A Malaysian’s Fulbright Trail in Georgia


Vimala Balakrishnan

Fulbright Visiting Scholar 2018-19, University of Georgia, Athens

My Fulbright Scholar Award will always be something that I keep close to my heart for many reasons, not least of which for the time it allowed me to explore research, academia, culture and life away from home. Yes, the award came later in my life, but it arrived in style.


My story is about how I made the best out of my three-month stint here in America. I won this prestigious award to investigate the link between certain personality traits and Twitter cyberbullying, a common yet ugly phenomenon affecting many worldwide. My award enabled me to complete the main tasks involved in the project, allowing me to share the study and outcomes during my stay in the United States, and also resulted in the production of a journal article.


While I am proud of the progress I made on my project, my Fulbright experience would not have been as impactful as it was without the many connections I made while in the United States. First and foremost, I probably had one of the best faculty hosts one could ever ask for. Professor Hamid Arabnia not only became my mentor but a father figure who was there for me, always welcoming and inquiring about my well-being, and never short of ideas and thoughts on the American political system and culture.


As my program was only for three months, I soon realized that I had to take initiative to make the most of my limited time, so  I began sending out dozens of emails for seminar and knowledge sharing opportunities. Networking, persistence and an armful of perseverance helped me make the connections I needed to share not only my cyberbullying research, but more importantly, to introduce my little-known country of Malaysia and its beautiful culture to the University of Georgia, to the Georgia Institution of Technology, and at meet-ups and social gatherings.                                           


My American cultural experience ranged from visiting a neighborhood that is home to a large  refugee community in Clarkston, participating in an international meet-up to discuss life, witnessing the simple yet inspiring Amish community, and experiencing various cultural cuisines and hospitality, among many other experiences. I had the pleasure of staying with a certified healer and writer from Jamaica, exchanged cultural and political perspectives over many cups of coffee with a local American, enjoyed social activities and banter with a fellow Malaysian, tasted exquisite cuisines including Mexican and Ethiopian, and spent a night sleeping in a boat. And may I add, what pleasure it was to experience swing dancing with the American Legion Vietnam War veterans!


Culturally speaking, it was amazing to see the local support for college athletics, especially at my host institution considering they are home to the well-known football team, Bulldogs. I was introduced to the art of ‘tailgating’. In turn, I introduced and gently challenged my fellow Americans to a Malaysian traditional game, sepak takraw. I took some time off to explore the country and visited the beautiful campuses of Harvard University, Yale University and George Washington University.


One of the most memorable outreach activities I participated in was the community outreach I initiated with the help of a fellow Malaysian, in which we prepared sandwiches and delivered them to homeless people in Atlanta during Diwali, the festival of light. Being away from home for the first time during a special festival, sharing something with the less fortunate, was one of the best experiences I encountered during my Fulbright tenure.


I returned home, rather reluctantly, not only with an amazing professional experience to share with my peers, students, and friends, but also with significant personal growth as a result of my eye-opening experience in the melting pot that is America. I wholeheartedly urge future Fulbrighters to fully maximize this once in a lifetime opportunity to travel, meet new people, observe diverse cultures, and take in beautiful landscapes.