KJZZ is a service of Rio Salado College,
and Maricopa Community Colleges

Copyright © 2024 KJZZ/Rio Salado College/MCCCD
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Fulbright-Hays fellowship applicant says the language rules are unfair

Veronica Valencia Gonzalez
Veronica Valencia Gonzalez

A prestigious fellowship program has changed its language requirement, after some applicants were denied because they hadn’t learned a world language in an academic setting.

Veronica Valencia Gonzalez is a doctoral candidate at the University of California - Irvine, where she researches intimate partner violence and gender-based violence in Latinx communities.

She’d applied for a Fulbright-Hays fellowship to continue her work in Mexico, but her application was rejected.

She wrote an essay about her experience. She joined The Show to talk about happened with that application and why this one area seemingly kept her out.

Full interview

Tell me what happened with that application and why this one area seemingly kept you out.

VERONICA VALENCIA GONZALEZ: Yeah. So I, when I started the doctoral program, I knew I wanted to do research in Mexico on gender-based violence, and the Fulbright-Hays is a perfect fellowship that allows you to do this. So I applied to the fellowship to do research in Mexico. I had a great application. I had a very thought out plan to come and do research on gender-based violence in Michoacán. I submitted my application, got wonderful feedback on my actual project idea.

But when I looked down on the language category, I saw that I had zero points because I was a native or heritage Spanish speaker. And that ended up putting me out of contention for the Fulbright.

And to be clear, you are fluent in Spanish.

VALENCIA GONZALEZ: Yes, I am fluent. Spanish was my first language. I learned it at home with my parents, and I actually didn't start learning English until I was in kindergarten school.

So how did you find out that the fact that you are a, a native speaker of Spanish would hurt you on your application? Like, was that something that you knew when you submitted the application, for example?

VALENCIA GONZALEZ: It was not something that I knew. I had applied to the Fulbright research program, which is a different program than the Fulbright-Hays. And there I hadn't gotten any feedback as towards my Spanish acquisition in my home. And it wasn't until I applied for Fulbright-Hays and looked at the results and looked at my zero points for language sections that I found out that you were penalized for having learned language outside of the classroom.

Well, so and as you write, this system kind of prioritizes people who have learned a foreign language in school, right? Like in an academic setting, as opposed to people who have maybe learned it by traveling or because family members speak it or because it was the language spoken in their home growing up. What are some of the implications of that?

VALENCIA GONZALEZ: So for people like myself that are the children of migrants, we are very likely to have learned our parents' language from their home country in our home. So that ends up putting us out of contention for this fellowship because we didn't learn the language, the way that the Department of Ed seems to want us to. So people like myself are unable to do this type of research. People that bring in a lot of cultural knowledge that they've gained through their family are gonna be unable to do this type of work.

Does it also impact the kind of research that you do? Because I would imagine that like growing up in a place or having family members from a particular place would give you maybe a different language education than if you learn it in, let's say high school or college or grad school.

VALENCIA GONZALEZ: Yes. So that was like the other thing that I thought was really interesting because my parents didn't have the opportunity to attend school past the third grade and the way that they speak Spanish isn't the way that you hear it in the classroom. Their Spanish is a lot more informal, and that is the language that the people that I was gonna be working with also speak.

So it was actually a benefit to have learned the language from my parents instead of in the classroom, which is the more formal Spanish, and the classroom that I, I did learn, the Spanish that I did learn in the classroom was actually Spaniard Spanish, which is different than Mexican Spanish. And even in Mexico, there's different variations that you'll find throughout Mexico.

And I would imagine it's not just a Spanish question, right? Like if you grow up in, in Montreal, that's a different kind of French, you learn that's spoken than is what is spoken in France. And there are examples all over the world of languages, even within a country being spoken differently. So like what was the rationale, what have you heard from people, maybe within the U.S. Education Department or others with this program about why it's set up this way?

VALENCIA GONZALEZ: I actually haven't heard much other than that was the guidance that was established and that is the rule that is in place right now. So it must be followed or it was followed until the injunction that was issued by the court.

Yeah, let me ask you about that because you and, and at least one other person are involved in a lawsuit trying to get this changed, right? Like what is the status of that suit? And what ideally would you like to see coming out of it?

VALENCIA GONZALEZ: So, the lawsuit that was brought with myself and two other students was able to bring about an injunction. So the Fulbright evaluation couldn't implement that penalization for people that had learned the language in their home as native or heritage speakers. So for this application cycle, that rule was not applied. In the future, I'm hoping that Fulbright changes their rules.

So they, they're being asked to change the rules and in the future, I'm hoping that that rule's just eliminated, like you're not being penalized regardless of how you learned to speak the language that you wanna go do research. I think instead we should be prioritizing research that is being done abroad regardless of the language and how you acquired it.

But to be clear, like you, you still think that there does need to be some kind of language, language requirement? Like if you're going to a foreign country where they don't speak English, it would be helpful for the researcher to speak that language as opposed to needing a translator or an interpreter the entire time they're there, right?

VALENCIA GONZALEZ: Of course, of course. I mean, in order to be able to do the research and really immerse yourself in the culture, I think it's very important for us to know the languages that we're gonna be encountering when we travel. So I'm not saying that there should be no language requirement. It just shouldn't matter whether we learned the language at home or we learned it in the classroom. We are already asked for an evaluator to evaluate our language knowledge. So it shouldn't be a problem.

OK. And can you tell me a little bit about the kind of research that you're hoping to do in Mexico?

VALENCIA GONZALEZ: So I was gonna be researching intimate partner violence in rural communities of Michoacán. I was interested in understanding how intimate partner violence is understood in these communities and the types of resources that they have available. I was also interested in knowing what types of resources they want that are not available.

Well, so given that now you can't do that research. At least not yet. Like what are we losing out on? What is, what are those communities losing out on potentially?

VALENCIA GONZALEZ: Unfortunately, in Mexico, most of the research that has been done in intimate partner violence has been in urban settings, which is totally different from rural settings in the amount of resources that are available. So right now, we're not able to assist people in rural communities to the best of our abilities.

Effective Jan. 8, the U.S. Education Department has revised the language proficiency requirements for the Fulbright-Hays fellowship to include native and heritage speakers of a non-English language.

More stories from KJZZ

Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.