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Karen Barton

117 – Mapping Hope Around the World

Karen Barton, professor of Geography, GIS, and Sustainability at UNC talks about her multiple Fulbright scholarships and how students can apply to go on these international trips. (Running time 18:35)

Karen Barton, professor of geography, GIS, and sustainability at UNC talks about her multiple Fulbright scholarships and how students can apply to go on these international trips. (Running time, 18:35)



My name is Karen Barton and I'm a professor of geography, GIS, and sustainability.

 Over the past 15 years, Dr. Barton has been awarded nine Fulbright scholarships. Her most recent will be bringing her to Bangladesh. She's always encouraging students to apply for these scholarships, and will even be putting on a workshop to help students through the application process.

 I teach courses including Nature and society, Climate Change, Africa, International Sustainable Development, and lots and lots of field courses like I've taken students to Iceland, Guyana, Peru, Nicaragua, Nepal, and then lots of courses here in the U.S. to In fact, just two weeks ago, I led a group of students on a trip to the Mississippi River where we cleaned up trash on a garbage barge with the nonprofit living, lands, and waters.

So I'm going to go a little bit out of order. But was that a part of the Fulbright?

 No. The Mississippi River course is just something we organized so that we'd have a domestic opportunity for students and doesn't have any relationship to Fulbright.

So that was here in Colorado.

It was in Memphis. We flew to Memphis, and then from there we got on the garbage barge and worked picking up trash for seven days.

I'm going, to be honest with you. My sense of direction and geography is terrible. So probably be asking a lot of profound questions.

No, it's okay.

So what brought you to UNC?

So it’s a long story, but my partner and I were both searching for jobs and after we finished our Ph.D. work and left New Zealand, we were living there. We picked a job at the University of Wisconsin because we thought it would have the best chance of him getting a job, too. And that didn't happen. So he eventually took a job in Fort Collins, Colorado, and a year later I left my tenure track job and came to Colorado and found a job at UNC.

So it was a lot of work. Sort of having to repeat what I did at Wisconsin, but it turned out really great in the end. I love UNC.

How long have you been at UNC.

I've been here for about 15 years.

What made you want to study geography?

 Well, after I got my undergraduate degree in California, I thought I was headed to law school. I assumed I'd want to be an environmental lawyer and do environmental law. But at the last minute, I took a detour to Tucson, Arizona, to study geography. Since the program had a really strong emphasis on the environment and particularly the role that humans play in modifying it.

I'd also always loved maps, of course, like a lot of people, but it was more than that. I wanted to study this incredibly diverse world. So, I wound up staying at the University of Arizona for my master's and my Ph.D., and I studied under Sally Marston and Rob Williams, minored in anthropology, and just learned a lot at that institution. It was terrific.

So, you mentioned wanting to go into environmental law before. What made you want to pursue that?

 I wanted to be a problem solver, and when I entered graduate school, I realized I could be a problem solver in different ways through research and storytelling, and education. And so I landed at the U of A and then wound up staying in education for the rest of my life.

So I was like teaching students to want to make that change with the environment.

Yeah, Yeah. We do a lot of field experience here in the geography, GIS, and sustainability program. We know the DOGS is our acronym and our students love it. You know, we do a lot of first-hand education, which is a good experience because it's visceral, it's tangible, and I think this is my own opinion, but I think it's good for students who maybe don't do as well in the traditional classroom with four walls.

It offers them an opportunity to thrive out there, which is what I just saw on the Mississippi River. Our students were extraordinary.

And those over spring break?

Yeah it was over spring break. So, they spent their spring break picking up trash.

So what is a Fulbright?

Okay, I can do my best here. I've had quite a bit of experience with Fulbright, but Fulbright is a program that was established after World War Two by then junior Senator William Fulbright as a way of bridging the cultural divide that had formed around the world after the chaos of the war. And it was a really visionary program that was designed to simply bring people together through cultural exchanges, to create ambassadors, to provide firsthand experiences, and learn about different parts of the world, either through teaching or research.

And I should say you know, whenever I talk about it, I feel as if I'm part of this cult. It's not a cult. The program was funded and is funded by a U.S. congressional appropriation that has bipartisan support. So Democrats, and Republicans, but is also funded by support from overseas commissions where financial support is even possible. And since that post-World War Two era, it's expanded to include heaps of countries bringing U.S. students, faculty, staff, independent artists, policymakers, journalists, K-12 teachers overseas.

And then we also bring those same players to the United States. So, we have had over time through 370,000 Fulbrighters traveling around the world at any time, participating in all sorts of different programs. 62 of them of the alumni, have won Nobel Prizes. 88 have won Pulitzer Prizes. And it's a really prestigious program. But it's also extremely democratic in terms of who can apply and how accessible it is.

