When Polly Woodbury (’14, Communication, Psychology) applied for a Fulbright Fellowship to teach English abroad, she had hoped to spend a year in her mother’s native country of Cambodia.
Instead, she is spending a year in the northeastern Isan region of Thailand, and she couldn’t be happier. She teaches conversational English to about 500 Thai high school students each week and serves as an unofficial American cultural ambassador. She’s also absorbing as much as she can of local culture and language — which, to her delight, shares a lot with neighboring Cambodia and Laos.
Years ago, Woodbury’s mother fled to Thailand to escape the Khmer Rouge. This year, Woodbury’s Thai nickname is “Pailin,” or “Sapphire.” Her Thai mentor told her “the bluest sapphires are said to be found in Cambodia,” Woodbury wrote in an update to friends and family.
“I believe life sometimes works in roundabout ways but you somehow still end up exactly where you are meant to be,” Woodbury wrote. “I believe that is true with Thailand.”
During her stay in Thailand, Woodbury has been able to visit Cambodia. She listened to Khmer Rouge survivors at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, visited Phnom Penh on Victory Over Genocide Day and watched the sun rise over a 12th Century Angkor Wat temple.
Woodbury, of Tacoma, is one of five Western students studying or working abroad this year on a Fulbright fellowship or scholarship; Western was tied for second in public, masters-granting institutions for the number of Fulbrights among students and alumni in 2015. Since establishing a Fellowships Office in 2009, Western students are applying for — and receiving — an increasing number of competitive fellowships and scholarships.
The Fulbright Program is a prestigious international exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government. Many recipients are English teaching assistants abroad, spending 15 to 20 hours a week working alongside teachers. Others use the funding to conduct research or study for a graduate degree. The fellowships provide about $20,000 a year, plus housing, health insurance, airfare and other expenses.
Other Western students and alums who are Fulbright recipients this year include English teaching assistants Emily Brodie of Snoqualmie, in Spain; Tobias Osterhaug of Edmonds, in Taiwan; and Sadie Metz of Butte, Montana, in Germany. Samuel Bliss of Mercer Island is a Fulbright recipient studying degrowth economics in Spain.