Newly-minted Fulbright Scholars pack their bags

Brazil and Spain are destinations for SDSU alumni faculty members seeking to further their research.

Saturday, March 23, 2024
Two women smile and pose in front of a garden of grasses and plants.
(From left) Charlene Holkenbrink-Monk and Kristal Bivona, selected for the faculty Fulbright Scholars program.

One is off to Brazil, the other Spain. One is an experienced global traveler, the other is fulfilling a wanderlust long deferred.

But San Diego State University faculty members and alumni Kristal Bivona (’07, English) and Charlene Holkenbrink-Monk (’23, Joint Ph.D. in Education) share an important thing in common: Both are among a select group of U.S. academics who will pursue their research and scholarly passions as Fulbright Scholars.

While more than 2,200 students study internationally each year through the Fulbright program, fewer than half that number are accepted into the Fulbright Scholars program, which sends university and college faculty, and artists abroad to teach, conduct research, and carry out professional projects.

“I believe that the Fulbright program works to foster mutual cultural understanding — it is an exchange and it has an interesting social element,” said Bivona, assistant professor of classics and humanities and associate director of SDSU’s Behner Stiefel Center for Brazilian Studies. “It is research and it is work, but it’s also meeting people and bridging language and culture to forge relationships.” 

Added Holkenbrink-Monk, a lecturer in the Department of Sociology: “I'm very excited to be in a different academic environment. I've been teaching for seven years now at the college level and I've taught all over Southern California, but that's still very much my comfort zone. 

“I am excited to not be in that same silo.”

A return to Brazil

Bivona is no stranger to the U.S. Fulbright program. Her first Fulbright award arrived in 2007 when she was an SDSU undergraduate in English. Walking through the halls of Adams Humanities, she noticed a flier on a bulletin board that touted the student Fulbright program — the deadline to apply was only nine days away. She rushed to draft her application, revised it 14 times, submitted it, and received the Fulbright award for an English teaching assistantship in Argentina.

Her fascination with Brazil was stoked when she enrolled in a Portuguese course where she learned about Brazil and the Lusophone culture. Students in the class engaged in many Brazilian cultural activities in San Diego that gave Bivona a front-row view of the vibrancy of Brazil and Brazilians. 

“That class literally changed my life,” she said.

In 2008, she packed her bags and headed to Brazil to teach English. A student of comparative literature, she saw how two countries — Brazil and Argentina — dealt with military dictatorships. How Brazilians and Argentines remembered those times during the Cold War motivated her to head back to the U.S. to attend the University of California, Los Angeles for graduate school. In her dissertation, Bivona looked at how filmmakers deal with disparate memories of dictatorship.

Fast forward to 2024, and Bivona has attained yet another Fulbright, this time as a Fulbright Scholar in Brazil.

With the Fulbright Scholar award, Bivona will conduct field research from September through December in Belo Horizonte, Brazil and attend film festivals during the 2024 festival season.

The primary purpose of her travel is to complete research for her book project on politics and post-dictatorship Brazilian cinema. 

Also, while in Belo Horizonte, she will advance ongoing research projects with colleagues at the Federal University of Minas Gerais.

At the festivals, she will have a chance to watch film premieres and meet filmmakers and others who work in the film industry, which will give her a deeper understanding of her research topic and add new dimensions to her work.

“This opportunity will advance my project in the ways that I have proposed, but I also look forward to seeing how this opportunity fosters new collaborations and inspires new projects,” Bivona said.

A Lifelong Dream

Holkenbrink-Monk always dreamed of exploring the world. Life, however, always seemed to intervene.

The product of a working-class San Diego household, Holkenbrink-Monk worked long hours to afford her undergraduate education at the University of California, Los Angeles, making study abroad an impossibility. Things only became more complex from there. She became a mother, started teaching college sociology, embarked on a career as a classroom teacher through the pandemic, and, eventually, tackled graduate school.

As a result, Holkenbrink-Monk has still never left North America. As she prepares to travel to Spain next January, she’s finally ready to live that dream.

“It's about being able to do something that I've always wanted to do,” said Holkenbrink-Monk, a graduate of SDSU’s Joint Ph.D. Program in Education with Claremont Graduate University. “I came home to San Diego when I was pregnant with my son and then year-after-year-after-year just kind of started getting tacked on. Now it's been 12 years since I've been back here. 

“It's time to do something new.”

Holkenbrink-Monk will spend January through May in Málaga, a port city in the southern coast of Spain’s Andalusia region. Hosted by the University of Málaga, she will conduct participatory visual research that builds on her SDSU dissertation work using sociological concepts. The goal is to help Spanish students gain English language skills by using photography projects that center their cultural backgrounds while exploring important social issues relevant to their lived experiences. 

She selected Málaga in consultation with University of Valencia Associate Professor Laura Monsalve Lorente, a visiting scholar in the SDSU College of Education.

“Dr. Monsalve Lorente’s mentor is the one who wrote me the letter of invitation,”  Holkenbrink-Monk said. “She was the one who suggested that, while Málaga is smaller and lesser-known than places like Barcelona, the university has a lot of support for Fulbright scholars.”

Holkenbrink-Monk’s first experience away from North America will be a shared one, as she is bringing along her 12-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter. Currently, that’s a source of some stress as she attempts to work out the logistics of getting them passports and ensuring access to their medications and educational instruction while abroad.

“There’s a lot to figure out, but at the end of the day, I'm just really excited,” Holkenbrink-Monk said. “They are my exploring buddies, so I'm really excited to go out there with them. But instead of a random trail in San Diego, it’s a whole other country with things we’re not familiar with.

“I'm really stoked that I get to give my kids this opportunity — one that I wouldn't have had when I was a kid.” 

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