Mentors, friendships help CSB graduate decide on Fulbright award

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July 6, 2020

By Mike Killeen

Samantha Givens ’20

Editor’s note: This feature story on Samantha Givens is the second of five stories that will appear this summer on the CSB/SJU website featuring graduates who received awards from either the Fulbright U.S. Student Program or the Fulbright Austria-United States Teaching Assistant program.

In January, Samantha Givens will begin her service as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in Malaysia.

But her odyssey actually began several years ago.

Givens, a 2020 graduate of the College of Saint Benedict from Ventura, California who majored in political science, was named a Fulbright ETA, sponsored by the Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program places recent college graduates as ETAs 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.

Since 2013, 39 students or graduates from CSB and Saint John’s University have earned U.S. Fulbright ETA awards.

“Applying to the MACEE Program (the Malaysian-American Commission on Educational Exchange, which is responsible for the administration of Fulbright grants which send Americans to Malaysia) was a four-year process in the making,” Givens said.

It’s a process that started after she returned from a study abroad trip to Guatemala. She served as an outreach intern for Advocacy Project, a nonprofit focused on assisting marginalized communities around the world, as part of the 2018 Washington, D.C., Summer Study Program at CSB/SJU.

“I had the unique opportunity to live with a fellow Bennie (Sameera Sheikh ’19) who later became a dear friend and mentor,” Givens said. “She’s PakistanI-American and spent the summer sharing with me her customs, home traditions, cultural practices and religion. She allowed the space for me to ask questions and learn about her personal experiences, which I will never be able to thank her enough for.

“This personal interaction sparked a vested interest in learning more about Islam, which then led me to apply for a global Fellowship in Bosnia and Herzegovina. There, I was exposed to another beautifully complex country that challenged my understanding of the intersections between ethnicity, religion, history and education,” Givens said.

“I wanted to explore more in depth of what I had experienced in Bosnia and Herzegovina, so I enrolled in an Islam and gender course the following semester. It was during this time that I was also working on a thesis about transitional justice and realized education is the single most important tool for reshaping a society after religious/ethnic conflict. Hate is taught and undoubtedly passed down by generations, but school can be a sanctuary for learning and challenging preexisting notions.

“So, the classroom was where I needed to be,” said Givens, who will be teaching youth ages 13-17 at a yet undetermined city.

But teaching isn’t the only thing the Fulbright award is about.

“It’s (about) actively participating in the community that has welcomed you by listening and learning to their experiences and eventually sharing your own,” Givens said. “Fulbright is the opportunity to break down these barriers that we have as strangers and form new connections as people.

“I like to think that I didn’t really pick Malaysia, but Malaysia picked me. It offers every adventure, challenge and opportunity needed to grow into a better person and global partner,” Givens said.

As such, she’s excited to surprise herself.

“I enjoy being challenged in my thinking and experiences that force me to evolve,” Givens said. “Fulbright has gifted me an opportunity to form meaningful relationships with young and bright-minded students who will one day be public leaders of their own.

“I’m beyond excited to meet the students and know their names and faces, to earn their trust in learning another language, but most importantly, to accompany them in strengthening their confidence as individuals. I’m excited to go with the flow and take in every moment I’m blessed to be there for,” Givens said.

It’s a little like what she went through at CSB.

She was inspired by words spoken by CSB President Emerita Mary Dana Hinton, Ph.D., who told her and other high school students to make sure you write down your plans in pencil, so you could erase, replace and adjust (Givens was first interested in nursing, but decided she didn’t like the sight of blood.)

Kate Kamakahi, adjunct instructor of First-Year Seminar, was also a mentor after getting her to read a book by Leonard Peltier, “Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance.”

“Little did she (Kamakahi) know, the questions and fire that erupted from that book trajected the next three-and-a-half years of twists and turns,” Givens said.” I realized I wanted to serve people, but in a different capacity. Every opportunity I’ve been gifted has led me to another one.

“I would not forgo any experience - especially the difficult ones - because they equipped me with skills to be the best that I can currently be,” Givens said.

Finally, she was also challenged by Dr. Christi Siver, associate professor of political science.

“Christi has been my ‘challenger’ who set the bar high for me,” Givens said. “Early on, she impressed upon me that I’m good enough, smart enough and strong enough.  As someone who came into college unsure of herself in all capacities, Christi - like Kate - made an effort to ‘let my light shine,’ as Mary Dana Hinton likes to say.  

“In fact, I applied to Fulbright because of mentors like Christi, who were relentless in making me realize I have more to offer,” Givens said. “I look forward to returning the favor when working with youths. I plan to model my mentorship style after both Christi and Kate, as they are strong women who just want to see other women grow.”

CSB and SJU students interested in applying for a Fulbright Award for the 2021-22 academic year should contact Phil Kronebusch, professor of political science and coordinator of Competitive Fellowships at CSB and SJU, or Lindsey Gutsch, assistant director of the Academic Center for Excellence and Success at CSB/SJU.