While many are celebrating America’s Independence Day with cookouts and fireworks, Kathleen “Kat” Griffin ‘11 will board a plane bound for South Korea. The recipient of a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) grant, Griffin will spend the next year living with a host family and teaching English in a public, secondary school in an as-yet-unassigned South Korean city.
“As a Fulbright ETA, I will not only be serving as a teacher, but also as a cultural ambassador,” Griffin said. “The program provides an initial six-week orientation where I will meet my fellow ETAs and learn more about the Korean language and culture.”
Griffin, who earned an undergraduate degree in international studies from NC State, is no stranger to immersion in different cultures and experiences. Desiring an opportunity to “step outside of my comfort zone,” she spent the spring semester of her sophomore year studying abroad in Accra, Ghana.
During the fall semester of her senior year, Griffin met with Kelly Laraway, director of NC State’s Short-Term Experiential Partnership (STEP) program, with the goal of gaining professional experience in a field that integrated her passions for community service, culture, and social justice.
“I was desperate for an ‘Aha!’ moment,” said Griffin.
During their meeting, Laraway mentioned a former student’s AmeriCorps placement with the Literacy Council of Wake County, on whose board of directors Laraway previously served. AmeriCorps is a federal government-run program which provides services in nonprofit organizations, schools, public agencies, and community- and faith-based groups throughout the country. The notion of working for a nonprofit organization, with individuals from diverse backgrounds, captured Griffin’s interest, so Laraway made an introduction on Griffin’s behalf to the executive director of the Literacy Council of Wake County. Griffin secured an interview and, ultimately, one of the organization’s four AmeriCorps positions for the fall of 2011.
With a few months to spare between graduation and the start of her AmeriCorps term, Griffin applied to work as a tutor with NC State’s Summer START program. Summer START eases new freshmen’s transition to college and allows them to get a head start through five weeks of academic courses and social activities.
“Since tutoring would be a big part of my AmeriCorps service,” Griffin said, “I knew this would be a good place to gain some relevant experience.”
These skills paid off. Griffin’s AmeriCorps position, part of the NC LiteracyCorps headquartered in Carrboro, N.C., entailed working with the council’s adult education program, teaching classes to English language learners, and working one-on-one with beginning literacy learners from across the county. When her term came to an end in the summer of 2012, Griffin accepted a permanent position as manager of the adult education program.
“Working at a small nonprofit, I had to take on a lot of responsibility,” said Griffin. “Through that I gained self-confidence and a number of new skill sets, including grant writing, curriculum building, volunteer training and management, and database management.”
Griffin enjoyed her experience with the Literacy Council, but after nearly two and a half years, she was ready for a change. Having long considered applying for a Fulbright ETA, she decided this was the right time to take the leap. She met with NC State’s Office of Fellowship Advising and read Fulbright application tips published by other institutions. She reached out to a former ETA for advice and perspective, and read numerous current and former ETAs’ blogs to gain a more complete understanding of their experiences and responsibilities.
“It’s a long process,” Griffin said, “but I found it very rewarding.”
When asked to share words of wisdom for others considering making a Fulbright application, Griffin said, “I would advise you to have a clear idea of why you want this particular fellowship. Why this country? Why this program? Why now? Once you have answered those questions, I would suggest researching the application process and country-specific experience. If you are applying for an ETA, you may want to consider getting some teaching or tutoring experience. Lastly, if you’re interested, apply. Don’t let the fear of failure stop you.”
In addition to applying for a Fulbright, Griffin took advantage of her post-Literacy Council transition period by tackling an item on her “bucket list”: participating in an Outward Bound expedition.
“[Outward Bound] has a reputation of being an amazing program that tests one’s courage, character, body, and mind,” Griffin said. “I decided to go big. So, I signed up for the longest course I could find – a 72-day International Leadership Semester. My AmeriCorps Education Award covered half of the tuition.”
The course, which began on January 21, 2014, began in Patagonia, moved northward to Florida, and concluded in the mountains of western North Carolina. For Griffin, a native of Montreat, N.C., this final stop brought her back to her roots.
“It was by far the most challenging and rewarding experience of my life,” said Griffin. “I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
Griffin credits the Park Scholarship for affording her the financial freedom to pursue a less traditional path since graduation. She also noted that the Park “was, without a doubt, a transformative experience that influenced my personal, educational, and professional life.”
Part of that transformation, for Griffin, has been becoming increasingly comfortable with uncertainty.
“To be perfectly honest, I am still unsure about my future career path,” she said. “Although this has been a source of frustration and anxiety in the past, I am learning to embrace each new experience and opportunity as a step towards clarity.”