Clay will teach English, promote cross-cultural understanding in Malaysia
Hopkins High alumna Marra Clay, 21, is one of approximately 1,900 U.S. citizens to receive this year’s Fulbright U.S. Student Program award from the U.S. Department of State. The J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board that will send her to Malaysia for 10 months, starting in January, to teach English.
As an English teaching assistant at a rural secondary school, Clay will provide assistance to local English teachers and serve as a cultural ambassador. The program sends grant recipients to more than 160 countries to live, work and engage in their host country’s community as a means of promoting cultural exchange and mutual understanding.
Since the program’s start in 1946, more than 370,000 Fulbrighters have fostered connections with people from other countries through teaching, conducting research, and more. Clay will join a network of individuals who have excelled in their fields, including 82 Pulitzer Prize winners, 57 Nobel Prize winners, and 37 heads of state or government.
Applicants are selected based on academic and professional achievement as well as a record of service and leadership. Clay is an aspiring science journalist. After graduating as an honors student with distinction from Hopkins High School in 2013, she received a bachelor of arts degree in environmental chemistry from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. Outside of the classroom, she participated in a wide variety of extracurriculars, including joining Phi Beta Kappa honor society, running the school newspaper, conducting lab research, and interning with the Environmental Protection Agency.
Although Clay was busy traveling, Sun Sailor was able to catch up with her via email about her aspirations and her upcoming move.
Sun Sailor: Describe how you felt the moment you found out you got the award.
Clay: I don’t think I can fully express how excited I was when I found out that I received the Fulbright grant. I was in my college house, saw the subject line on the email, and started screaming. My roommate actually came running to my room because she was worried something had happened to me, but then she was just as excited! I ended up running around all of the campus letting my friends, mentors, and professors know. I felt like all of my hard work was finally paying off, and it was quite a relief to have plans for after graduation that I was proud of. It’s certainly not easy to receive a Fulbright. Plus, I had just spent four years working incredibly hard on my academics and my other activities. So, it was absolutely satisfying to find out that I was a Fulbright finalist.
SS: What drove you to apply to Fulbright?
C: Between majoring in chemistry, being a resident assistant, and running the student newspaper, I never had the chance to study abroad in college. So, after graduation, I wanted to participate in a long program that would take me out of my comfort zone. Though I was accepted to a few other programs [Peace Corps, City Year, and a Princeton fellowship], I knew that I wanted to accept the Fulbright position because it was my top choice.
SS: Why did you choose Malaysia?
C: I ended up applying to Malaysia because I thought it was somewhere where I would otherwise never go. I don’t speak Malay, and I am excited to learn the language. Growing up in Hopkins, I was always a part of the majority. I’m excited to live in Malaysia, a nation that is predominantly Muslim, and see how Islam influences their lives. As a white, female atheist, I will definitely be in the minority. But Malaysia is also at some environmental crossroads. So, I think it will be enlightening to visit Malaysia while the nation is making some major decisions about the nature of their relationship with the natural world.
SS: What are you most excited to do in Malaysia, inside and outside the classroom?
C: I think it’s important that I don’t go into the Fulbright with too many expectations. Of course, I am incredibly excited to meet my students and start working. My plan is to create an eco club where students can learn more about environmental issues. But I am also really looking forward to learning more about the food in Malaysia. Because Malaysia has Malay, Chinese, Indian, and other populations, it is an amazing confluence of different cuisines. I love to cook—and eat, of course—so I’m excited to learn about new foods, recipes, and cooking techniques.
SS: What advice would you give to other college students thinking of traveling post-graduation?
C: Any young adult who wants to travel should make it a priority. There are very few times in our lives when we can just up and leave America. Right after graduation is one of those times because it’s before you have really put your roots down somewhere. For me, it was either now or after retirement.
SS: What are your career goals for the future?
C: Right now, I am planning on going to law school sometime after returning from Malaysia, but that may change. In the future, I want a job where I can work with many people from different backgrounds and try to help them in some way, and I feel as though Fulbright is a great step in that direction. In Malaysia, I will work with students and try to help them succeed both in and out of the classroom. I’ll have to work with them to figure out how we can get them across barriers in their lives, which requires creativity, compassion, and focus. These are all skills that I am excited to use in whatever career I pursue later on.
SS: What will you miss most about home?
C: One thing that I am absolutely going to miss about Minnesota is the cold! Malaysia is very hot and humid year round. I’ve always loved the cold and snowy winters, so I am worried about being so close to the equator.
SS: Lastly, what western luxury will be the hardest to live without?
C: Because of the rural environment, I likely won’t have access to a lot of western amenities. I’m gluten free, and in America is it pretty easy to find gluten free foods to eat. I’m a little worried that it will be hard to explain what gluten free is in Malaysia, especially with my limited language skills.
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