UMBC’s 2022 Fulbright student scholars will travel the world to explore difficult questions


Published: Jun 16, 2022
Five adults stand outside next to each other on a pathway. Fulbright.
Five of UMBC's 2022 Fulbright student scholars (l-r): Maryam Elhabashy, Kaitlyn Szekerczes, Kaitlyn Keaton, Adrianna-Marie Urbina-Ruiz, and Chemutai Wangui Nganga. (Marlayna Demond '11/UMBC)

Eight recent UMBC graduates and alumni will soon travel to countries across three continents as 2022 Fulbright U.S. Student scholars. They include emerging leaders in education, astrophysics, cybersecurity, human rights, and more, and they are excited to explore difficult questions through fresh perspectives.

The Fulbright Program is the U.S. government’s flagship international exchange program. UMBC was named a Fulbright Top Producing Institution in 2019 – 2020. In the last decade, UMBC has received over 60 Fulbright U.S. Student Program awards for research and teaching placements in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, the Middle East, South America, and Europe. 

Creating new paths

A person wearing a white long sleeve dress shirt, black pants, and a multicolored belt stands outside on a bridge with black rails.
Caleb Jacobson.
(Image courtesy of Jacobson)

This year marks UMBC’s first Fulbright awards to El Salvador and to the UK. Caleb Jacobson ’21, global studies, and M.A. ’23, sociology, will research human rights and the transition to peace in post-conflict El Salvador. Kaitlyn Keaton ’22, computer engineering, a Cyber Scholar in the Center for Women In Technology, will head to Newcastle University (NU) in North East England to complete a master’s in cybersecurity. NU is recognized jointly by the UK’s National Cyber Security Center and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council as an Academic Centre of Excellence in cyber security research.

Keaton has focused on making the most of her college education by pursuing a wide range of learning experiences. She has held competitive software engineering internships at General Dynamics Mission and Systems and Northrop Grumman Mission Systems, and has participated in Capture the Flags cybersecurity competitions, but this will be her first learning experience abroad.

As a Cyber Scholar and Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honors Society member, Keaton is determined to further develop the skills necessary to be on the cutting edge of cybersecurity research. She is also committed to creating new pathways for more women and girls to be leaders in engineering. 

A person with long blond hair wears a light pink short sleeve shirt and black pants stands outside in front of some trees. Fulbright.
Kaitlyn Keaton. (Marlayna Demond ’11/UMBC)

“I want to inspire and encourage even more girls and young women to join the cybersecurity world,” says Keaton. “There is a critical need to get girls interested at younger ages to show them they can do it too.”

Intercultural understanding in medicine

Maryam Elhabashy ’21, anthropology, developed an interest in the process of healing early in her life while surrounded by a family of physicians. In high school, she shadowed a physician at a hospital and saw instances where patients’ cultural backgrounds sometimes conflicted with the physician’s concerns. She wondered if a lack of intercultural understanding in medicine can get in the way of good medical care, leading to health disparities.

A woman wearing a black hijab and white long sleeve blouse stands outside with trees in the background.
Maryam Elhabashy. (Marlayna Demond ’11/UMBC)

Elhabashy found an answer in listening to culturally diverse perspectives. As a student of anthropology with a focus on medical anthropology, she found that listening to people’s stories can help physicians develop empathy. This is one way to ensure patients feel heard, understood, and are able to navigate medical processes that can give them access to the best care possible.

While at UMBC, Elhabashy received an Undergraduate Research Award to research “Cupping and Wellness Among Muslims In the Baltimore-Washington Area.” She also served as a research assistant in sociology, anthropology, and public health (SAPH), studying physical activity among older African Americans in Baltimore. 

Two adults, one wearing a black hijab and a beige long sleeve shirt and the other wearing a headband with a maroon and white striped tank top stand on each side of a yellow poster with rainbow lettering.
Elhabashy presenting with the Anthropology Club at SAPH’s Welcome Week Open House. (Image courtesy of Elhabashy)

After graduating, Elhabashy worked at Rutgers University as a research assistant studying tobacco and e-cigarette use among minority populations. In the past year, she interned at the Amgen Scholar Program at the National Institute of Health, working with leading biomedical scientists to identify and address health disparities as a potential result of societal, cultural, and environmental influences.

During her Fulbright year, Elhabashy will live in Kuwait City to work on her research project at Kuwait University titled, “Faith, Family, Food, and Fitness: Exploring Trends of Obesity Amongst Kuwaiti Women.”

“I hope to one day be at the forefront of a movement towards truly personalized medicine that embraces individuality and intercultural communication as a foundational tenet of the field,” she notes. “I hope my experience in Kuwait will serve as a strong foundation for this work.”

