• Emma Astad ’21

Emma Astad ’21 has joined Catherine Hiebel ’22 and Melina Boutris ’22 as one of Southwestern University’s newest Fulbright award recipients. Astad, a biology major and Spanish minor, will serve as an English teaching assistant in Galicia, Spain.

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program is the federal government’s flagship international educational exchange program. Since 1946, the program has provided more than 400,000 participants from over 160 countries the opportunity to study, teach and conduct research, exchange ideas, and contribute to finding solutions to shared international concerns. 

“Diplomacy is more important than ever given the state of global affairs, and to be part of that bridge and part of those diplomatic efforts is exciting,” Astad says. “It also fits into my future goals as I become the person I aspire to be.”

Those future goals include becoming a physician specializing in the brain—perhaps a neuro-oncologist or a neurosurgeon. As an undergraduate, Astad conducted research on neural circuit development in zebrafish and its relationship to human neurological disorders alongside Assistant Professor Kimberly McArthur. She also has a personal interest in diseases of the brain: her mother died of brain cancer last December. 

“I’ve always been fascinated with the brain. My Spanish independent study course involved looking at brain changes associated with language acquisition,” says Astad, who has studied several languages, including French, Greek, Latin, and Norwegian.

The combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and serving as a caretaker for her mother for two years prevented Astad from studying abroad while at Southwestern. She knew applying for a Fulbright in Spain was her opportunity to have that experience while combining her passion for health care (Spain has a highly regarded health care system) with her interest in linguistics (Spain has one official language and several co-official regional languages, including Galician, which is spoken in the region where Astad will be teaching). 

The application process was daunting, to say the least. Astad estimates she wrote six drafts of her statement of grant purpose and seven drafts of her personal statement. She also had to answer supplemental questions and complete a language assessment. She credits the support of her three recommenders—Senior Director of Integrative and Community-Engaged Learning Sarah Brackmann, Professor Maria Todd, and McArthur—as well as that of Associate Professor Erika Berroth, Professor Maria Cuevas, and Senior Associate Director of the Center for Career & Professional Development Alexandra Anderson with getting her through the lengthy process.

“There’s one student, but there’s an army of mentors,” she says. “I truly couldn’t have done it without their help. They are so important and integral to the process.”

Astad doesn’t yet know where exactly her placement will be in Galicia, but she’s already planning out her time there. In addition to her teaching duties, she hopes to volunteer in local hospitals and possibly offer free English lessons to patients and staff. She also wants to explore the history and culture of the region.

“Galicia has a lot of Celtic influence, and the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route ends at the town of Santiago de Compostela, which is the capital,” Astad says. “I’m excited about the cultural immersion aspect.”

Astad has two words of advice for students considering applying to the Fulbright Program: do it. 

“I know that’s easier said than done,” she says with a laugh. “It’s a really intense process, and it can be super overwhelming. But Southwestern will help you and support you along the way.”