Gilliam studies in Madrid as Fulbright Scholar
The letter landed in Bethany Gilliam's mailbox in April 2011.
She tore open the envelope.
Inside held a key to her life and career direction.
Gilliam, a 2006 Roanoke College graduate who is studying to earn a Ph.D. in Spanish literature and culture at Ohio State University, read the news and took a deep breath. She had been chosen as a Fulbright Scholar. Her destination: Madrid, Spain.
"It was kind of an out-of-body experience," Gilliam, 27, said. "You're so proud of what you have accomplished...that somebody believes in your research."
The competitive Fulbright Scholar Program is an international educational exchange funded by the U.S. government, private donors and partner governments. Gilliam applied for the Fulbright's graduate research fellowship in September 2010.
Professors advised Gilliam to study in Madrid so that she could effectively write her dissertation, which examines the city's 17th century history and literature.
The Fulbright program awards about 8,000 grants annually. Candidates are chosen based on academic qualifications, leadership ability, grant funds and project feasibility.
"The fact that she was chosen indicates that she has great scholarly potential," said Dr. Charlene Kalinoski, a Spanish professor at Roanoke.
Now, Gilliam is more than halfway through a year that few scholars experience, and one that she said is a testament to many people who have influenced her life and work.
She has been in Madrid since September 2011. Most days she does research at the city's library or digs up archived documents. She teaches English to children in the afternoons.
Gilliam writes from an apartment that she shares with two people and her Schnauzer, Watson. She receives a stipend for living expenses through the Fulbright program, along with health insurance.
Gilliam said her Roanoke professors inspired her research by introducing her to 16th and 17th century Spanish literature. The works captivated Gilliam, who majored in Spanish and minored in European History at Roanoke.
Gilliam's year abroad has given her a clearer picture of Madrid's past. She researches novels that use grotesque, animal-like verbs to describe characters. The novels are different genres, but Gilliam proposes that they are similar in the ways they use description.
Through her research, she can compare modern Madrid to its past. For example, a Sunday flea market now stands in the spot of an old butchery.
"It's cool to be able to look at Madrid now and know what it was like," Gilliam said.
Gilliam plans to return to the classroom. She will complete Fulbright research in June and eventually, wants to teach Spanish literature at a college or university.
Gilliam already teaches classes at Ohio State as a graduate teaching associate. She said she models her classroom style after her Roanoke professors, including Kalinoski, who is open and welcoming, and Dr. Robert Willingham, a History professor with a unique sense of humor.
Even so, teaching was not always Gilliam's calling. She trained to be a concert pianist as a child, growing up in Blue Ridge, Va. But rather than applying to a music school to study piano, she enrolled at Roanoke. Gilliam was afraid that she'd end up becoming a music teacher if she focused her studies on the piano.
Gilliam set out to earn her master's degree in Hispanic Literatures and Cultures at Ohio State after graduating from Roanoke, a move that was "really stepping into the unknown," Kalinoski said.
But at Ohio State, Gilliam taught a Spanish class for the first time. She loved it.
"Whenever someone asks me why I want to be a professor, I always think of Roanoke College," she said. "I want to be able to help students both professionally and personally like my professors did for me."
Jenny Kincaid Boone '01