Newman student chosen as semi-finalist for prestigious Fulbright program

Apr 29, 2021

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program – considered a highly prestigious fellowship – provides grants for individuals to travel abroad to meet, work, live with and learn from people in their host country, enabling Americans to build relationships across borders.

Marie O’Neal could soon become the first Newman University student to add the title of Fulbrighter to her resume. A senior majoring in international studies and math with a minor in Spanish, O’Neal was notified in January that she’s a semi-finalist for the program and will hear if she’s received the esteemed opportunity by June.

Because the Fulbright U.S. Student Program only awards a certain number of fellowships annually, even making it to the semi-finalist stage is a big accomplishment.

“I just absolutely didn’t expect it,” O’Neal says.

She began the application process after classes ended in spring 2020 at the encouragement of Assistant Professor of Spanish Sonja Bontrager and Kelly McFall, Ph.D., director of the Honors Program and professor of history who served as her Fullbright Program Adviser.

Kelly McFall, Marie o”Neal and Sonja Bontrager (left to right)
Fullbright program has two paths

The program offers two avenues for applicants – one for those looking to conduct a research project, and one for those interested in an English Teaching Assistant Program, in which they help teach English to students in their host country.

O’Neal chose to apply for the latter through the Paraguay program. She settled on the South American country because she eventually wants to pursue a master’s degree in Spanish or Latin American studies, and Paraguay also has an exchange program with Kansas, so it seemed like a good fit for O’Neal.

Over the course of last summer, she met with McFall a few times to start her application, continuing the process more intensely throughout the fall semester.

McFall, who is a Fulbrighter himself, describes his biggest role in helping O’Neal through the application process as asking questions to help her think about herself and her story. The English Teaching Assistant Program application requires a written Statement of Grant Purpose describing what the applicant thinks they’ll bring to the classroom in their host country, as well as a Personal Statement, a page-long narrative that provides a glimpse at the applicant’s life. So while McFall helped her think through the content for these important documents, he also served as her editor.

“She worked enormously hard at this, and it’s hard to turn a lens on yourself,” he says. “It’s hard to figure out what went wrong in your life, but it’s really often hard to figure out what went right and to brag about it, especially in the Midwest, where we’re taught not to brag about ourselves. And you’ve kind of got to do that here in a tactful, thoughtful way. So she deserves an enormous amount of credit for that.”

Heart for Service

O’Neal, whose passion for teaching comes from her schoolteacher mother, wants to eventually work in the non-profit sector, specifically for an organization focused on international education for young women. Her ultimate goal is to open her own non-profit school.

“I have really found my niche working with young girls and women and seeing that impact,” O’Neal says. “I think the Lord just kind of put that dream in my heart.”

And McFall has nothing but faith in O’Neal to make her goals a reality.

“She’s enormously gifted with kids,” he says. “She applied for [the Fulbright program] because she wants the kids who she will work with to meet somebody different and get the help they’ll need and get the connections and exposure that they never would have gotten without her.”

If O’Neal is chosen as a Fulbright grantee, she will pursue an independent project in addition to her teaching duties. In her application, she wrote that her project would be a theater club for the kids, which would enable her to draw on her experiences in Newman’s Sloppy Joe Improv group and in her Spanish courses.

“I have always kind of been into low-stakes theater and how that could be an exchange of cultures, how that could help kids who are learning English to build confidence, because it’s how we built confidence in Spanish class. So, I thought that’d be a good project,” she says.

O’Neal in St John’s Chapel on Newman University campus

McFall believes that O’Neal’s sense of faith would also be important in her choice country of Paraguay.

“She’s going to work with people in a country that is intensely religious,” he says. “And I think she will be able to be a role model there, but she will also have her own faith deepen by going to Paraguay and learning what being a Catholic means somewhere else.”

Whether or not O’Neal is chosen for the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, both she and McFall agree that there’s value in pursuing the lengthy application process.   

“It’s actually kind of a completion of what we talk about in the Navigator Program,” McFall says. “It’s about understanding our mission, and what is our calling and why are we uniquely equipped for that calling? And even if you don’t win, it’s a valuable process.”

O’Neal adds that “Newman has great students, and I think we have real potential to make an impact on the [Fulbright program]. I would just really encourage more students to apply.”

If O’Neal finds out she is indeed selected for the program, she’ll leave for Paraguay in March 2022. And it’s evident that wherever her journey takes her, her identity as a Newman University student will serve as a guiding light.

“My heart is in Latin America at this point in my life,” she says. “To be there for nine months and to be able to represent not only our nation and our region, because I think there are probably less representatives from the Midwest in general, but to represent Newman would just be an immense honor.”