Latine teachers needed

Adrianna-Marie Urbina-Ruiz ’21, mathematics, and M.A.T., secondary education, was raised in Montgomery County, Maryland, but her roots are in Venezuela. She remembers only having four Hispanic teachers growing up. All were Spanish language teachers and supported her academic and personal growth. However, Urbina-Ruiz felt some of her other teachers had lower expectations of her, limiting her opportunities, and she saw other Hispanic students struggle with this same experience.

An adult with long wavy dark brown hair wearing a blouse with blue and white flowers stands outside in front of a tree.
Adrianna-Marie Urbina-Ruiz. (Marlayna Demond ’11/UMBC)

“Many Hispanic students learning English and those who are bilingual have been seen as having limited academic knowledge, limited potential,” says Urbina-Ruiz. “I want to stop that narrative.”

At UMBC, Urbina-Ruiz met Bonny Tighe, a senior lecturer of mathematics, who encouraged her to become a math major and a math teacher through the Sherman STEM Teacher Scholars Program. 

Six adults wearing dressy clothing stand close together under a large black umbrella at a restaurant.
Urbina-Ruiz (in pink) with the Sherman STEM Teacher Scholar Program staff. (Image courtesy of Urbina-Ruiz)

“I will never forget walking into her office hours for the first time. She recognized me as having one of the highest grades in her Calculus I class,” says Urbina-Ruiz. “She and the Sherman staff had confidence that I would rise to any challenge. They built a strong foundation for my success.”

Seven adults wearing black graduation caps and gowns huddle while standing on a path with trees in the background.
Urbina-Ruiz (standing row, center).
(Image courtesy of Urbina-Ruiz)

Urbina-Ruiz also completed a master’s in teaching and earned a certificate in teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages while student-teaching at Lakeland Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore City, which serves many Hispanic families. “I want to have as many tools at my disposal to make my classroom as accessible as possible,” says Urbina-Ruiz. “I want to be the Latine STEM teacher I never had.”

Urbina-Ruiz will work towards creating her first Collaborative Online International Learning program during her Fulbright year. She will connect college students at the Universidad Industrial de Santander in Colombia with students in Maryland while teaching English. “Latine teachers are needed around the world,” says Urbina-Ruiz.

One adult wearing a black graduation cap and gown stands next to a person with a cobalt blue dress with two other adults behind them.
Urbina-Ruiz (wearing cap and gown) with her family at her master’s graduation. (Image courtesy of Urbina-Ruiz)

Urbina-Ruiz plans to return to teach in Baltimore City Public Schools where there is a high demand for bilingual Hispanic teachers.

Representation in science

Similar to Elhabashy, Maithily Diana Díaz ’21, biology and modern languages, linguistics, and intercultural communication, is pursuing a career focused on health equity. As a first-generation student, Díaz encourages other Latinos to go to college and to be ambitious even if it means they are in spaces where they are the only Latino, something she has experienced as a Latina in STEM. 

“I’m usually the only Latina, but now it means something more,” says Díaz. “Now, it’s just the jump of saying Latinos can be scientists, researchers, physicians. If we believe in ourselves then someone else will too. And once that door is opened, then who knows how far we can go.”

Díaz recently moved to Tijuana, Mexico to work at a non-profit health clinic serving a largely refugee and migrant population. For the past school year she has been teaching science and medicine to predominantly Hispanic and African American K-12 students for Refugee Health Alliance in Harlem, while completing remote research in mental health at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

During her Fulbright year, Díaz will complete a master’s in immunology and work on cancer research at the French National Institute of Health while mentoring undergraduate students at Sorbonne University. .

“It’s a dream come true that someone like me received a Fulbright at such prestigious institutions. My students were shocked,” says Díaz. “I want more and I intend to achieve it. But at the end of the day, this is for my community.” 

While in France, Díaz will work with researchers seeking to identify more effective means of treating soft tissue sarcomas. The findings may reveal potentially novel immunotherapy targets for a variety of cancers. 

As a linguist with proficiency in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Russian, Díaz knows her ability to successfully communicate across multiple cultures and languages can lead to greater opportunities. She wants to show Latinos what can happen when they value their multicultural and multilingual lives as assets.

Following her Fulbright, Díaz plans to pursue an M.D., promoting equity in both research and healthcare.

Global education and disability

A person with long black hair wears a light green embroidered dress with a beaded necklace and a beaded pendant hanging on their forehead.
Mimi Yaldram in traditional Pakistani dress. (Image courtesy of Yaldram)

Mimi Yaldram ’20, history, is very familiar with the process of acclimating to a new culture and country. When she was seven years old, her family left their home in Karachi, Pakistan for the United States to seek better mental health services. 

