Emily Symmes experienced an emotional roller coaster in the past 12 months. But 2019 closed on a high note as the University of North Georgia (UNG) graduate prepares to spend a year in the Republic of Kazakhstan as an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) through the Fulbright U.S. Student Program.
Her journey to this opportunity, which will begin Friday, Jan. 24, has been long and tumultuous.
It started in October 2018 when Symmes applied to be an ETA with the Fulbright program. It is a prestigious and highly competitive fellowship that enables graduate students to pursue academic endeavors overseas.
“I always wanted to explore other cultures and I think the best way to do this is through complete immersion and the real experience living in that environment,” Symmes said.
After the submission date, Symmes waited patiently to learn if her dream of living and working abroad would come true. She focused on earning her bachelor’s degree in modern languages with a concentration in Russian language and literature.
In January 2019, Symmes experienced her first high note. The Fulbright program deemed her a semifinalist. This meant the Forsyth Central High School graduate was one step closer to teaching the English language to students in Kazakhstan for a year.
Three months later, Symmes received mixed news. She wasn’t as a finalist, but she wasn’t out of the running yet. The program designated her as an alternate, which provided hope she could be promoted to a finalist in a month.
Her hopes were dashed in May. Symmes did not advance and would not be going to Kazakhstan, a Central Asian country and part of the former Soviet Union.
After graduation, Symmes regrouped to devise a new plan. Then an unexpected email arrived July 3. The Fulbright program in Kazakhstan planned to add positions, breathing life into Symmes’ dream.
“I read it so many times over and over again,” the 24-year-old said. “I was initially so happy that it could happen.”
The letter stated recipients would be notified of the final decision by Sept. 30. On that day, Symmes had heard nothing. Her nerves were raw.
Four days later, Symmes was elated. An email congratulated her on being a Fulbright finalist to Kazakhstan.
“The first thing I felt was blessed,” Symmes said, admitting she wanted no other scholarship more in her life than the Fulbright. “It fit perfectly and aligned so well with my timeline and goals.”
Symmes said her yearlong roller coaster ride taught her a hard lesson.
“The year of waiting was awful, but I think people need to experience setbacks to appreciate the rewards,” she said.
Symmes selection increases UNG’s Fulbright total to five finalists for the 2019-20 academic year. Earlier this year, four UNG alumni were selected as Fulbright finalists.
Dr. Anastasia Lin, assistant vice president of research and engagement, said the total should keep UNG on the top producer of Fulbrights list. Since 2018, UNG has been named as a top-producing institution for the Fulbright program.
“Emily has taken every opportunity to move herself closer to the goal through applying for other opportunities and presenting at research conferences,” Lin said. “Like many of our applicants, she demonstrates patience, hard work, and determination. This resilience has led to our students’ continued success in national scholarships.”