Saint Michael’s celebrates three Fulbright winners

May 9, 2024

Three students from Saint Michael’s were selected as Fulbright winners for the 2024-25 academic year and will all depart in January 2025 for their selected countries. All three will be working as English Teaching Assistants.

Abdimalik Hashi M’24, who is graduating from Saint Michael’s MATESOL program, will be in Kenya; Carson O’Neil ’23 will be in Costa Rica; and Willow Schaefer ’24 will be in South Korea.

Last year, Saint Michael’s was recognized by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs for being one of the colleges and universities with the highest number of students selected for the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. This was the second time Saint Michael’s was recognized as a Fulbright Top Producing Institution.

Patricia Siplon, Professor of Political Science and International Relations, Director of Public Health, and Director for undergraduate and post-graduate fellowships at Saint Michael’s, supports applicants to the Fulbright program at Saint Michael’s and said each of this year’s three winners has a unique story to tell. Siplon said she is “looking forward to continuing the work to propel our campus into having a thriving and full-scale Fulbright culture.”

Abdimalik Hashi M’24, Kenya

Abdimalik Hashi M’24 is graduating from Saint Michael’s MATESOL program and won a Fulbright scholarship to travel to Kenya. Last year, he was president of the MLK Jr. Society at Saint Michael’s. He is also a logistics officer in the U.S. Army and drives for Uber for fun. He said he loves learning from others.

“In my own journey, I had a lot of great teachers,” Hashi said. “When we think about English and teaching, it’s usually the biggest gap that stops people from going to college.”

Hashi said Siplon encouraged him to apply for a Fulbright scholarship during an International Coffee Hour meetup. He only had a couple of weeks to complete his application.

“I just put my heart and soul into the statement,” Hashi said. “I picked Kenya because I grew up there and it meant so much to me. I haven’t been able to go back in a long time… When you become a finalist and you get that email— whether you’re ready or not— you start crying.”

Hashi was born in Kenya and moved to the United States when he was eight with his mom and two sisters. He grew up in Greeley, Colorado, and went to college in Minnesota where his family later moved.

“My mom always wanted to transition into another country where we would have more opportunities,” Hashi said.

Hashi said he hasn’t been back to Kenya since 2006, but his mom has since retired in Kenya. He’s looking forward to seeing his mom and additional family members when he has time off from his English Teaching Assistant position.

He credits Saint Michael’s Center for Student Diversity, Empowerment, and Community (DEC), its Director Sarah Childs and Assistant Director Choeden Lama, for helping him win a Fulbright, as well as the MATESOL Department, the Edmundites, and Siplon.

“There is a significant amount of people in specific departments that go the extra mile for so many students and I feel tremendously grateful for them,” Hashi said.

He moved to Vermont in summer 2021 and joined the Vermont National Guard.

“I find a sense of meaning in having a leadership role, listening to people, and doing the fundamental things that leaders are supposed to do, which is solve problems so that others can thrive at what they do,” he said.

Through his MATESOL program at Saint Michael’s, Hashi has had the opportunity to visit schools in Burlington to observe different grade levels.

“For me, I really want to be an educator here in Vermont,” Hashi said. “One of the things I’ve noticed is diversity is a priority, but recruitment is not at its peak.”

Hashi said he would like to return to Vermont after his Fulbright to teach at Winooski or Burlington High School and has his sights set on becoming a principal one day.

“My main drive is to be in a classroom and be the person that students can see themselves in, regardless of their background, and give them the tools they need and reinforce it in their head that anything they want to achieve, they can,” Hashi said.

Hashi said he had a middle school teacher and two high school teachers who were that person for him. They fundamentally changed his life. In college, at Saint John’s University in Minnesota, he had a professor from Brazil.

“That was the first time I saw myself thinking about more education when I saw someone like him,” Hashi said. “Most of my professors were white. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s this feeling you get when they tell you, ‘Abdi, you have so much potential.’ It doesn’t feel like they can understand the obstacles or the things that naturally come with the Black experience in America. But when [my college professor] told me, and he told me about his experience, there are a lot of things that resonated. That’s what really drew me to education. It was not only representation but making sure that everyone has it in their ear that their goals can be achieved and showing them that its possible.”

He thinks Saint Michael’s would benefit from offering an anonymous survey to all students to rate every single facet of the College, beyond the classroom rating of their professors, to give a broader picture of the climate on campus and help implement change. This is the type of foundation Hashi says he is building on as an educator himself. As a teacher, Hashi said he wants to focus on Black joy, Black future, and bringing more diverse excellence to his community.

Carson O’Neil ’23, Costa Rica

Carson O’Neil ’23 won a Fulbright scholarship to Costa Rica where he will be an English Teaching Assistant in 2025. He plans to pursue conservation work in his off-time and create a travel vlog while there. O’Neil grew up in Keene, New Hampshire, and was a double major at Saint Michael’s in Public Health and French and a triple minor in Business Administration, Health Equity and Global Health.

O’Neil first went to Costa Rica in January 2023 for a two-week sea turtle conservation volunteer program through the International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ). O’Neil was also involved with Biology Department Chair and Professor Paul Constantino’s tropical ecology class, which piqued his interest in the country.

“In Costa Rica, the sense of community is so strong,” O’Neil said. He recalled the constant stream of horns beeping from locals saying “hi” to each other.

