Laura Olson, J. Strom Thurmond Professor of Political Science at Clemson University, has been awarded a Fulbright Scholar research grant that will allow her to spend the spring 2020 semester at the University of Bari Aldo Moro in Southern Italy. Olson will spend six months at the university conducting research on the relationship between religion and public opinion on migration, and she will also teach about religion and political polarization.
Olson’s teaching and research have mainly concerned US politics, but her recent research has increasingly broadened the scope of the political landscape she examines. She says the experience as a Fulbright Scholar will allow her to continue in this direction.
“I am excited to further develop this new professional direction,” Olson says. “I look forward to increasing my ability to provide students with a comparative perspective on matters that affect us all in today’s political context. By focusing my research on migration, I will also be examining an issue that increasingly affects all world citizens.”
The trip won’t be the first time Olson has visited Italy. Beginning in 2013, Olson began spending roughly an hour a day learning Italian, “solely for the fun of it.” She has also visited Italy about once a year since 2013. She considers these trips part of an ongoing strategy to experience more of life than her “Midwestern and academic bubble tends to allow.”
She said working for six months in Italy will enhance her personal growth by connecting it to substantial professional growth. Olson’s research on migration will be her first independent project outside the U.S. and her first use of Italian language skills in a professional context.
She will examine how religion affects Italian attitudes about migrants and what Italians think about the politicization of migration. More broadly, she will ask how religiosity and national religious context affect how Italy and Italians have reacted to the recent migration crisis.
“There is some evidence that increased religiosity drives anti-migrant attitudes in Europe,” Olson says. “I think the key to understanding why highly religious people might hesitate to welcome migrants lies in understanding the complicated political consequences of frequent religious participation.”
Olson says she looks forward to the experience of teaching and doing research in Italy, and she is also excited about the opportunity to act as an ambassador for American higher education in the country.
“Developing and sustaining relationships with faculty in Italy will benefit me, my department, my college and Clemson University,” Olson says. “I think it will also help me inspire Clemson students to become the tolerant, caring world citizens that we want them to be.”
According to Jeffrey Peake, chair of Clemson’s political science department, Olson’s Fulbright Scholar research grant is further evidence of her dedication to diversifying and expanding the scope of her teaching and research contributions.
“Dr. Olson’s involvement in the Fulbright program will allow her to take the impressive research insight she has already gained regarding U.S. politics and apply it in a global context,” Peake says. “I know that the students in Italy and the faculty members she will interact with along the way will value her perspective on religion’s impact on immigration attitudes.”
Eric Muth, associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences that is home to the political science department, said the Fulbright program allows scholars such as Olson to engage with vital topics on a global scale by interacting with faculty and students internationally.
“Making those connections is crucially important to the mission of both our college and Clemson University,” Muth said. “Dr. Olson represents our college well by pursuing opportunities that will allow her to examine a topic that has been shown to be of interest to all religious groups and countries.”
Olson is one of only four recipients of the Fulbright Fondazione Con Il Sud Award for Teaching and Research. In addition, she has recently been elected president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and in 2018 was named the J. Strom Thurmond Professor of Political Science at Clemson University.
Olson earned a Ph.D. and master’s degree in political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Northwestern University.
The U.S. Fulbright Scholar Program offers nearly 470 teaching, research or combination teaching/research awards in over 125 countries. Opportunities are available for college and university faculty and administrators as well as for professionals, artists, journalists, scientists, lawyers, independent scholars and many others.
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