For Biniyam Melesse, Ph.D. student in Community Health, winning a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad (DDRA) fellowship was “a match made in heaven.” He was elated to learn in September that he was one of only 142 awardees nationwide of this prestigious fellowship. Offered by the U.S. Department of Education, Fulbright-Hays fellowships support area studies research in all world regions outside the U.S. and Western Europe, and they provide one year of funding that includes a robust stipend plus travel and research assistance. In January, Biniyam will travel to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, to begin 12 months of fieldwork on the risk factors of maternal depression and anxiety among Ethiopian women.
As Biniyam explains, rates of prenatal and postpartum depression and anxiety for reproductive-age women are alarmingly high in Ethiopia and broader Sub-Saharan Africa. Billions of dollars in foreign assistance to the region in the past two decades have had little impact on this complex issue. Biniyam seeks to tease apart the many risk factors for maternal depression and anxiety that have primarily been studied only in Western contexts. He is interested, in particular, in neighborhood risk factors, an interlocking set of socioeconomic conditions that have been correlated with maternal mental health outcomes in other populations.
To get at how these intricate risk factors manifest for Ethiopian mothers, Biniyam will conduct a mixed-methods study that will include surveys and interviews with women from different neighborhoods. He will also gather neighborhood crime data and other statistics. It is this latter aspect of his research, which requires gaining the cooperation of government entities, that Biniyam foresees as the most difficult. In his assessment, “The biggest challenge in the country is the bureaucracy. If you don't have people that you know in those places it is extremely difficult to get anything done.”
As an Ethiopian-American, Biniyam is uniquely poised to rise to the challenge.
Biniyam immigrated to the U.S. as a young child and grew up mostly in Chicago, where his parents worked in healthcare, as they had in their home country. Biniyam attended Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, earning a B.A. in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and Political Science. But it was the community service he engaged in as an undergraduate that would illuminate his future path. These experiences—with a hospital, an elementary school, and Habitat for Humanity—“taught me to see how people live, and that the source of a lot of issues is really not having the resources needed in terms of public health,” says Biniyam.
At Wittenberg, he took classes on poverty and Black history with an influential professor, Dean John Young, who encouraged him to pursue graduate school. Biniyam would go on to earn a master’s degree in Public Health with a concentration in Environmental Health from U of I Springfield and work for several years in various state health agencies before coming to Champaign-Urbana to pursue his doctorate. He joined the Laboratory for Emotion and Stress Assessment, where he is advised by Dr. Sandraluz Lara-Cinisomo.
Over the years, Biniyam has traveled back to his home country several times as a volunteer public health officer in a rural hospital. When he returns to Ethiopia in January, he plans to volunteer again in rural areas. He is also looking forward to catching up with relatives, “but the main goal, of course, the priority is the research,” says Biniyam. With his research, Biniyam wants to bring Sub-Saharan Africa into the literature on maternal mental health. But he also aspires to help formulate “culturally applicable intervention programs that other health professionals and policymakers can carry out in the region” and which are currently lacking, he says. After completing his dissertation, he plans to pursue a career as a university professor focused on maternal mental health outcomes.
“Applying for a major fellowship like Fulbright-Hays can be, at times, painful,” Biniyam laughs, but he got off to a good start by attending a Fulbright-Hays information session hosted by the Graduate College’s Office of External Fellowships. Applications for research abroad opportunities like Fulbright-Hays are invariably stronger when they include a letter of affiliation from a host country institution, and arranging such a letter takes time and effort. Biniyam says he began reaching out to local contacts immediately after the info session. His persistence paid off in the form of two supporting letters from key officials.
Applications for Fulbright-Hays are reviewed by scholars in the applicant’s field or a closely related field, and applicants receive reviewer feedback. Biniyam offers this advice to potential applicants: “Even though it is a very competitive award, I suggest that people still apply and get the feedback. Because they can see where their research is headed—how others see their research from different perspectives, outside of their advisor and their close-knit friends who know the material already.”
The Fulbright-Hays DDRA Fellowship Program, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, provides opportunities for graduate students to conduct full-time dissertation research abroad in modern foreign languages and area studies. Projects must focus on one or more of the following geographic areas: Africa, East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, South Asia, the Near East, Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia, and the Western Hemisphere (excluding the United States and its territories). The competition is open to U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and nationals who will achieve ABD status by the start of the fellowship term. See the listing in Fellowship Finder for more information.
Dana N. Johnson is Assistant Director of External Fellowships in the Graduate College, where she enjoys supporting Illinois graduate students as they compete for national and international fellowships and grants. Dana earned a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and continues to follow her research interests in Serbia, migration, and the socioeconomic aspirations of youth. You may see her around town at a lecture on one of these topics, picking through an antique mall or watching her dog chase squirrels.