“I believe that Central Asia as a whole is a critical nexus for global interests,” says BYU graduate and Fulbright recipient John McHenry, “but is a region that is often overlooked or underappreciated in the United States.”
To gain more experience in Central Asia, McHenry applied for a prestigious English teaching Fulbright award in Tajikistan; he learned he had received the award in April 2023 and moved to Tajikistan in August. Now, he gets to gain a unique firsthand perspective on this overlooked region of the world.
The Path to Fulbright
McHenry majored in Middle Eastern Studies/Arabic at BYU; he plans to eventually attend law school and “find a niche that allows me to make a meaningful impact in the field of international law.”
His time at BYU allowed him to learn more about the Middle East through classes, extracurricular activities, and the Arabic Flagship program, which he funded through a Boren scholarship. Read more about his time at BYU in this spotlight from BYU Undergraduate Education.
He didn’t put much thought into applying for a Fulbright until later in his college career. “I heard about Fulbright through some seminars at BYU—one of which was actually from a Fulbrighter who had done their grant program in Tajikistan—but did not put much thought into applying until I started to near graduation,” he explains. “At that point, I decided it would be worth at least trying.”
Why a Fulbright? He explains, “I thought that participating in Fulbright would be an adventure, as well as give me a hands-on understanding of how the United States uses education as a form of diplomacy and relationship building.”
Each Fulbright hopeful applies for a specific country. McHenry chose Tajikistan because “the country and culture are intersections of areas I’ve studied previously, including the Middle East and Russia. I anticipated that living in a Central Asian country would give me experience necessary to better appreciate and understand the region, as well as be more well-equipped further down the road to help advance mutual peace, multinational cooperation, and local resource security.”
Applicants also choose which award type to pursue: English teaching, research, or graduate study. McHenry says, “I chose to be an English teacher because I believe that language education is a powerful way of increasing understanding between nations, which consequentially leads to greater international cooperation. I additionally wanted to help facilitate cultural exchange and build bridges between the United States and Tajikistan—two nations which historically have not known much about each other.”
Life in Tajikistan
McHenry learned he’d received the award in April 2023, and four months later found himself living in Bokhtar (still often known by its old name, Qurghonteppa), a city of about 110,000 inhabitants located ninety minutes south of the capital city. He’ll stay there until his grant ends in June. In Qurghonteppa, he teaches locals English—and much more.
“I teach English at a place called the American Space,” he explains, “which is funded entirely by the U.S. State Department and which seeks to teach supplementary English lessons to students ranging from elementary school to the university level. Besides teaching vocabulary and grammar, I also get to teach about American culture as well as conduct several clubs that aim to develop various hard and soft skills for the students.”
These classes and clubs include a Python programming language club, a CPR class, a public speaking club, a debate club, and a TOEFL club for students who are preparing to apply for universities or jobs abroad. “We also have a few more fun ones such as a chess club, a club for board games, and a karaoke club,” he adds.
When he’s not at the American space, McHenry spends his time getting to know the city, the locals, and their culture. As one of only a few foreigners in Qurghonteppa, he finds himself spending much of his time socializing with locals. “I spend many of my evenings being invited to people’s homes and talking with locals who are interested in having a conversation with an American,” he explains. When walking between the apartment he rents and the American Space, he finds that “since it is such a small town, I always meet students of mine or people I know along the way.”
He’s also taking advantage of his time there to learn Tajik. “I enjoy learning languages,” he says, “so it has been a great opportunity for me to take advantage of the Fulbright stipend set aside for language tutoring and formally study the language.”
Interested in Fulbright awards?
Are you a BYU student wondering what it would take to have an experience like this? Check out the Kennedy Center’s page on Fulbright awards here. Interested students can get in contact with James Mayo, scholarships coordinator at the Kennedy Center, to learn about how to get started. Mayo, in conjunction with the Prestigious Scholarships office at BYU, guides interested students through the application process and helps them fine-tune their essays.
McHenry has some advice for students who are interested in applying. First, he says, “know the specific reasons why you are choosing the country you are applying for and outline those reasons clearly. In my experience, doing so helps tell your own story more effectively in your application.”
“Secondly,” he says, “I would also recommend using any resource at your disposal to improve your essays.” The essay help provided by the Prestigious Scholarships office, he says, played a major part in getting him accepted to the Fulbright program.
His third tip is to start soon: “I would recommend beginning to think about your application and write rough drafts for your essays as soon as possible, especially if you are inclined to procrastinate like I am! Doing so will help avoid rushing at the last minute and will increase your odds of being accepted.”
Finally, he encourages applicants not to give up. “Many Fulbrighters have applied more than once before getting accepted,” he points out, “so do not feel discouraged if you do not get accepted on your first try. Best of luck!”