“Andrew with Fulbright Canada CEO Dr. Michael Hawes.” “If you want to know about moments that I will always remember, the Ottawa trip especially was amazing. Going to the Ambassador’s home there - and playing hockey – in hockey country!”
Fresh off his Fulbright experience at York University (2010-2011) where he conducted his research in critical disabilities studies, in an interview with Fulbright Canada, Andrew recalled his recent Fulbright experience:
Fulbright Canada: Can you start by telling us a bit about your plans going forward? Where do you see yourself going next, now that you are just a few weeks away from the end of your semester and your exchange?
Andrew Levinson: Well, I will certainly be looking into obtaining a position in policy and advocacy. I am really interested in international exchange and international relations, now that I’ve had first-hand experience through the Fulbright Program. I hope to be involved in government and/or the non-profit sector. I want to make change in the way people with disabilities are treated collectively throughout the world. I hope that doesn’t sound like too much of a cliché, but I really do want to make positive change for people with disabilities. My ultimate goal is to help people reach the heights they want to reach and to have the opportunities I have had. I want to help give people the ability to pursue their dreams, whatever they may be, despite their having a disability. Being involved in the Fulbright Program, and especially with Fulbright Canada, has been such a wonderful opportunity in that this isn’t just about me, it’s about the idea of including people with disabilities. I was very honoured to be a part of all this.
FC: Let’s talk about your journey to become a Fulbrighter. What initially drew you to the program?
AL: The first time I heard the name Fulbright was around six years ago. I was traveling back from a college football game, and I remember listening to an audio copy of Bill Clinton’s autobiography, “My Life: The Presidential Years”. Clinton mentioned working for Senator Fulbright, the man who inspired the creation of the Fulbright Program. Later, when I heard that the Institute of International Education was going to be holding a meeting at my university in the U.S., I immediately thought of the Fulbright Program. I had always wanted to have an experience that would increase not only my academic knowledge, but my cultural knowledge, so I went to the IIE meeting and talked to some people, and then I spoke to a couple of professors at my university who had been Fulbright Scholars as well. It just seemed so interesting and really appealed to my desire to travel and experience a new culture, so I decided I would apply for a Fulbright grant. My interest in Canada as my Fulbright destination came after a trip to the Canadian Maritimes. While I was there, I met people with disabilities who were experiencing the attendant care system as wheelchair-users. Meeting these people influenced my desire to study the experiences of people living with disabilities, not just in the US, but in Canada.
FC: How do you think being a Fulbrighter has impacted you professionally?
AL: I thought about things that I’d never really thought about before, and doing the Fulbright made these things very tangible. I also met a lot of really wonderful people in Toronto who I plan on staying in contact with. This experience has been really special for me that way. I had one professor in particular who is a disability rights attorney in Toronto, and he has opened a door for future communication. I was also able to connect with other Fulbrighters and contacts during the fall orientation in Ottawa. I met Virginia McRae, an Assistant Deputy Minister at the Department of Justice Canada, who in turn gave my information to Ruth Barr, and she is involved with the Advisory Committee on Persons with Disabilities; and it’s because of those connections I’ll be giving a presentation on my research to a national audience very soon. My presentation will be on the Americans with Disabilities, and comparing it with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. We will be videoconferencing to Ottawa and Edmonton and teleconferencing to other offices around the country as well. My hope is that this will create even more professional connections. So I would say that I’ve made a lot of connections definitely, and I’ve been able to share what I’ve been doing with a lot of people. It’s just been very special that way.
FC: What about personally? Has being a Fulbrighter impacted you on a personal level?
AL: I would say that it definitely has. It has been an incredible opportunity for self-enrichment. I learned to appreciate, even more, the American value of “equal opportunity.” In other words, it created in me a confidence that the United States remains true to its ideals, by allowing one to pursue research in any field.
FC: What stood out for you most about your experience in Canada?
AL: I experienced the Canadian emphasis on “human rights” for all of its citizens. Even as a visitor, I was swept up in this ideal because it is embroiled in the infrastructure of Canada. This concept has an impact on many different areas of society, including the existence of physical access to transportation and educational services. There is also an acceptance of minority groups here that benefits people with disabilities, and I feel that perhaps when there is more diversity, everybody who is diverse is more comfortable. Everyone is a minority of some sort, if you will. It’s just a theory that I have, but I wonder if Canadian “multiculturalism” extends to the “culture” of disability.
FC: What were some of the differences you noticed between Canadians and Americans?
AL: I found that Canadians are more laid-back in terms of work culture, as is evidenced by the existence of vacationing here. Moreover, Canadians are known to be some of the most highly-educated people in the world, based upon large rates of post-secondary educational attainment, and this might be due to the fact that higher education in Canada is more affordable, with a predominance of affordable, public, educational institutions. In terms of my research, while in Canada my public policy professor told my class that the prevalence of more positive attitudes towards people with disabilities among the Canadian public are often correlated with the presence of people in wheelchairs, as opposed to the presence of people with intellectual disabilities. In my experience, it seems that the United States is the direct opposite to this, as there is a broader acceptance of intellectual disability, as opposed to physical disability, in the US.
Andrew Levinson, 2010-2011 Fulbright Canada Student grantee
FC: What was your greatest challenge of your Fulbright experience? And conversely, what was your most positive experience?
AL: My greatest challenge was adjusting to the academic environment in a new country. For example, I had to figure out how to navigate the hierarchical structures in Canadian academia. There were also different academic expectations, with classes that assumed Canadian knowledge. For example, my disability law course focused on the Canadian legal system. On the other hand, my academic activities yielded positive experiences as well. I was invited by one of my professors to speak to a class of undergraduate students about my research. It was a geography class, where people were asking to examine how a person in a wheelchair navigates the physical environment in Canada, and how that concept was different here from in the United States. I really do feel like this grows you as a person. I really would encourage everybody to do foreign exchange, and especially people with disabilities, because it makes you feel like you can take on any challenge. I mean if you can take on challenges outside of your own country, why not back home? It really puts you on a good path for the future.
FC: Assuming that this type of exchange through the Fulbright Program is important, why do you feel that it is important that we send students and scholars between Canada and the United States to do research?
AL: People need to break down stereotypes, and the greatest thing I was able to do here was helping people to dispel their own stereotypes about Americans, like the idea that America is a warring nation, rather than a peacekeeping one. These stereotypes may start out in a benign way but they can eventually become, in my opinion, a threat to world peace. I think programs like the Fulbright Program ensure that ties between Canada and the US, which have been so strong for many years, will endure. People need to see that we may have disagreements but, at the end of the day, we can still come together and have fruitful discussions.
FC: What would you say to someone thinking about applying for a Fulbright?
AL: I would advise them that the program is as world-class as it’s known to be. You will have strong backing from the Fulbright Program, from start to finish. Make sure that your application process is organized, and that you have a strong proposal. If your research idea is unique and involves an idea that you have always wanted to pursue, then just go for it! My Fulbright experience represented a time in my life where I got to do something really special and really important.
FC: Well now you’re an alumnus! So you get to stay involved through our alumni programs.
AL: I know, and I cannot say enough about how great I think that is. Why should this experience end, when I get home? To all future Fulbrighters, it is important for you to know that a Fulbright experience is just one step towards creating a better world, both domestically and internationally, and that one can continue on a path to future successes and achievement, as part of the large network of Fulbright Alumni.