Jill Watkins has traveled throughout East Asia, but the Powell resident's journey only increased her wanderlust.

The 2015 Olentangy Liberty High School graduate and 2019 Elon University grad has received a Fulbright U.S. Student Program award to Malaysia. Watkins will provide support to local English teachers for 10 months beginning in January.

The Fulbright Program is the U.S. government's flagship international educational exchange program and is designed to build lasting connections between the people of the United States and those in other countries, according to a press release.

"If you had told me when I was 17 years old and graduating high school that I'd be doing this, that I'd have done this kind of travel, I would have laughed," Watkins said. "I wouldn't even have fathomed it as an option. I even told my freshman adviser at Elon I wasn't interested in studying abroad."

A research project on Sri Lanka, assigned by a professor as part of a special scholars program at Elon, started Watkins thinking not only about other parts of the world, but about actually visiting them. She also began thinking more and more about the field of international development.

"I was actually able to go to Sri Lanka twice. That, plus my volunteer experience working with kids at Flying Horse Farms (a camp in Morrow County for children with severe illnesses) got me thinking about finding new ways to put those interests together," Watkins said.

A year ago, Watkins filed her intent to apply to the Fulbright program with Elon. She opted to pursue placement in Malaysia because it's one of the handful of Fulbright options that offers a rural setting, which was similar to her experience in Sri Lanka. Watkins also took part in a "Semester at Sea" while at Elon, traveling throughout East Asia, researching the rural experience.

"I was hooked," she said.

The Fulbright application process is extensive, Watkins said, involving lots of writing and online and in-person meetings with staff from Elon and Fulbright. She credited her high school English teachers -- in particular, Sarah Saneholtz -- with preparing her for the rigors of this kind of essay writing.

Saneholtz said she was not surprised when Watkins told her about the opportunity.

"As a student, Jill was eager, attentive, reflective, and asked questions consistently in order to gain the knowledge needed to not only accomplish goals in the present, but to improve herself as a young woman," Saneholtz said. "Her love for learning and her want and willingness to immerse herself in different cultures, while keep an open mind to worldly views, is impressive to observe."

Watkins will not receive her specific placement until after three weeks of orientation in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital. All she knows, she said, is that she will be teaching secondary students in a rural community.

"I have no idea what I'm getting myself into," she joked. "I've said it a hundred times. But that unknown is part of what excites me."

In the meantime, Watkins is spending as much time as possible steeping herself in Malaysian culture. Even that involves some unknown elements; Watkins said her placement could be in one of several different states in the country, each with its own traditions and primary religion.

"Especially being a woman, things will be different for me based on where I am placed," she said.

Carole Watkins, Jill's mother, said it's difficult thinking about her daughter again traveling to a part of the world where she won't always be able to be in contact with her family, but said the family is understandably "thrilled for her."

"I know how adventurous she is, and I know her passion for humanitarian aid," Carole Watkins said. "I just know she's going to have a great experience."

Jill Watkins said the cultural exchange is a key factor in her desire to participate in the Fulbright program.

"It's not just about me going there to help teach English. I'll be learning another culture and gaining an understanding and awareness."

Watkins said she hopes to continue her studies, focusing on humanitarian aid, in the United Kingdom following her Fulbright experience.

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