For some, a Fulbright scholarship is an opportunity to explore a new country and culture. For biosystems engineering major Michael Smith, it’s an opportunity to reconnect with the region where he spent his early childhood.
Although Smith, a senior and Honors College member at Clemson University, was born in Baton Rouge while his parents were visiting family, he spent the first years of his life in Kiev, Ukraine.
Some of his earliest memories are sweet, such as buying kvass, a fermented drink popular in eastern Europe, when walking home from the Kiev market. However, he also remembers neighbors referring to the infamous Chernobyl nuclear disaster and its effects on their children’s health, and friends warning them away from eating food that came out of the city’s Dnieper River.
Those conversations led Smith to explore unequal health outcomes brought about by systemic issues, environmental pollution and climate change by turning waste streams into product streams. Right now, he’s working to sustainably ferment waste peaches into PEM H2 fuel, for example. He’s also worked as a sustainability intern on campus.
Last summer, Smith worked as a summer researcher on a USDA-funded project on denitrifying bioreactors at Penn State, where he conducted a literature review, designed the experiment, processed data and presented at the Northeast Agricultural/Biological Engineering Conference.
His experiences have shown him that problems associated with these issues are best addressed through a collaborative, community-focused effort. He also understands that effective collaboration requires an ability to foster relationships and communicate across cultures – skills that he, as the first Clemson student to receive the Fulbright Czech Republic English Teaching Assistant Award, intends to continue to build on over the next year.
Climate change and its related health effects must be addressed with international cooperation. My teaching experience abroad will help me build experience in intercultural communication that will allow me to contribute to this field.Clemson University Senior and Fulbright Recipient Michael Smith
Smith will spend the coming academic year teaching English at different regional high schools in the country. He also plans to organize community outreach activities and events, including an environmental education and service club for students and community members.
His experience as a sustainability intern over the past two years has already given him the opportunity to work with many different groups of people, says Jennifer Goree, Director of Healthy Campus at Clemson University, and should serve him well in the Czech Republic.
“I have observed Michael as he has led groups of diverse stakeholders in conversations about how best to measure and evaluate the objectives of the University’s Sustainability Action Plan,” said Goree. “That experience, along with his other life experiences, will be of great use to him working with people from other countries.”
His focus on relationships was instilled by his parents. When Smith was five years old, his family moved to the United States. They settled in Columbia, South Carolina, where his parents helped international students at the University of South Carolina navigate their new lives on an American campus.
“I was taught to invest time and energy in the lives of others because that’s what matters,” said Smith. “Everything about my life was centered around community.”
Although the Czech Republic isn’t Ukraine, while he’s there he hopes to return to the region where he grew up, continue learning new languages and develop strong friendships along the way.
He also plans to visit the famous Vltava river, the subject of a famous symphonic poem called The Moldau, whose rhythms evoke the flow of the river through the Czech Republic. He wrote a thesis about the work in high school, but has never seen it in person.
I imagine Czechia might feel familiar to me in many ways. Even more than the familiar, I’m looking forward to exploring the distinct cultural identity of the Czech Republic as a more central European country – building on my knowledge of Czech composers like Smetana and Dvorak, discovering castles I’ve heard so much about and learning more about the history of Czech independence.Michael Smith
Smith is among four Clemson undergraduate students to receive a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant award in 2022, with other recipients traveling to Taiwan, Spain and the Slovak Republic.
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