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Focus on Fulbright: Q&A with Kathryn Sampeck

woman walking in a field

Kathryn Sampeck in El Salvador in 1995, during her Fulbright-Hays research.

To celebrate Fulbright alumni at Illinois State, Kathryn Sampeck of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology recounts her days in the program and the impact it made. #Fulbright@ISU #FulbrightPrgrm

Describe your Fulbright project.

Fulbright-Hays in 1993 to El Salvador to do archaeological work and this was especially ground-breaking at the time, looking at the experience of Spanish colonialism. In an archaeological survey of one river valley around Sonsonate, I examined the changes from what was there before the Spanish arrived and then what happened. What were the social, economic, and political changes? It covered from the Paleoindian era (around 10,000 years ago) to the Spanish invasion around the 1500s.

I was able to follow up on my research in 2000 with a second Fulbright, CIES Senior Scholar Fulbright.

How do you believe your Fulbright experience changed your work?

The work that the Fulbright supported really laid the foundation for my research and my career, especially with this theme of chocolate. [Read more about her research on chocolate.] It was the creativity, productivity, and resilience of the people in this region of western El Salvador amidst all the turmoil of Spanish colonialism that finally gives the world chocolate.

Travel can be referred to as the gift of the unexpected. What was the most unexpected thing you saw or experienced?

I think the big thing about the Fulbright experience is that this was a special time in El Salvador, fresh off the peace accords [The Chapultepec Peace Accords, ending more than a decade of civil war]. I feel really fortunate that I got the support to go and do the work then. In 1993. I actually loaded up all my archaeological equipment, and the computers, and all the stuff to do my research and drove down from Louisiana all the way down to El Salvador. We drove through Mexico and then across Guatemala and into El Salvador. The reception that we had within the government, within cooperatives, private landowners—everyone had a sense of hope. Hope and a real desire to build a better world, a better future, than what they had just gone through.

Have you returned to the country where you served your Fulbright award? Had it changed? Had you changed?

With the second Fulbright, I brought in specialists who trained others in El Salvador with technical drawing for archeology and for other kinds of data recording and field management practices. And they really worked hard with Salvadoran students to give them these skills. And I know, in at least several cases, those people went on to permanent employment by the government and I think they’ve been able to train other people in best practices. And so it’s helped build an infrastructure not just for management but also for education.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of applying for Fulbright?

It can feel overwhelming. I was really lucky because I had a chance to go to the host country on a feasibility study. So I traveled there and make some initial contacts, and that helped shape what the project should be. I could ask, “What do you want my activities to be? What should the research be? What’s going to benefit both of us?” For those who are thinking of applying, I think reaching out to people within the host country—both within education systems and researchers—is a good way to start up conversations and see where that leads.