Student awarded Fulbright to study film in Sri Lanka

Six MU students were awarded the Fulbright scholarship this year.
Heather Finn / Graphic Designer

As she sat in the basement of the state Capitol, recent MU graduate and former Maneater staffer Sheela Lal could not stop crying.

“People were coming up to me and asking me if I was all right,” she said. “I had to tell them, ‘No, really, I’m happy.’”

A U.S. State Department representative had just informed Lal she had received a Fulbright Scholarship to conduct a research study in Sri Lanka for the remainder of the school year. The research project, designed and planned by Lal, will focus on Sri Lankan film.

“I have a large film background, so I decided to focus on Sri Lankan film since not a lot has been written about it,” she said. “I thought it would be beneficial to the country itself since film is such a huge cultural marker.”

Assistant professor Mary Shenk was one of the teachers who assisted Lal with her application.

“I was very happy to hear that she had received it,” Shenk said. “Not surprised really, since it was a strong application and her ideas were quite innovative, but Fulbright applications are always competitive, so even with a strong application there is more than a bit of luck involved.”

Lal is one of only 1,600 U.S. students to receive the award, according to the Fulbright website. The Fulbright program, established in 1946, was developed with the purpose of increasing understanding among nations.

About 8,000 grants for this international exchange program are given to U.S. and foreign citizens each year. Money for the grants comes from the U.S. Department of State, Congress and many other corporations and foundations, according to the website.

Lal said she heard of the program through a boyfriend and a past Fulbright recipient who had traveled to Argentina, who both encouraged her to look into it.

“I went to the information meeting and thought, ‘Hey, I could actually do this,’” Lal said.

After completing the application with the help of several MU professors, Lal was required to go through a series of interviews. Though the one-on-one interview went smoothly, the group interview setting held a surprise, Lal said.

“I walked in and was surprised to see that my old soccer coach was there,” she said. “He had been a Fulbright to Ireland, as well as several past Fulbright scholars from Mizzou.”

Following the interview process, Fulbright applicants have a long wait until they learn where they stand. The online application is due in October, and applicants find out the following March if they made it into the program, according to the website.

“I was used to the process since one of my graduate students, Christina Pomianek, had a Fulbright to Indonesia a couple of years ago, so I knew that there would be a lot of suspense,” Shenk said. “You hear when someone makes it through earlier rounds successfully, but you don't get any feedback along the way.”

Universities recommend students to the State Department, then the U.S. decides whether to recommend students to the host countries, Lal said.

"It is a long process until you discover whether you are accepted by the country or listed as an alternate," she said.

There are five other MU Fulbright scholarship winners besides Lal this year, marking the second year in a row so many students have received the award, according to the MU Fellowships Office.

Lal said after returning from her studies next summer, she hopes to continue her work in Asia.

“From there I want to got to India for a Clinton Foundation fellowship, but that’s a big 'if,'” she said. “After that, I want to work in foreign policy, maybe even international security.”

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