Grantee Story: Fulbright Offers a Powerful Push and Invaluable Resources

Current grantee of the Visiting Graduate Student program Alexander Chudak is starting his 2nd Master's year at the University of Oklahoma and has shared his observations about how young researchers can benefit from participating in the Fulbright program.

«Antropology is not the most popular field among Russian students. Two years ago our Master's program graduation at the Far-Eastern Federal University (FEFU) counted only four alumni and the Bachelor program in antropology has been shut down whatsoever. There aren't many antropologists applying for the VGS program either, which is understandable: career prospects are not too great, many transfer from antropology to applied related disciplines like forensic science; even if you're lucky to find a place in academics, lobbying for financial support is quite the task. I took some risks. In 2014 I finished my Bachelor's in world economics at FEFU having spent 5 years doing something I wasn't really interested in. From that moment on, I decided to pursue something I was passionate about. I enrolled in Master's programme in antropology and ethnology (there weren't even enough applications to fulfill the quota). Two years flew by in a flash. I attended a few conferences and published several works. "Red diploma" was already a given. In my 2nd year of Master's, one of my lecturers told me about the Fulbright program, the information that I am extremely grateful for. Her academic supervisor from our faculty was twice a Fulbrighter herself so I learned all the details first-hand. "Why not?", I thought. I applied, waited, passed some tests, got nervous, waited more, was interviewed and then waited again. Waiting was the hardest.»

Photo 1. Bizzell Memorial Library, University of Oklahoma. Designed in a unique Cherokee Gothic architecture style.
Photo 2. Replica of an olmec's head (olmecs were an ancient civilization in Mexico), American Museum of Natural History, New York City.

«I got my long-awaited admission letter in April. University of Oklahoma! Never heard of it but as they noted in IIE, "this is a strong program in North American culture and Mesoamerica, which is what he expressed interest in". Exactly what I needed! That was my objective! As I mentioned before, antropology is somewhat unpopular in Russia. Well, Native American Studies is even less popular! I, for one, has been very interested in Native Americans since childhood. It's hard to study in that field in Vladivostok: all Native American Studies are centered in Moscow (MSU, RSHU) and St. Petersburg (Kunstkamera). Our department at FEFU mostly specialized in cultures of our Asian neighbours (China, Korea, Japan) and aboriginal people of Siberia and the Far East. Still, I defended my thesis on the role of plant hallucinogens in Native American culture and worldview, historically and in modern times. I intended to continue going in that direction in the U.S. Especially since Oklahoma is among the states with the largest Native American population, in both relative and absolute terms. Since my thesis in Russia was, understandably, mostly an overview and analysis of topical literature and included no field research of my own, I was going to fill that gap with my second thesis.

University of Oklahoma is an amazing place for those studying Native American cultures. Their Antropology program is among top 100 in the U.S., even though the department mostly focuses on archeology. However, it did house my specialization, social antropology, as well. They have solid funding and, considering Oklahoma has 40 registered Native American tribes, to be an antropologist focusing on Native American Studies is a true pleasure here.

The Native American Spirit Is All-encompassing in the University.

«As for my research, initially my focus was on Central America and Mexico, which offer extensive content for studying the use of hallucinogens in nature. However, in the University of Oklahoma's department there is only one professor specializing in Mexico but he is an archeologist and his interests do not quite match mine objective-wise. (Although, generally they match extremely well, we talk a lot about his projects in Mexico, and, what's more, thanks to his offer I have been a research assistant at the archeology department of the university museum for the last 6 months; it's a very well-paid job and quite a regular practice in American universities.) Well, if not Mexico, then I could focus on North America. A hundred years ago in Oklahoma, after centuries of persecutions and legal barriers, they started the first the Native American Church — a very interesting religious movement with a complex history, a mix of Christianity and traditional beliefs, including the ceremonial use of one of the hallucinogenic cactus species. And at the University of Oklahoma I found a lecturer who happened to be one of the leading specialists in this field, with many years of practical research experience, who helped me with my own research. Under the supervision of some amazing professors I changed my topic of interest from a more narrow and specific (hallucinogens in culture) to a broader and more exciting — how religion affects native peoples in modern times, including restoring and supporting the traditional way of life, educating youth, reviving languages, morals and ethics, as well as curing and preventing alcohol and drug addiction. My field work was visiting the local Methodist Church, mostly attended by Native Americans and closely connected with the local branch of the Native American Church. The methodists in that small church work hard on issues mentioned above: teach their languages, teach children to value their native culture, organize pow-wow festivals with dance, songs, authentic costumes, large drums, and free traditional food for all participants.»

Pow-wow Festival, Norman First American United Methodist Church.

«All the gained experience can absolutely be applied in Russia. Not that many academics there focus on the life of Native Americans; as I said, most academic "powers" in this field are concentrated in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Amateurs as well are a very noticeable class in Native American Studies. They unite enthusiasts from the website "Indians' World", host topical seminars and reenactors, make traditional costumes and arrange pow-wow festivals. They also publish books and share articles, including mine. I know some of them personally. In time, when I relocate to Moscow or St. Petersburg, I will collaborate with them more and participate in their seminars and other activities. America has given me invaluable knowledge and I plan to enrich it with my post-graduate research. Hopefully, I can get employed in this sphere as all - at a university, scientific research institution or a museum. I would love to develop Native American Studies in Russia, arrange more events, encourage potential young researchers - social antropologists, archeologists, linguists - those representing disciplines included in the broad definition of antropology. Of course, it isn't easy to influence the financing of such research bottom-up, this is a highly institutionalized and complex business. Still, I do believe it is within our ability to develop this field, first at an amateur level and eventually on a professional one.

I am positive that the Fulbright program gave me powerful a push and invaluable resources for realizing my goals, however naive and ambitious they may seem. Although, isn't it the essence of the program — to stimulate these highly ambitious goals and facilitate their coming to fruition? My message to current and future Fulbrighters would be this: keep dreaming and keep working. Use every opportunity offered by the education in the U.S. and the Fublright program. Pre-academic program is a fantastic experience and a few dozen friends all over the world! Enrichment seminar is a must-go! Professional conferences, workshops of visiting professors, research or teaching assistantships are all coins in a piggy bank of your experience and an opportunitiy to network. Explore, make acquantances, travel! Just, don't give up. You can do it, trust me!»

Photos and text by A. Chudak

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