Above: Barton in Chitwan National Park, Nepal, with her son and the student team she
brought to help conduct fieldwork as part of her 2019 Fulbright Specialist Award with the Institute for Crisis Management in Kathmandu.
Since winning her first Fulbright award in 2007, Karen Barton, a professor in the Geography, GIS and Sustainability department at UNC, has been traveling to different parts of the world, researching
topics such as the preservation of wetlands in South America, natural hazards in Asia
and religion and diversity in West Africa. This summer, she’ll add another intercultural
experience to her long list as she embarks on a new journey to Mexico, taking advantage
of her impressive seventh award from the very competitive and prestigious Fulbright
As part of her most recent Fulbright-Hays fellowship, funded by the U.S. Department
of Education, Barton will travel to Mexico City next month to study Afro-Mexican history
and geography. While she's there, she’ll explore the cultural geographic connections between Africa
and Mexico and complete a research and teaching project she can bring back to her
classrooms. This project is a natural extension of the research she’s been conducting
over the past five years in West Africa, and an opportunity to expand that research
to further explore the connections between West Africa and this part of the world.
“For a long time, the percentage of African settlers inside of Mexico has been underrecognized
so we’re trying to show those roots in Africa through this program,” Barton said.
“I think this is a pretty timely program, particularly given everything that’s going
on in this country in recognizing African heritage.”
Barton will spend her time studying the culture, music and history in Veracruz and
Oaxaca, two cities where there is a significant Afro-Mexican population. She’ll use
that research to create story maps depicting Afro-Mexican heritage that she can incorporate
into her own curriculum and share with other classes and teachers as well. Story maps
integrate photographs, video and audio with other information to help bring a particular
issue to life in a more graphic way than traditional texts. It's a learning strategy
she's familiar with, having used it in the past to detail the account of Africa’s
greatest shipwreck, The Joola, a story she learned about during her 2016 Fulbright-Hays fellowship in Senegal.
“The point for me is that I want this research to be more easily disseminated so that
a lot of populations can have access to the material, not just a small community of
scholars,” Barton said.
Beyond the research and curriculum development, Barton is also hoping the collaboration
with her Mexican colleagues will serve as a catalyst to create direct linkages between
UNC and post-secondary institutions in Mexico. And eventually, when pandemic conditions
allow, she’s hoping there will be an opportunity for a two-week study abroad course
in Mexico with some of these same colleagues, looking at the issues they are studying
now in relation to Afro-Mexican heritage.
While Barton is certainly excited about her new project, as well as the opportunity
to collaborate with colleagues from abroad, she’s equally passionate about promoting
what the Fulbright experience can offer – particularly for students through the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. As a first-generation scholar, her own Fulbright experiences have been very important
to her and she’s aware that the competitive nature of the program can be a deterrent
for some in their decision to apply.
“I am constantly telling my students that they need to apply for these kinds of things,”
Barton said. “Oftentimes students underestimate their capabilities in terms of getting
these larger awards. But when you look at the array of people who are awarded Fulbright,
it’s not always people from Ivy League institutions. Our students are very deserving
of the same opportunities that students have at other institutions and they should
take advantage of the good mentoring they get at UNC from faculty and staff.”
Some of that “good mentoring” comes directly from Barton, who has been teaching at
UNC for the past 17 years. One example is her Geography 466/566 course that is primarily
geared toward writing research proposals. Her class is open to all UNC students and
covers the details of writing budgets and research statements, and of course offers
students the option of writing a Fulbright proposal.
Barton has also been known to involve students in her work, providing further opportunities for a more direct impact on their cultural learning.
In 2019, she expanded the scope of her Fulbright Specialist Award with the Institute
for Crisis Management in Kathmandu, Nepal, inviting UNC students to help with the
fieldwork. An interdisciplinary group of 10 graduate and undergraduate students accompanied
her to Nepal, assisting with natural hazards mapping and conducting interviews with
area residents for a community resiliency project after the 2015 Gorkha earthquake,
which killed over 9,000 people.
"I think this experience was very enlightening for them to not just read about the
stories in the classroom or learn about them through an assignment, but to see these
issues firsthand,” Barton said.
She has also organized and led undergraduate field expedition courses to Iceland, Peru, Nicaragua and Guyana.
Beyond her support in the classroom and in the field, Barton is also the vice president
for Fulbright Colorado, an advocacy organization that supports other Fulbright scholars,
including promoting the program to students by engaging speakers, providing webinars
and hosting events. Given her experience and familiarity with the Fulbright Program, she’s begun to organize
her thoughts around a long-term project about it.
“It kind of feels as if the direction I’m being pointed in is to do a book project
about Senator Fulbright,” Barton said. “He made some controversial voting decisions
when he was a senator. I’m interested in exploring a project that highlights all the
wonderful things that have come out of Fulbright in terms of intercultural communication
and ambassadorship, but at the same time understanding that we all have complicated
legacies that we leave behind. It will also include stories from my colleagues who
have traveled on Fulbrights and how it has altered their lives as first-generation
scholars, or otherwise.”
Barton can’t speak highly enough of the Fulbright program and her hope that more students
take advantage of it. While she doesn’t want to send the message that students have
to go beyond U.S. borders to have intercultural experiences, she does think those
experiences offer a chance for people to see and experience a side of other cultures
that may not be taught in the classroom.
“I think Fulbright has really taught me to listen well and to give people the benefit
of the doubt; a chance to share their narratives. I’m always surprised, wherever I
go.” Barton said. “I would love for more students to apply and to realize they stand
a chance at getting these awards.”
Barton’s advice and encouragement for students is timely. Fulbright U.S. Student Program’s national deadline for the 2022-23 award cycle is Oct. 12, 2021. Graduate students and undergraduate seniors can apply. Interested
students are advised to contact UNC Fulbright Program Advisers Olga Baron, executive director of UNC's Office of Global Engagement, and Barton for more information about the deadline materials, application process, and internal
deadlines for application review prior to submission.
About the Fulbright U.S. Student Program
The Fulbright U.S. Student Program provides grants for individually designed study/research
projects or for English Teaching Assistant Programs in a participating country outside
the U.S. During their grants, Fulbrighters will meet, work, live with and learn from
the people of the host country, sharing daily experiences. The program facilitates
cultural exchange through direct interaction on an individual basis in the classroom,
field, home, and in routine tasks, allowing the grantee to gain an appreciation of
others’ viewpoints and beliefs, the way they do things, and the way they think.
— Written by Deanna Herbert