It's not only for geography students.

No, no. It's for everybody. I think there's a Fulbright for everybody.

So it's not like an age range where people can just do it. It's like, as long as you're, like, a college student 

Right. Well, you have to for the student Fulbright program because there are faculty programs. There are programs for administrators and K-12 teachers for the student program, which is what we're really trying to get rolling here with the Office of Global Engagement is you have to be a senior. No, sorry, you have to have graduated by the time you start your Fulbright.

So I really recommend that students apply during their senior year and be thinking about it during their junior year.

So how many Fulbright have you done?

Okay, well, I was afraid that I was going to have to answer that question. I've done several of them. I'm super fortunate and but also I worked really hard to apply. I love writing and I've done awards to Senegal and Mexico, Myanmar, Kuwait, Nepal, and Bangladesh. Bangladesh is coming up. And the most important one for my students was Nepal.

I got a fellowship to go there in 2018 to map the cover of Palencia Valley in the wake of the Gorkha earthquake, which killed thousands of people. And so I was hired to come in and help map and do interviews in the community with people who had survived. And I decided because I'm a complicator to bring ten students with me on that Fulbright and I raised funds so their costs wouldn't be prohibitive. 

And they came along and helped map and do surveys. And I brought a faculty member along too. Jim Dorner, who's now the dean of HSS, and one of the students, I have to say, she told me she was so inspired by the experience and another trip we did that she is now in the Peace Corps in Fiji.

So that was the most important one, but the most important one, not necessarily for my students, but for me was a Fulbright Hays Fellowship I did to Senegal. It really changed my life. I went there in 2006 thinking I'd be kind of underwhelmed by the physical geography of West Africa, and I just fell in love with the people.

And it's just an extraordinary place. And I wound up writing a book about a shipwreck that took place there 20 years ago.

So I'm not going to lie. I don't know why. But Dr. Barton's book, the title of it, is a tongue twister to me. I've tried like six times to do it, but I'm going to get it this time. So the book she wrote is called Africa's Joola Shipwreck. Causes and Consequences of a Humanitarian Disaster. In this book, she tells the story of a Senegalese ferry that capsized in a storm off the coast of Gambia.

The crash left only 64 survivors and killed nearly 2000 people. She looks at the consequences it caused the Senegalese people, specifically those in the rural south. And she uses geographical forces to do so.

It killed more people than that on the Titanic. And I have established a lifelong partnership with the people in the southern part of that country. 

And do you still keep in touch with a lot of the people that you meet from Fullbright?

I do. Yeah, absolutely. I think it's kind of like study abroad or field courses. You form a really strong bond because you're in challenging circumstances, especially some of the places that I like to apply to. I like places that are a little more challenging to live and work, and especially the folks I met in Senegal. They're still my partners.

I went back there last fall for the 20th anniversary of the Joola shipwreck to participate in those commemorative activities.

Do you know, like what places offer Fulbright, if that’s the right wording?

Yes, I do. So, if you get on the U.S.. Student Fulbright website and I'll just talk about students because I think, you know, there's a hidden curriculum for fellowships like this that students, they're not aware of. And I know a lot of faculty are, but we can talk about that too. But for students, there's a U.S. student Fulbright website that you can get on.

Just opened up the competition for this year. It's due in the fall. And you can learn about all the programs that are offered. But in a nutshell, there are programs for people who want to teach while they're abroad, and then for students who want to do research. And as far as where you can travel, you can't travel to every country in the world because they don't all have Fulbright programs yet. 

But that website lists all the opportunities. And not only that, but the Fulbright website lists the number of applicants for each program and then how many awards were given, which is, see where I'm going with this is like a really good opportunity to play the odds. So if there's a program in New Zealand, you might find that really compelling.

New Zealand's a wonderful place, but because there are no language requirements and because a lot of people want to go to New Zealand, it's super competitive no matter how brilliant you are. It all comes down to a committee, so why not look on the Fulbright website and see the countries where there's a need and then maybe you'll have 30% chance or a 20% chance of getting a Fulbright instead of a 2% chance.

And would you say that it is easier to name those countries that don't have full grades versus the countries that do?

Oh, that's a really good question. I don't want to throw people off the track, but the map looks pretty full for Fulbright. And so even if there's a country that's not yet listed, you could go to a neighboring country and then travel, you know, in your free time. But it's really extensive.

How long does a Fulbright trip usually lasts?

Well, there's so many different programs, but for the student, Fulbright, they're usually for one year or ten months. And then there's different Fulbright. Fulbright Haze program, where K-through-12 teachers can travel for six weeks and learn about a country and then bring that curriculum back to their own classroom. There's a Fulbright specialist program like the one that I'm doing in Bangladesh, which is five weeks. So they're all across the board.