Each night at the sea turtle nursery, O’Neil’s group walked the beaches looking for turtle nests. On two occasions, he watched a female sea turtle walk from the ocean shore to lay her eggs in the beach brush. He vividly recalled watching in awe as the turtle used her back legs to dig a huge hole in the sand to lay her eggs. O’Neil and the other volunteers quickly caught the eggs and brought them back to the nursery.

In the nursery, the volunteers would dig a hole in the sand to replicate the nest. There, the eggs were protected from predators and poachers and could safely hatch. Once hatched, O’Neil helped release the sea turtles back into the ocean.

“It was the most incredible experience,” O’Neil recalled.

O’Neil said that life-changing experience motivated him to apply for a Fulbright scholarship in Costa Rica.

It was the second time he’d applied. The year before, he’d applied for a Fulbright scholarship in Argentina. O’Neil wasn’t selected but two of his friends were Fulbright winners. Natalia “Aisha” Navarrete ’23 and Alexyah Dethvongsa ’22, are currently abroad on Fulbright scholarships in Mexico and Thailand, respectively.

“I’ve been watching them in these two countries, and they are both having incredible times,” O’Neil said. “I wanted to apply again.”

O’Neil graduated from Saint Michael’s last year and immediately accepted a position in the College’s Office of Institutional Advancement as a Stewardship and Donor Relations Officer. He said his college experience working as a Saint Michael’s tour guide all four years prepared him well.

While completing his undergrad degree, he said he tried to take advantage of Saint Michael’s Center for Global Engagement. He was selected for a Freeman Foundation International Internship in South Korea the summer before his senior year, during which he worked in an after-school program geared towards first-generation Korean students. He also participated in a two-week trip to Japan through Saint Michael’s, and he served as co-president of the French Club, through which he helped plan trips each semester to Quebec.

“As a student [at Saint Michael’s] it’s almost difficult not to take a part of some type of global opportunity. There’s so many that they offer,” O’Neil said.

O’Neil’s idea to create vlogs during his Fulbright experience mirrors how he documented his experience as a student intern in South Korea by creating weekly YouTube vlogs.  He learned he had won the Fulbright scholarship while visiting a friend from St. Mike’s in Hawaii this spring.

“Honestly, I’m still in shock,” O’Neil said. “I’m beyond grateful for St. Mike’s. They have given me more opportunities than I could have imagined.”

Willow Schaefer ’24, South Korea

Willow Schaefer ’24 is a double major in Secondary Education and English and a minor in TESOL. Schaefer won a Fulbright Scholarship to be an English Teaching Assistant in South Korea beginning in January 2025. Schaefer grew up in Groton, Vermont, and said her love for South Korea traces back to age nine, when she started practicing the Korean Martial Art, Taekwondo.

“While you practice Taekwondo, you learn pieces of culture and language about Korea, and you learn a lot about the discipline culture and hierarchy culture of South Korea,” Schaefer said.

Schaefer formed a close bond with her two Taekwondo instructors. They promised to accompany her to Korea to attend the World Taekwondo Federation Building. Unfortunately, both instructors passed away within a year of each other before the trio got to go.

“It was definitely one of the hardest moments of my life” Schaefer said. “They had become like father figures to me. They were two of the most important people in my life.”

From that point on, Schaefer said she promised herself that one day she would travel to South Korea to train at the World Taekwondo Federation Building in Kukkiwon.

Fast-forward more than a decade. Schaefer decided to apply for a Freeman Foundation Internship at the same time that she applied to study abroad in South Korea. She received both. In the summer of 2022, Schaefer traveled to South Korea as a TESOL intern, working as an English tutor at an elementary bilingual academy. The experience helped her learn the Korean language. Schaefer said she loved the experience working with children and, it turns out, the feelings were mutual.

“I was the most requested tutor by the end of my internship,” Schaefer said.

Schaefer had also been accepted to study abroad for spring semester at Korea University during her junior year. Most of her classes were taught in Korean, helping to strengthen her linguistics further. While she was there, she started a language exchange club called KULL (Korean University Language Learners) that continues today. Schaefer said the club’s Instagram and group chat each have more than 2,000 followers and the meetings draw hundreds of participants.

Schaefer said Siplon convinced her to apply for a Fulbright Scholarship when she returned from studying abroad. Schaefer said she made a plan for if she won the Fulbright Scholarship and another plan for if she didn’t, which included staying at Saint Michael’s to pursue a Master’s degree in TESOL. Schaefer will start her MATESOL this fall before heading to South Korea in January. After her Fulbright experience, she will return to campus to complete her degree.

As part of her Fulbright community impact goals, she hopes to bring a similar language exchange club to her new community in South Korea. She also wants to start a pen-pal program between her South Korean students and Vermont schools.

Schaefer said she was student-teaching when she received the news she had won the Fulbright Scholarship.

“I cried. I cried so much,” Schaefer said. “There were so many overwhelming feelings. It was so joyous.”

Schaefer said she immediately emailed Siplon, Professor Benjamin White who is the Director of MATESOL, and Mahmoud Arani, who is Professor of Applied Linguistics and the TESOL Minor Coordinator.

“I owe a lot of this to them,” Schaefer said. “I honestly still can’t believe it.”

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