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Shining Stars: Pair of NIU students granted Fulbright fellowships

Northern Illinois University students Matt Konfirst and Shari Meggs have been granted fellowships through the U.S. Student Fulbright Program, the first time two students from NIU have been recognized in the same year. Konfirst will work with scientists in Germany on climate change research, and Meggs will teach the English language to students in Hong Kong. KATE WEBER | kweber@daily-chronicle.com
Northern Illinois University students Matt Konfirst and Shari Meggs have been granted fellowships through the U.S. Student Fulbright Program, the first time two students from NIU have been recognized in the same year. Konfirst will work with scientists in Germany on climate change research, and Meggs will teach the English language to students in Hong Kong. KATE WEBER | kweber@daily-chronicle.com

DeKALB - While Northern Illinois University student Matt Konfirst is analyzing Antarctic core samples in Germany, fellow NIU student Shari Meggs will be teaching the English language to students in Hong Kong. Although the two have varying interests and are pursuing different degrees, they have one thing in common: Both have been granted fellowships through the U.S. Student Fulbright Program. Named for late U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright, the program was established by Congress in 1946 and is sponsored by the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. It is intended to facilitate cultural understanding through teaching, studying, research and exchanging ideas with those in other countries. “The original goal (of the program) was to get young (Americans) and young people from other nations to know each other on a long-term, personal basis,” said Deborah Pierce, NIU director of international programs. “It's to get people to build those bridges.” About 1,400 students have been selected from more than 3,500 U.S. colleges and universities to travel abroad for the 2008-09 academic year. Having two “Fulbrighters” is a record for NIU. About 110,000 U.S. and 180,000 international students have been awarded grants through the Fulbright program since its inception, and assignments are found all over the world. “It's a fabulous, life-changing opportunity, but it's definitely a competition,” Pierce said. “That competition is rigorous and the competitors strong.” The two NIU students seem to fit that bill. Konfirst is a doctoral geology student with bachelor's degrees in both music and German, and he strives to change the world by discovering how the world has changed. Konfirst, 31, sat in his neatly kept office Monday afternoon and pondered what it means to be a Fulbright scholar. “Everything seemed to line up for me and point me in this direction,” he said. “I want to discover new things. It's about what I'm going to come across while doing this rather than deciding before I begin what I'm trying to prove or disprove.” At more than 1,100 meters long, the sedimentary rock core he will be analyzing is the second longest ever recovered from Antarctica - which is among the most sensitive regions in the world to climate change. During his journey, Konfirst will analyze diatoms found in the core. The creatures are temperature-sensitive, microscopic, single-celled algae that once lived in shallow waters. From them, scientists can determine past temperatures of seawater. Though the Fulbright program is primarily considered academic, participants also engage in less-concrete learning, said Jamie Lawrence, public affairs officer for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. “It's to promote a mutual understanding among nations,” he said. “That could mean any number of things, from academics and education to culture and of course understanding the ways of life of people around the world.” Spontaneity and adaptability are two qualities Fulbrighters often have, he said. Meggs agreed that taking part in Fulbright requires an open mind and the ability to be ready for anything. While Konfirst is conducting research, she will be simultaneously teaching the English language and learning her fourth language: Chinese. Already fluent in German and Spanish, the ambitious 21-year-old hopes to one day use her linguistic skills to work for the United Nations by representing the many cultural facets of people in the U.S. “She's an African-American who grew up in the predominately Jewish town of Skokie,” Pierce said Tuesday, adding that Meggs' father is from Belize. “All her life has been spent working across several cultural boundaries, and she represents the truly diverse nature of this country in the most outstanding and fun way.” While in Hong Kong, Meggs will seek to facilitate conversation with Chinese-speaking students and form long-lasting partnerships. Despite the challenges, she looks forward to the unknown, she said. “Ever since I was younger, I've been attracted to different cultures,” Meggs said enthusiastically. “Fulbright really focuses on you integrating yourself into the community. What better way to do that than to take something familiar to me like English and incorporate it in an unfamiliar setting.”

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