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Alumni Highlight: Brock Mays

Alumni highlight Brock Mays

Brock Mays graduated from the MIAGE Program in May 2019, and is currently in Lithuania on a Fulbright Research fellowship researching Russian Disinformation campaigns in Lithuania/Eastern Europe and how they influence things to achieve the Kremlin’s objectives

How was the process of applying for Fulbright? Any advice for students interested in applying for Fulbright?

If you aren’t a patient person before the Fulbright application process, you will be after. From the time I submitted my application to the time I arrived in the country was about 11 months – for Chris [Rigby] (another MIAGE graduate of 2019 and Fulbright recipient), it’s even longer as he doesn’t start until January. At first, the application itself looks pretty daunting, so I’d suggest meeting with the U of U Fulbright adviser, Howard Lehman, to help you understand it. He really helped me understand what the application was asking for and the importance of each component. The two critical parts of the application are a statement of grant purpose (SOGP) and a personal statement. For researchers, the SOGP is basically a two-page project proposal where you discuss your plan of where you’ll work, what’s innovative about your idea, what contributions you’ll hope to make, etc. For English Teaching Assistants (ETA’s), the SOGP is 1 page and is basically a written version of your resume.  The personal statement is essentially describing why you are interested in the host country, how you’ll interact with your host country, and how you plan to perform community engagement. It’s been a while since I wrote them, but Professor Lehman can really help you figure out what to write in them. You will also need 3 letters of recommendation, as well as letters from people who know your skill level with a particular language if you’ll need it. In my case, I had letters of recommendation from employers, professors, as well as two letters for Lithuanian/Russian language skills.

You’ll develop these two documents and your letters of recommendation along with your actual application and then submit them to Professor Lehman, who will then revise them and talk about the strengths/weaknesses of your application. You’ll then have a panel review with the U of U Fulbright Panel, who will go over your application – they are really there to help you to have the best application you can. As much as it feels like a job interview, the purpose of that panel is to help you. They’ll then recommend you to someone else higher up at Fulbright, and your application will go to those making the final decision. 

First, you find out you were recommended. Second, after a few months, you’ll find out if you are a semi-finalist. Your anxiety gets really bad at this stage, and it doesn’t stop until you find out if you are a finalist or not, several more months later. If you are a finalist, it means that you got the grant. This whole process went from October until late April if I remember correctly – and I arrived in Lithuania in September!

Have a reason why you are choosing a certain country. I worked in the Learning Abroad Office during MIAGE, and one of the big reasons students gave for going to a particular country was “I’ve always wanted to go there” or “it’s a cool place.” That isn’t enough for Fulbright – you should have some kind of connection there or reason you chose that country. For example, I lived in Lithuania for two years, learned Lithuanian and some Russian. Then, that area of the world around the Baltic Sea became a central focus of my studies (including the Soviet Union and Russia). Some of the ETA’s in Latvia, for example, chose Latvia because their family was Latvian, and they would use their family connection as a form of community engagement. 

"One of the big things that helped in my application for the research grant was that I looked up security concerns in Lithuania – there were five or six major ones. So I chose one, decided to write my MIAGE capstone on that subject to get background information, and then applied to do research on that same subject. A foreign service officer at the embassy told me that because they were concerned about that topic and they were working on it themselves, that’s basically one of the reasons I was selected. Find issues that are of genuine interest to yourself, the United States, and the country you’re applying to." 

As a Fulbright fellow, what are you researching, and what are your research goals?

There are three types of Fulbrighters – 1) ETA’s (English Teaching Assistants), 2) Researchers (usually recent grad school graduates or people doing research for their Ph.D.), and 3) Scholars (visiting professors.) 

I am a researcher! So I basically have free reign to spend my day learning about my topic – it is a fantastic job! I am basically my own boss, so I have to discipline myself to get work done. But it’s a topic that I’m super interested in, so I enjoy it – it doesn’t feel like work.

My research topic is on Russian Disinformation campaigns in Lithuania/Eastern Europe and how they influence things to achieve the Kremlin’s objectives. My main goal is to determine how to better communicate with people who are susceptible to disinformation. My first few months have been expanding my general knowledge about disinformation and media literacy. 

"I’ve been able to go to the state archives and find some formerly top-secret KGB documents that I’ve been translating into English, attended a conference in Kyiv, Ukraine on Media Literacy, created a little database of the most prevalent disinformation narratives from the Kremlin targeting Lithuania, and have pulled together a bunch of sources to write up a document on what disinformation is, the problem it poses, and a little on what people can do not to become its victim." 

It isn’t done yet, but I’m hoping to get it published - I just haven’t decided what format to publish in. I’ve also put out a study together with the embassy to examine the media habits of people here and if they rely on Russian sources for news. We will then examine the same people in May to assess if the embassy’s outreach programs have helped them to rely on western sources instead. I’ll be doing a second related survey seeing if people who are dependent on Russian sources agree with disinformation narratives more. 

My next steps after my initial phase of research will be to start doing expert interviews – I’m super excited to start that! I’ve met with a couple of experts from the university and the founder of a local group called Debunk (Demaskuok in Lithuanian, view their website here) that is a “unique Lithuania-born initiative uniting competing media outlets, journalists, volunteers for a single purpose – to make society resilient to orchestrated disinformation campaigns.” I’m hoping to work closer with them a lot more in the coming months. 

What classes did you take in the MIAGE program that has helped you in your research/reach your career goals?

Global Perspectives on Counter Terrorism (and Simulation Design Team), International Law, Advanced Negotiation and Mediation, American Foreign Policy, Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict, Russian language courses, Social Research Methods, International Organizations

  • Global Perspectives on Counter terrorism (LAW 7789): Both the course and working on the simulation design team the following year helped me a lot not only because of the course content, but also with real life skills such as briefing a superior officer or the press, team work, and time management.
  • Internatoinal Law (LAW 7910): Gave a unique legal perspective on the field of international relations 
  • Advanced Negotiation and Mediation (LAW 7010): Allowed me to develop really important skills as I pursue a career in diplomacy as a foreign service officer. They’re also great life skills! 
  • Methods of Social Research (SOC 6110): Social research methods is a MUST for anyone who wants to apply for research Fulbright. I wish I would have known about Fulbright when I took the class – we had a project to create a project proposal, and I could have just done my Fulbright one, and gotten great tips from an expert on research design! 

How has living and researching politics abroad influenced your perspective on international politics? 

Living and researching politics abroad has really influenced my perspective on international politics. The nature of my research has really made me more of a critical consumer of news and media, and of course, an international perspective really influences how I view my own country’s politics – what seems to be working well -- and what is not.

What is your tip for current and incoming MIAGE students?

Don’t take easy classes just to get them done. That’s something you can do during your undergrad, but do you really want to have a master’s degree and not actually know anything valuable? Don’t take the easy way out - take hard classes that challenge you. I took three classes from the law school and LOVED them. Take classes that interest you, and do research on them beforehand – there were only a couple classes I regretted taking that I probably should have researched more.

Apply for everything. Apply for FLAS, apply for Fulbright, go to conferences, do one of the spring break, fall break, or summer programs from Learning Abroad, learn a language.

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Last Updated: 12/5/23