Somer Nowak often felt like an outsider while growing up in a mostly white suburban school district.
“My experience as a biracial woman,” she said, “has really come to shape much of how I view the world.”
Her background made her eager to connect with people who also found themselves feeling outside society, often due to religion, language, ethnicity, ability or sexuality.
This empathy led her to seek out different international cultures around her — and eventually took her down the path of becoming a Fulbright Scholar at Marquette University.
During the winter of 2015, Somer returns to Brazil, where her eyes were first opened to the meaning of community from a group of “outsiders.” It’s fitting that the country’s flag contains the motto, Ordem e Progresso, which is inspired by the French “L’amour pour principe et l’ordre pour base; le progrès pour but.”
It means “Love as a principle and order as the basis; progress as the goal.”
Nowak was the first generation in her family to attend college, and graduated this May with a degree in International Affairs.
At Marquette, she spent five months researching the Afro-descendant identities of women in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Montevideo, Uruguay and Porte Alegre, Brazil.
“It was crazy to be able to live independently in a different country by myself as an adult,” said Somer. “But it was crazy in a good way.”
She didn’t stop there.
Somer will again apply her diverse skills in Brazil as the winner of the prestigious Fulbright Award, an English teaching assistantship to supplement local English language instruction in a foreign country.
The Fulbright U.S. Student Program is the largest United States exchange program offering opportunities for students and young professionals to undertake international study, research and teaching.
Prior to her departing to Brazil this winter, Somer will be working part-time at the Community Advocates Public Policy Institute, helping to lead funded group development programs and gun violence prevention initiatives. She will also partake in some contract work with the P3 International Group, a community and international consulting firm, and will spend any additional time continuing to volunteer at the Pan-African Community Association.
In advance of her trip, Somer shared some of her aspirations and how she learned the meaning of community during her research.
On winning the Fulbright Award:
I initially applied to the scholarship program with doubts. I am a first-generation college student so the fact that I not only graduated college, but have also been awarded a prestigious scholarship is almost more than I can comprehend.
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to study abroad in multiple countries throughout my undergraduate career, while also obtaining proficiency with Spanish and Portuguese language. But from my perspective it was my true passion for understanding other people’s experience and cultures that led to this award.
It was my passion that has driven me to apply for this award since my sophomore year of college. It has been a goal of mine since very early on in my academic career to visit Brazil and live and work abroad once I finished college.
The fact that I kept this promise to myself through hard work and determination means more than the name of the award or the doors this opportunity could open.
On her original interest and passion for international affairs:
Once I began studying abroad in college, I fell in love with the notion of travel because of the people and places that you can meet and learn from. I specifically decided to travel abroad to teach post-graduation, because teaching and language exchange, I feel, are the most engaging activities where you can learn the most about a country and its people, while also sharing a little bit about yourself.
On her upcoming research work:
I will be assisting in teaching English at one of the country’s 59 federal universities for 25 hours a week, but I am also expected to engage in community work and research. In my application I proposed working for a community organization in an at-risk area, where I could assist in providing youth development, self-sufficiency, and self-expression workshops.
On her past experience abroad has shaped her passion for teaching in a foreign country:
The countries and their histories where I studied abroad were complex and the culture different from anything I had ever experienced, but the way I was able to maneuver through these cities independently left a lasting impact on me and made me realize what I was capable of.
Toward the end of my study abroad program, I spent a month composing my own independent study project surrounding women and Afro-descendant identity in Argentina. Through these connections, I soon found myself welcomed by an entire community of women who knew me by first name and welcomed me to family get-togethers and events — teaching me much more than I could learn from books and in classrooms. From this I ultimately learned that community and education had neither borders nor a particular model.
I felt at home abroad and realized you can create community wherever you go.
From this past experience, my dreams of travel and establishing myself abroad became a lot more realistic and prompted me to pursue travel further in my future plans.
On what she hopes to gain from her upcoming experience in Brazil:
I have been abroad twice and each time I’ve come back more humble, reflective, understanding and aware of the world around me. I just hope from this experience I am able to grow profoundly in these same areas. All in all, I’d like to learn as much about myself as I do the country and its people.
On her future:
As for now, I hope to come back and get a position working for an international advocacy organization or maybe even apply to law school or to a master’s program. Depending on my experience I may consider returning to Brazil or another country for work.
“I no longer feel constrained to one place or one path; I feel like my opportunities are limitless… that’s what’s really amazing about traveling abroad.”
This article was researched and reported by Katie Miller, intern for the Office of Marketing and Communication at Marquette, and graduate student studying Communication. Follow her on Twitter or connect with her on LinkedIn.