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From immigrant health to disability law, faculty exchanges broaden perspectives

When Solveig Cunningham was first thinking about applying for a Fulbright grant, a friend asked if she’d lost her mind. “She said, ‘Do you know what a huge mess it is to pack up your whole life?’” Cunningham recalls from her new living room in Brussels, where she’s now living with her husband and three young children.

“But I’m at a stage in my career where it’s nice to have a bigger perspective in terms of long-term research, the opportunities for collaborations and global impact,” says Cunningham, associate professor of global health at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health. (The packing was a bit messy, she admits.)

A demographer and sociologist who researches child and immigrant health, Cunningham had been working with refugee communities in Clarkston, Ga., and was looking to develop a parallel project abroad. That’s when she heard about an informational lunch that Emory’s Office of Global Strategy & Initiatives (GSI) was hosting about the Fulbright Scholar Program.

“GSI really put this opportunity on my radar,” she says. That’s by design: as part of the university’s global strategy, Emory has increased support for direct faculty exchanges in recent years.

Cunningham was drawn to Belgium, which has become a major destination for immigrants during Europe’s refugee crisis.

When immigrants first arrive in the United States, they tend to be in good health. But after 10 years, they reach the same obesity and diabetes levels as native-born Americans. Researchers have long thought this to be a result of immigrants’ exposure to an “obesogenic” environment.

But immigrants also develop higher rates of obesity and diabetes in Belgium, despite the fact that its childhood obesity rate is the lowest in Europe. Cunningham and her colleagues are trying to figure out why, looking at factors like the stress of migration.

She’s collaborating with Hadewijch Vandenheede of Vrije Universiteit Brussel, whom she met through the Fulbright process, and Bruno Schoumaker of the Université Catholique de Louvain on the study.

Those partnerships bring in expertise from both Dutch-speaking and French-speaking institutions, and carry the added benefit of increasing the research’s visibility and impact: Internationally coauthored publications are cited six times as often as publications with only domestic coauthors. Cunningham is also setting up a summer practicum for some Emory students to participate in the project.

In the meantime, she’s getting firsthand experience with the adventures and challenges of moving to a new country. “It’s the overlap of the actual experience of being an immigrant and studying immigration,” she says.

In the aftermath of genocide

Back in Atlanta, Ralph Buchenhorst is navigating an immigrant experience of his own, having arrived from Germany in August. Atlanta traffic was a shock, but there have also been pleasant surprises: the warmth of strangers, the strength of academic infrastructure.

“If you need a book, you get it,” says Buchenhorst, a visiting associate professor in the Department of Philosophy. “In Germany, sometimes you have to fight for it. It’s very easy to do research here, and I’m grateful for that.”

Buchenhorst, who researches memory discourses related to the aftermaths of genocides, is teaching a graduate seminar on critical theory and an undergraduate course on representations of the Holocaust, thanks to funding from the German Academic Exchange Service.

“In Germany, for the first 15 years after the Second World War, nobody was talking about the Holocaust,” he says. “It was simply taboo. The most important issue right then was to reconstruct the country. But it’s important to show that history is not only made by the victors. It’s also made by the victims.”

Although he’s in the U.S. primarily to teach, The Carter Center and the Center for Civil and Human Rights made Atlanta a good place for research, too. And not just for Buchenhorst — The Carter Center was a big draw for Kalani Medagoda, a Sri Lankan lawyer who spent the fall semester at Emory as a Fulbright visiting research scholar studying the American legal framework for disability rights.

Rethinking disability rights in Sri Lanka

As a young lawyer, Medagoda struggled to argue cases in front of judges who were unfamiliar with Sri Lanka’s disability laws.

“When a disabled client came to meet with us, the building only had stairs, so I always had to go down to meet with them,” she says. “We had blind people signing documents with no Braille.”

Today, 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s 20 million people are disabled, and the country is aging. As an assistant legal draftsman for the federal government, Medagoda writes access rules that form the basis of laws passed by the parliament.

But she doesn’t think these laws will bring about true change until the country shifts from a charity model to one that empowers people with disabilities.

Visits to Atlanta’s Shepherd Center, which offers spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation, and conversations with Emory’s disability community have been eye-opening.

 “It made me think more broadly,” she said. “If you don’t teach young people to be passionate about disability rights, the law can’t do anything. It has to be part of the education system.”

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