the field starting their very first summer here," says Josh Beck, the center's associate director. "The grants are designed so that students may establish professional and institutional contacts, assess research sites, and refine their projects before writing proposals for long-term research funding such as Fulbrights." Long before his current research, Barton took exploratory trips to Brazil to gain familiarity with the collections he would be consulting. Also, he says, "There is a huge learning curve to doing research in Rio de Janeiro and a lot of bureaucratic measures to deal with—simple things like what you can bring into the archives and what you can't." Thanks to his previous work, "I was really able to get down to work almost immediately, unlike people who might not have had as much experience." With funding from the U.S. Department of Education, CLAS also provides Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowships for students to learn the less commonly taught languages of the region, from Haitian Creole to Yucatec Maya, Portuguese, and Aymara. To better understand ethnic politics in central Mexico, Sumner used the grants to study Nahuatl. So far, most of the documents she has consulted for her dissertation are in Spanish—but she feels the training and support she has received at Chicago will prepare her for whatever comes next. Institutionally, Chicago graduate students are "very well supported," she says. "We are very lucky."