Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Much-Appreciated Change of Pace, By Thomael M. Joannidis, 2009-2010, Cyprus

My Fulbright year in Cyprus was characterized by adaptability. Initially, I planned to “hit the ground running” and begin immediately gathering quantifiable research results for my proposed project. During my first days, however, I realized the value of taking things slowly and devoting some time to getting to know the people and culture, while also finding ways to connect with the community. At first, my New York upbringing felt quite at odds with accepting that things do not always work on a fast-paced schedule and that, in the meantime, I should sit with locals, enjoy the lovely weather and a Cypriot coffee. Yet, it was often in these moments – without a voice recorder or a list of questions – that my research began and people became comfortable enough to share their lives. Changing my project’s pace allowed me to begin understanding the soul of Cyprus, what matters to the people and the rhythm of their lives.

Volunteering with two non-governmental organizations which also served as my affiliations was essential to getting acclimated. The work I did with Hands Across the Divide, a grassroots, bicommunal women’s peace group (meaning that there were both Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot members), and Future Worlds Center, a large organization working in a number of areas including the promotion of civil society and peace, was not usually related to my research. I appreciated their time and willingness to assist me with my research and felt that the best way to thank them was to volunteer my time. On Fulbright, everything becomes a learning experience and an opportunity for personal growth. I supported staff by helping to facilitate and prepare for events on a range of topics including development education, youth activism and annual organizational meetings. Sometimes, my tasks were more administrative in nature, such as preparing agendas or taking minutes. At other times, I had an opportunity to present and actually participate in the programming. One of my best memories occurred when I volunteered to help at a bicommunal youth activism retreat which involved camping on a natural, undeveloped beach, surrounded by the sea on one side, and rocky terrain on the other.


Volunteering also benefited me in two additional ways. First, it took some of the pressure off of rushing to complete my Fulbright project. Cyprus is so different from New York City. I think that without volunteering, I may have become too overwhelmed by being over 5,000 miles away from home and feeling pressured to complete my research. Instead, I always had something that needed my help, gave me new ideas to consider, and an opportunity to meet people. When it came time to conduct formal interviews for my project, I had already formed a network of people, some of whose first experience of working with me was as a volunteer. Second, volunteering helped to refine my research. The more events I attended, casual conversations I had, the more my research became something pertinent to my personal and professional experience, and to Cypriot life. Volunteering prepared me to conduct my research in a way that aligned more closely with Cypriot cultural expectations of communication, pace of life, and privacy.


Through the lens of my volunteer experiences, I began to explore the development and suppression of identity, predominantly gender identity, in Cyprus. Due to what is known as the “Cyprus problem,” which has kept the island geographically divided across ethnic lines, membership in one of the two main ethnic groups, Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots, has historically defined national identities. Other identifiers such as gender, sexual orientation, race, and immigration status, are often not acknowledged. Furthermore, social issues have been overshadowed by the political problem. My research sought to explore the relevance of other identities beyond ethnicity to those I interviewed. Is there any evidence of social issues, including discrimination, in Cypriots’ lives? How do they define themselves and their communities? What do they value? What impact has the “Cyprus problem” had on their identities?


As I write up my findings and prepare to present them at a conference in Cyprus this fall, I realize that embracing Cypriot culture is something that has not only helped my research truly evolve but also provided me with a different outlook on life – both professionally and personally. After nine months of research in Cyprus, I not only have a better understanding of how the country perceives gender identity, but also a better understanding of myself. I know now that I can succeed in Manhattan, the Mediterranean - or any place in between.


A few tips for applicants:


1. Make your proposal accessible to readers who may not know much about your subject. In fact, consider having people outside your field read it. Is there anything they would suggest or find unclear?


2. Stay positive - even on days when your progress feels less than optimal. Getting all of the moving parts of the application to converge can feel daunting. If you remain focused and persistent, it will all come together.


3. When seeking an affiliation, be creative, flexible, and leave yourself plenty of time. I found it helpful to connect first with an American organization located in Cyprus that could recommend specific in-country contacts. However you make contact with potential affiliations, remember that standards of communication abroad may vary. Receiving a response to an email, for example, may take more time than you are accustomed to.


4. Do not expect to complete the application in a very rigid, linear way. While you may want to send potential affiliations, recommenders and others a perfect and polished proposal, waiting for that to happen can take more time than you think and can hinder receiving valuable feedback to help develop your project.

Photo: Thomael M. Joannidis, 2009-2010, Cyprus, climbing up to St. Hilarion Castle on the Kyrenia mountain range.


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