So what type of student is a Fulbright for?

Well, the technical part we talked about, right, in terms of how old you need to be or what year in college is preferred. But I would say the existential part or the existential response to that question is that there's a Fulbright for everyone, and it's for students primarily who want to gain intercultural competencies. If they want to teach or conduct research abroad, for students who want to be good ambassadors and I know this list is starting to sound really long, but good listeners, students who are flexible, adaptive and just eager to serve and do something new and adventurous.

And I would say that you have to have good writing skills to submit your application because it's not just about writing a traditionally good paper as you put for a strong application. It's about showing your energy and enthusiasm as you're writing the application. I know I mean I have a middle schooler, so it's not cool for him to be enthused.

But when you're writing an application for a Fulbright or trying to get a job, you have to show that you want it. And so, I think those skills are important for students that are applying.

So it's just like showing, Hey, this is why I want this. Just showing the enthusiasm would be really helpful for students who are trying to apply.

Right, Exactly. I think there's a way to write academically, but also to write meaningfully and to show the way in which you could be an ambassador while you're abroad. And that doesn't mean you have to have had massive experiences overseas already. Sometimes the best lessons we can put into an application are experiences we've had growing up in a small town or growing up in the city.

You can use any of those experiences and incorporate those into your applications to show the readers and reviewers who you are. It's your story to tell, and there's always a story.

Yeah. And do you have any other tips for students who are trying to apply for Fulbright?

Yes, I would say start early on the application. And like I told you earlier, hosting a workshop this summer to help students apply through the nuts and bolts of the application. So always, always start early because it takes a while to find people to write letters of recommendation for you. Well, my biggest piece of advice is you can't win if you don't apply.

As I like to joke around with friends and colleagues, somebody has to win it. So, it might as well be you. It might as well be you, the student at UNC who wants these opportunities.

And why should students apply for a Fulbright?

It's a good question. Like I said, some people thrive outside the four walls of a classroom. They do really well. I just saw it a couple weeks ago in the Mississippi River trip. It was so inspiring. But I think it gives students confidence. Lots and lots of confidence and helps them to make connections overseas. It shows students the kind of medal they have to work in this foreign challenging environment.

And it also gives them the ability to serve the global community in really unique and unexpected ways.

And I have one last question for you, which is, if you could do a podcast, what would you do it on?

Well, that is an excellent question. I just finished this Australian-based leadership program called Homeward Bound Women in Science. It's a yearlong program about women in leadership and it was awesome. And it culminates in a trip to Antarctica with 100 of the women in this cohort, 108 actually in the project I proposed coming out of this was a series of products, a book, a story map, you know, using gifs and audio and video as well as a podcast called Geographies of Hope.

I would love to do a podcast focused on optimism in this 21st century. Oftentimes you hear lots of stories of gloom and doom, especially in my field, environmental studies, and geography. I'm old enough to where I've been in a lot of corners of the planet, and I'm not just seeing doom and gloom where I work in Senegal. There's a principle, a Sufi principle called Rafat Nuart, which means it's the wall-off word for beautiful optimism in the face of tragedy. And it means that in in despite of these circumstances, these wicked problems we face, as they call them, good things are still happening. People are planting mangrove forests in Senegal. They're combating climate change by organizing and protesting. And the Homeward Bound program I just participated in I'm working on ways to disseminate all of these stories of optimism for audiences, and especially audiences K Through 12. Like I said, I have a middle schooler who's super optimistic, and I want him and other students his age to learn about what's possible and not just what the problems are.

And it's not something that we hear about a lot just in the mainstream media, I think.

No, absolutely not. And we need an atlas of hope.

And I think just having that little like, hey, this is happening and it's not bad because when you hear a lot of environmental news, I think a lot of the times I hear about like, oh, the world’s on fire, and I'm like, oh, I wish it's like a little bit of hope that I could hear about, too.

Right. I always look at the literature that kids are reading. I find it fascinating that they read a lot of dystopian literature about the apocalypse, kids of the Apocalypse, and that's one side to it. That's the world they're living in. But the other side is that they're very creative, they're bootstrapping themselves, they're finding solutions, and they need to look to other communities around the world about people who are getting it right.

And I think that would be that'd be a very impactful one to do.

Thank you for listening to Karen Barton talk about her Fulbright Scholarship and her passion and having students apply for Fulbright as well. If you'd like to apply or just look more into Fulbright, the website is us.fulbrightonline.org. I'm your host, Isabella Marcus Porter, giving you a taste of UNC.


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