By Cassidy Pekarek
The Fulbright, a United States Cultural Exchange Program, is widely considered one of the most prestigious scholarships an individual pursuing graduate study can receive. By granting students throughout all academic disciplines the funding necessary to travel abroad and study, conduct research, and work as an English teaching assistant, the Fulbright Program aims to foster intercultural relations across the globe.
Tessa Reed graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Iowa in 2021 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in global health studies and Spanish. Karmen Berger, the associate director for the Global Health Studies Program at UI and Reed’s academic advisor, nominated her for the university’s Fulbright program. While Reed was initially unsure after learning of the grant’s prestigious status, serendipitously hearing encouragement from people in her hometown gave her the final push she needed to apply.
Since being named a 2022-23 recipient of the Fulbright grant, Reed has begun working as an English teaching assistant in La Rioja, Spain. She helps supplement English language instruction within local classrooms covering a wide variety of subjects—from biology, physics, chemistry, math, and English to computer coding and home automation—to a similarly expansive array of students, ranging from 13 to 40 years old.
“I’ve always been interested in teaching . . . I think I’m subconsciously drawn towards it; I just hadn’t realized it for a long time,” Reed explained, smiling. “With all of my experiences in college, it just made sense for me to pursue teaching.”
As an undergraduate, Reed volunteered with a refugee assistance program called IC Compassion as an ESL (English as a Second Language) tutor, teaching refugees from El Salvador and Nepal. She also worked as a tutor and caretaker for Students Care at the University of Iowa. Working on her application for the Fulbright award helped her to realize how much these extracurricular experiences shaped her path in life. Applying for an English teaching assistantship was the perfect opportunity for her to connect her previous experiences to her future prospects as a graduate.
In addition to having the opportunity to teach others, Reed applied to the Fulbright excited to further improve her Spanish speaking skills and experience local Spanish culture. Reed’s previous experience traveling abroad to San Sebastián in 2020 bolstered her interest in expanding her worldview through these pursuits, although that earlier undergraduate experience was cut short during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I wanted to go back to Spain because I didn’t really get that immersive experience that I had wanted the first time I studied abroad,” said Reed. “And there’s only so much you can learn in the classroom; if you’re taking Spanish courses with other American students, you’re going to be hearing their American accents as they’re speaking. Even after returning to Spain and moving to La Rioja, I’m still not 100% there with my fluency, but it’s improved dramatically.”
Pursuing an English teaching assistantship position has also allowed Reed the freedom to work on her own community engagement project. While her initial proposal for her Fulbright application described her plans to establish a refugee program in La Rioja, she arrived to find a similar program already offered through the Red Cross. As a result, Reed opted to change her project proposal. She now plans to create a documentary-style video depicting the diverse range of individuals she’s connected with since moving to La Rioja. Her project will explore the common threads that these individuals in La Rioja share, connecting them across their different communities.
Finding and fostering a sense of community since moving to La Rioja has taken many different forms for Reed—from her cohort of Fulbright grantees, her students and colleagues in the classroom, the refugees she works with through the Red Cross, to a group of local dancers who share her interests.
“I’ve always heard that you are the sum of the people around you, which is why it’s so important to be surrounded by people that are determined and work hard,” explained Reed. “The Phi Beta Kappa Society and the Fulbright Program are made up of members that are incredibly driven—it’s so good to be surrounded by people like that.”
“With studying the liberal arts, I feel like there are moments where you just have to trust where your heart takes you,” Reed mused. “In taking that leap, it’s so valuable to be involved with organizations like Phi Beta Kappa that are going to push you, as a person—and help you to recognize when you’re doing a great job in that pursuit.”
Cassidy Pekarek is a recent graduate of the University of Iowa, where she received her Bachelor of Arts degree with university honors and highest distinction in English & creative writing and art history. She was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa there in April 2022. The University of Iowa is home to the Alpha of Iowa chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.