For four Fulbright winners, COVID-19 was never far away

Academics Student Features

June 10, 2021

Dr. Anthony Fauci wasn’t the only person monitoring the COVID-19 pandemic across the world during the last 15 months.

So did Mackenzie Carlson, Hannah Long, Amanda Bjerke and Max Ditzler.

The four graduates of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University each made sure they stayed up-to-date with COVID-19 rates and precautions to the countries they will teach in after earning Fulbright Awards from two different national organizations.   

Carlson and Long received awards as Fulbright English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) to Taiwan and Thailand, respectively. The awards are sponsored by the Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.

Bjerke deferred her Fulbright ETA award to Germany from 2020 to this fall.

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program places recent college graduates as English Teaching Assistants in schools and universities overseas. The ETAs improve international students’ English abilities and knowledge of the U.S., while enhancing their own language skills and knowledge of the host country.

ETAs may also pursue individual study/research plans in addition to their teaching responsibilities.

Ditzler received a Fulbright Austria-United States Teaching Assistant position through the Austrian Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research.

For decades, Fulbright Austria has worked with the Austrian Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research to bring qualified university graduates from the U.S. to teach English in secondary schools in Austria. As teaching assistants, they help Austrian students develop the linguistic skills that will help them succeed.

They also serve as informal cultural ambassadors and promote mutual understanding between the peoples of the U.S. and the Republic of Austria.

Since 2014, 45 CSB and SJU graduates have accepted Fulbright awards through the U.S. and other countries.

“I’ve been monitoring what is happening in Thailand closely,” said Long, a 2020 graduate of CSB from St. Paul Park, Minnesota, who majored in elementary education. “I choose to remain hopeful about this situation that is the pandemic. I believe humanity has the power to make change happen fast, and I’m hoping vaccination rates increase not only in Thailand, but other newly industrialized countries across the world.

“I applied for this program knowing the pandemic could play a role in my experience, but I am willing to work with the way the world is during this time,” added Long, who hopes to teach elementary aged students in Thailand when she leaves for the Asian country in September.

Carlson, a 2021 CSB graduate from Roseville, Minnesota, who majored in sociology, leaves in late July for her teaching assignment in Chiayi County, Taiwan.

“Being a small island nation, Taiwan has had a very good grip on COVID-19,” Carlson said. “Just recently, they have seen a sharp increase in cases, but for most of the past year, their case count was in the single digits.

“This low case count was reassuring to me that the program was likely to happen and not be canceled because of COVID-19, which also influenced my decision to apply for Taiwan,” Carlson said.

Bjerke’s program in Germany was originally delayed to January because of COVID-19. In December 2020, she was given the option to either defer her grant until 2021-22 or forfeit it. She decided on the former option, and now will leave in September to teach in Baden-Württemberg.

“I have been following the COVID updates in Germany since the beginning of the pandemic,” Bjerke said. “It is important for me to know what is going on there, not only because it pertains to my grant, but also because I have many friends there who have been significantly impacted throughout this past year.”

To bridge the gap from her graduation from CSB to her Fulbright grant, Bjerke accepted a long-term substitute teaching position at New Prague (Minnesota) High School, then taught at New Prague Middle School for the reminder of the school year.

Ditzler, a 2021 SJU graduate from Eagle River, Alaska, who majored in German, will leave in late September to teach high school students in Rankweil, Austria.

“I have been monitoring the COVID-19 news in Austria a little bit because of my interest in German-speaking countries, but I also am still in contact with one of the Austrian Fulbright recipients from CSB,” Ditzler said.

“With that, I think COVID probably gave me more free time to work on the application. We all had to stay home, anyway, and that really allowed me to lay out my skills in a manner that helped me get the position,” he added.

CSB and SJU students interested in applying for a Fulbright Award for the 2022-23 academic year should contact Phil Kronebusch, professor of political science and coordinator of Competitive Fellowships at CSB and SJU, or Lindsey Gunnerson Gutsch, assistant director of Undergraduate Research at CSB and SJU.

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Hannah Long

Mackenzie Carlson

Amanda Bjerke

Max Ditzler