The Faces of Fulbright

The Faces of Fulbright

MTSU was recently named by the Chronicle of Higher Education as a top producer of Fulbright scholars for 2012–13

by Allison Gorman

When MTSU was recently named by the Chronicle of Higher Education as a top producer of Fulbright scholars for 2012–13, it joined the ranks of academic powerhouses like Duke, Stanford, and Princeton. Just 108 colleges nationally were recognized.

MTSU was among 17 schools in the Master’s Institutions category and the only college or university in Tennessee listed in any of the Chronicle’s three top-producer categories.

MTSU students have received Fulbright funding to teach or research in a variety of fields—from philosophy to biology to international relations—in countries as diverse as Portugal, Russia, Tanzania, and Laos. While each winner has a remarkable success story, perhaps none is more extraordinary than that of a young woman who enrolled at MTSU despite having been deprived of the most basic education—and who graduated with a Fulbright grant.

A Rough Start

The biological parents of Kaitlen Howell (not her birth name) were violent and controlling. They withdrew her from public school after first grade, ostensibly to homeschool her. Anything she learned from that point on was self-taught, usually in secret. Although her parents were college-educated and had many books around the house, they largely restricted her access to them.

“The books were there,” she says, “but my parents just collected them the way some people compulsively collect newspapers. There was no value placed on education. I was actually punished if I was caught reading.”

She read anyway, voraciously: Little Women, The Swiss Family Robinson, The Chronicles of Narnia, Twain, Dickens, Verne. Books were her escape from the horrors of everyday life, and they fed her instinct for learning. But Howell’s precociousness masked her lack of formal education. “I had a wide vocabulary and presented myself intelligently,” she says. “I was also able to think on my feet, which was a requirement for my survival.”

At age 15, she was permanently removed from her parents’ home and placed in foster care. “It wasn’t until I was put into a school setting at a group home that my lack of education started to become evident,” she says. “I felt a lot of personal shame over it. I considered it my responsibility and my fault, and I honestly wasted a lot of the time I was in school. I refused to do the schoolwork; I just sat there and read the dictionary. I had a deep fear of education because I felt I was incompetent.”

Then came a turning point: she agreed to work through a booklet on health and take a multiple-choice test at the end. She found that she was fascinated by human physiology, particularly the circulatory system. She also discovered that she tested well. Because she’d had rudimentary clinical experience attending to her younger siblings’ medical needs, it occurred to her that she might pursue a job in medicine. She began working toward her GED.

At age 17, she met a childless couple from Murfreesboro, Allen and Melanie Howell, who informally adopted her. When she turned 18, she took their last name and a new first name, Kaitlen. “I became my own person,” she says. “I was not my biological parents’ child. I was not the object, the slave they created me to be.” Encouraged by her adoptive parents, Kaitlen applied to MTSU and was accepted as a science major on the pre-med track—against the advice of her last foster mother, who insisted she belonged at a community college. She secured Pell Grants and worked 30 hours a week to pay her tuition.

She walked into her first science course, chemistry, and heard terms she’d never heard before: “carbon,” “atom,” “periodic table.” She switched to an intro-level class. Still, she failed one test, then another. “I remember the paralysis of knowing I was going to fail my test and there was nothing I could do about it,” she says. “I had not studied. I had no idea how to study.” Panicked, she went to her professor. “She asked me, ‘Are you reading the textbook? Are you taking notes? What are you doing with the notes?’”

Howell learned how to study and ended up with a B in chemistry. She says it’s the grade of which she is most proud. It’s also the only non-A on her college transcript.

Unleashing the Potential

Kaitlen is a perfect example of what can happen when raw talent is noticed and nurtured, says Laura Clippard, who first met Howell as a counselor at Student Support Services. “A number of faculty reached out to work with Kaitlen and encourage her,” Clippard says. “Even though Kaitlen does have great innate ability, she needed encouragement to develop self-confidence.”

Howell agrees: “At MTSU, I found a lot of avenues that fostered my learning, my curiosity, my personal growth, and even my own healing process from some of the things I had to deal with from my past.”

She received free tutoring and guidance from Student Support Services and took 24 hours of remedial coursework to make up for the deficits in her education. But even after the As began piling up, she was astonished when Clippard invited her to become a peer tutor in biology. It was another turning point.

“I absolutely loved it,” Howell says. “It was invigorating, helping people understand the material and relating it to their world. I felt confident.”

In 2008, Clippard transferred to the Honors College to become its academic advisor and undergraduate fellowships coordinator. Her job is to advise MTSU’s applicants to highly competitive scholarship programs like the Fulbright, the U.S. government’s flagship international educational program. Until then, the University had produced two Fulbright scholars; Clippard made it her priority to actively recruit other potential winners. She set her sights on Howell.

Howell had read online about the Fulbright Program. “My initial thought was, ‘Well, that’s above me,’” she recalls. But Clippard urged her to apply, working with her through the months-long application process. In 2010, Howell was one of two Fulbright winners from MTSU.

The Human Touch

After graduating with dual degrees in biology and foreign languages (German), Howell spent the next 18 months in Germany, conducting epidemiological research as a Fulbright scholar and intern. In March 2012, she returned to the United States, got married, and began applying to medical schools. She has been accepted to Stanford and Harvard medical schools and will visit each campus this Spring. She plans to go into clinical and academic medicine, having learned from her Fulbright experience that she prefers human interaction to pure research.

In fact, the Fulbright Program is as much about human interaction as it is about scholarship. Named for the late U.S. senator J. William Fulbright, it is designed to promote peace and mutual understanding. “Fulbright believed that perspectives aren’t changed through governmental policies but through one-on-one interactions,” Howell says.

That philosophy is particularly relevant to her experience. “Toward the end of my time with my biological family, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be alive,” she says. “At MTSU, my professors treated me with respect, as if I were a human being. Just having them meet my eyes and acknowledge my existence made so much difference in my life. I know that the smallest things truly can impart change.”

Even as she prepares for the next step in her education, Howell continues to put the Fulbright philosophy into action as a tutor for MTSU students and local school children. She will also officially represent and promote the program in 2013 as one of 20 Fulbright Alumni Ambassadors on college campuses nationwide.

In a sense, all Fulbright scholars are ambassadors, Clippard notes. “A lot of people think Fulbright is just study abroad,” she says. “It’s really not. It’s about making the world a better place.”

Clearly, Kaitlen Howell sees that as her mission now. And wherever that mission takes her, she will be an ambassador for hope, and for the university that saw and fostered her potential in the first place.

By the Numbers

Almost 1,700 American students, artists, and young professionals in more than 100 different fields of study were offered Fulbright grants to study, teach English, and conduct research in over 140 countries beginning this fall. Of the 1,700 Fulbrighters, 19 percent are at the Ph.D. level, 17 percent are at the master’s level, and 65 percent are at the bachelor’s level. Students receiving awards for this academic year applied through 600 colleges or universities.

Since its inception in 1946, the Fulbright Program has provided more than 318,000 participants—chosen for their academic merit and leadership potential—the opportunity to study, teach, conduct research, exchange ideas, and contribute to finding solutions to shared international concerns. In the past 66 years, more than 44,000 students from the United States have benefited from the Fulbright experience. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, the Fulbright is one of the nation’s most prestigious scholarships and its flagship international educational exchange program.

Among the thousands of prominent Fulbright alumni is Muhammad Yunus, a former MTSU faculty member who is managing director and founder of Grameen Bank, and the recipient of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize.