By Laura Onyeneho
Stephanie Tilley, a doctoral student at Prairie View A&M University, has achieved a significant milestone by becoming the university’s first Fulbright Scholar.
Her achievement goes beyond personal accomplishment; she aspires to ignite a spark of inspiration among her fellow PVAMU students, motivating them to embark on their own courageous journeys.
The Fulbright U.S. Student Program is a competitive and prestigious study-abroad exchange initiative. It consistently attracts a diverse spectrum of individuals, from faculty, administrators to researchers, artists and professionals.
The goal is to foster mutual understanding between the U.S. and other nations. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, the Fulbright Program stands as a testament to international collaboration.
Fulbright awards 1,700 fellowships to 800 U.S. and 900 visiting scholars.
Less than 6% of scholars identified as Black in 2016. Fulbright established the HBCU Institutional Leaders initiative in 2022 to build strong partnerships with HBCUs and encourage institutions to increase their engagement with Fulbright.
The Defender spoke to the history maker about what this means for her and what other PVAMU students can do to apply.
Defender: Being from New Orleans, why was PVAMU a good college choice for you?
Stephanie Tilley : Yes, I’m born and raised in New Orleans until my formative years. Texas has been a second home. It’s been so good to me. I’ve been really enjoying my time at Prairie View. I used to work for Prairie View as a staff member in the study abroad office for over four years. Now, I’m a doctoral student finishing up my study. I wanted to go here because my research is an internationalization. I wanted to go to a place where minorities’ knowledge production is welcomed and Blackness is centered. At Prairie View, there are so many Black voices from different parts of the world. There are shared values despite coming from different cultural communities.
Defender: Could you tell us more about your academic background. What motivated you to apply for a Fulbright scholarship?
Tilley : I received my bachelor’s degree at Loyola University in New Orleans as an economics major. I received my masters at Texas State University in student affairs in higher education. Now, I’m earning my doctorate at Prairie View in educational leadership. Fulbright is very competitive, but I’m spiritually rooted. I applied for it. I felt like God was telling me it will work out. I stood firm for the project I wanted to do, make sure it aligns with who I am, and being able to bridge the gap between all of us in the diaspora.
Defender: What project will you be working on during your Fulbright program?
Tilley : My project is focused on Ubuntu. It’s an indigenous knowledge system that originated from South Africa. This is my second time going to South Africa. Five years ago, I took a contracted job there in Cape Town. That’s where I learned Ubuntu. I never knew what it stood for until I went there. It means ‘I am, because we are.’ It focused on community, solidarity and humanity. I come from humble beginnings, so it really touched me. My mentors and my family supported me when I didn’t have the resources. I knew exactly what I wanted to research for the Fulbright scholarship after that experience. My area is higher education, so I wanted to see if Ubuntu is practiced in South African higher education and how it’s used to support diverse learners throughout their matriculation process.
Defender: How will your PVAMU experiences influence your approach to your Fulbright experience?
Tilley : I hope to make connections there. The diaspora is so connected. Yes, we are located in Texas, but the concerns that we have here are similar to that of South Africa. I hope in the future there’s collaboration through research. Hopefully, we can establish study aboard programs. I’m happy to be a connector of people within our community. South Africa has a similar history to the United States with its history of segregation. I’m hopeful Prairie View can establish some long-term connections in the future.
Defender: Are there any particular aspects of the host country’s culture or community that you’re looking forward to experiencing ?
Tilley : I’ll be based in Johannesburg. The tribal language there is Zulu. I don’t expect to be fluent, but I’m willing to learn. I want to be immersed in Black Johannesburg. It’s one of the leading cities for Black wealth. I hate saying this, but as Black Americans we are so unaware of the diaspora outside of the American narrative. I’m looking forward to diving deeper because I have a passion for connecting Black America to other Black people in the diaspora.
Defender: What advice do you have for other PVAMU students who may aspire to become Fulbright scholars or engage in international research ?
Tilley : Number one, stay grounded. I believe in divine guidance. So, whatever that looks like for someone, whether it is spiritual, religious, affiliated or not, stay grounded in who you are. Number two, apply early. I started to reach out to multiple sources. Give yourself time to give people time to help you. Number three, make sure the project you proposed is aligned with who you are. I’ll be honest, during the application process, I was encouraged to use my dissertation as my research for the program. I didn’t want that. Fulbright is all about mutual learning. The project can’t be beneficial to just the applicant. It has to be beneficial to the country hosting you also.
Defender : Beyond your Fulbright experience, what are your future goals and aspirations in academia and your field of study?
Tilley: I’m still figuring that out. Long term, I would like to be a professor. I’m a big nerd. I didn’t start through books. My aunt and uncle raised me. They taught me the best thing you will have is your mind. I love being in the classroom, learning from others, and enjoying the richness of conversation. I want to educate, research and take students abroad.