“We came  in 1999 right before 9/11,” says Yaldram. “It was a lot to manage the racism towards my Muslim family while learning how to live, study, access services, and work in the U.S.” 

This experience inspired Yaldram’s passion for living and learning within multiple cultures, religions, and languages, which she began to explore at Montgomery College. There she held numerous executive student leadership roles and traveled abroad to Ethiopia, where she researched the influence of India on ancient trade routes and currency. 

An adult wearing a purple long sleeve shirt and a black purse sits next to a sculpture of an immense stone head.
Yaldram in Ethiopia next to an ancient stone head sculpture of the Olmec civilization of Mexico. (Image courtesy of Yaldram)

In 2017, Yaldram joined UMBC’s Shady Grove campus, embarking on new student leadership opportunities, including serving as president of the Student History Association and studying abroad in Denmark. She learned about Viking history and participated in a dance project focusing on Danish pop dances and Pakistani Bollywood dances.

A person stands by a body of water next to a bronze statue of a mermaid.
Yaldram next to a sculpture of the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Image courtesy of Yaldram)

Yaldram identifies as a student with a mental health disability, and she is passionate about advocating for and teaching other students with disabilities and neurological differences. For the past two years, she has tutored students with autism spectrum disorder on strengthening their writing, communication, and social skills.

Now that she has earned her both her Teaching English as a Second Language and mental health first-aid certifications, she is ready to spend her Fulbright year teaching English in Taiwan. She is excited to be part of Taiwan’s goal to become a bilingual nation by 2030 by raising English proficiency. She also looks forward to sharing her skills in disability education and services while teaching. 

“My dream is to make a positive impact on immigrant communities by utilizing my own experiences and education,” says Yaldram. “I hope to make a difference and bring that to the Fulbright program in Taiwan.”

Yaldram plans on a career at the intersection of global education, social justice, and disability beginning with humanitarian work in Pakistan after her Fulbright experience.

Korean world influence

Chemutai Wangui Nganga ’21, global studies, comes from a Kenyan family in the United States. During elementary school, she lived in Kenya for four years where she improved her Swahili skills and learned more about her Kenyan culture. When she moved back to the U.S., her family settled in Howard County, Maryland, home to numerous international communities, especially a thriving Korean community. Nganga learned about the influence the Korean economy, cuisine, music, art, and technology have had on the world. 

A person with long braided hair wears a green blouse, long golden earrings and necklace, stands in front of trees.
Chemutai Wangui Nganga. (Marlayna Demond ’11/UMBC)

Living in a diverse community, led Nganga to major in global studies at UMBC. She gained a greater understanding of the opportunities and conflicts of globalization and decided to focus on international politics and French. Her Asian studies courses increased her interest in Korean culture, which led her to pursue a Fulbright year in South Korea. 

“For me, Korea is a full step into a new world,” says Nganga, who will be teaching English. “It is another chance to push the boundaries of my worldview as well as serve others.” She plans to explore a career path in foreign service on her return to the U.S.

Stellar research

As a burgeoning astrophysicist, Kaitlyn Szekerczes ’22, physics, lives and breathes for exploring the infinite universe. She didn’t know that all those nights stargazing on her deck with her dad and discussing the plausibility of science fiction shows would lead her to pursue a career in space science research. 

A person with long brown hair wearing a black t-shirt stands in front of some trees and bushes.
 Kaitlyn Szekerczes. (Marlayna Demond ’11/UMBC)

“I was always fascinated by the questions we were not able to answer. We are not even close to knowing nearly everything when it comes to astronomy,” says Szekerczes. “My goal is to contribute to answering lesser-known big and challenging research questions.”

A person wearing a black graduation cap and gown stands outside next to a person wearing a blue plaid dress shirt and grey pants. Both are holding a plaque.
Szekerczes (l) with her dad.
(Image courtesy of Szekerczes)

Szekerczes will lead a project on gravitational lensing of tidal disruption events at the Max-Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany. It will be the first study to apply the technique of gravitational lensing—the bending of light by gravity—to researching tidal disruption events, which are events that happen when a supermassive black hole tidally disrupts a star.

“My dream job is to work as an astrophysicist for NASA,” says Szekerczes. “UMBC was the perfect fit for me because I was encouraged to pursue my passion for tackling challenging unanswered questions. I was also given the resources and support to piece together the puzzle of how to work towards my goals.”

After returning from Germany, Szekerczes will begin a Ph.D. program in astrophysics at Penn State University in fall 2023.

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