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It was an ambitious dream. But Beavers like a challenge.

OSU Ecampus sociology alumna earns prestigious Fulbright scholarship to research rural development in Hungary

Sarah-Brown-Main

Oregon State Ecampus Sociology Alumna Sarah Brown, pictured above, is among a small group of current and former students across the world who have earned a Fulbright U.S. Student Program award for the 2017-18 academic year from the U.S. Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.

By Heather Doherty  
July 14, 2017

It was an ambitious, multifaceted dream.

Sarah Brown not only decided she was going to go back to school to earn a degree after taking 10 years off, but she also was determined to earn a prestigious Fulbright scholarship: an incredible feat not many can say they’ve accomplished.

But Sarah can.

Sarah, an Oregon State University Ecampus sociology 2016 alumna who graduated with honors, is among a small group of current and former students across the world who have earned a Fulbright U.S. Student Program award for the 2017-18 academic year from the U.S. Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.

Sarah is the first-ever Ecampus student to achieve this honor and is in good company with five other Oregon State student and alumni recipients and one alternate – a record-breaking number at OSU.

Sarah Brown is the first-ever Oregon State Ecampus student to achieve this honor and is in good company with five other Oregon State student and alumni recipients and one alternate – a record-breaking number at OSU.

Sarah Brown is the first-ever Oregon State Ecampus student to achieve this honor of earning a Fulbright scholarship, and is in good company with five other Oregon State student and alumni recipients and one alternate – a record-breaking number at OSU.

“I knew 10 years ago that I really wanted to apply for the Fulbright scholarship,” she says. “I knew I didn’t just want to travel abroad, but also I wanted to have a purpose. I knew I had to get great grades among other things, so in my mind, it wasn’t an option to get less than an A.”

The Fulbright Program provides more than 1,900 participants with the opportunity to exchange ideas and contribute to finding solutions to shared international concerns in more than 140 countries throughout the world.

“What helps candidates stand out is when they not only have an academically valid project proposal, but when they demonstrate that they will be excellent representatives of the U.S. abroad in the spirit of the Fulbright program,” says LeAnn Adam, OSU advisor for prestigious scholarships and campus Fulbright program advisor.

“In my experience, Sarah is exceptional in both aspects. As a distance learner, she had to take extra initiative and invest more effort in getting to know her instructors, advisors and mentors in order to craft her project.”

Sarah’s Fulbright project is multifaceted, just like her dream. She will spend a year in Veszprém County, Hungary, where she will work in the town’s rural development office.

“I’m essentially doing a comparative study, and I’m trying to go in with open eyes for what I might find. I’m looking to see how they frame questions and support for social inclusion,” Sarah says. “I’m looking at what kind of diversification of crops there is in the farms. And I’m looking at who’s in leadership positions in local businesses and trying to piece together those parts of how a community perceives itself and how it sustains itself.”

“I knew 10 years ago that I really wanted to apply for the Fulbright scholarship. I knew I didn’t just want to travel abroad, but also I wanted to have a purpose.”

Her passion for improving the livelihood of those in small towns is close to her heart – and has grown to define her life.

After growing up in Corvallis, Oregon, she and her husband, Brian Fisher – an OSU Ecampus natural resources 2007 alum – moved to the Methow Valley of less than 5,000 people in rural Washington.

“We knew we wanted a strong sense of community where we would establish our roots,” she says. “I knew I wanted to be able to grow peaches and squash, and he wanted to cross-country ski. So here we are.”

Sarah and her family on their annual ski trip in the Methow Valley.

Sarah and her family on their annual ski trip in the Methow Valley.

Shortly after moving there 20 years ago, Sarah started an organic produce farm. There, she did everything from customer service to digging ditches, and she even sat on the local farmers market board and ran a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). She gained firsthand knowledge of the hardships people go through trying to live off the land.

“I wanted to make a positive impact, and growing food is such a basic thing to do, she says. “It seemed like one way to really positively influence not only the land, but also my community by rallying people around organic produce.”

Sarah successfully ran her business for nearly a decade, but decided to focus on it as a hobby instead of a living after her son was born.

She enjoyed spending time with her family, she loved her community, she recently began earning her sociology degree online with Oregon State Ecampus and had everything going for her. Until it wasn’t.

In 2014, her town fell victim to the Carlton Complex wildfire, the largest wildfire in Washington’s history. “And it started across the river from my house,” she said.

The fire burned the hillside by her home, her irrigation, fences and trees.

“It burned everything else, including 300 of my neighbors’ houses. It was intense,” she says. “We are still dealing with the effects of having a fire on our property.”

But what stood strong was the community support. The town members did what they could to help those in need and even set up foundations to rebuild.

While others might feel like they’ve had enough, Sarah didn’t let it get her down. She worked even harder to restore her community and continued on her pursuit of an education – one class at a time.

“I knew I needed experience from the outside world in order to help move my community along.”

“I started Ecampus when it was still a pretty new program where they had VHS videos that they would mail to me,” she says. “It was hard being in such a rural location. It was really different than now.”

“My life here in this valley inspired me to find out about how other rural areas operate with different funding streams, to support healthy rural communities and economies,” Sarah says.

“My life here in this valley inspired me to find out about how other rural areas operate with different funding streams, to support healthy rural communities and economies,” Sarah says.

It took Sarah a decade to earn her diploma. But, she says, it was worth every year’s work.

“The core classes for the sociology program were incredible in helping me prepare to conceive, build, write and research for this kind of a project in Hungary,” she says. “I have all of my tutorials and files downloaded and I’m taking them with me.

“For me as a researcher, there is a wealth of information to pull from, and if I can pull numbers that are pertinent to my questions, then I will actually be able to interpret them using the statistical tools that I learned in my class that taught that.”

Sarah, who serves as board president of a social and health resources nonprofit and works for the nascent Methow Housing Trust –  an affordable housing organization – hopes her experience will allow her to bring knowledge back to her valley, including new tools and different approaches to create a more sustainable economy, eliminate poverty and build racial equity.

“My life here in this valley inspired me to find out about how other rural areas operate with different funding streams, to support healthy rural communities and economies,” she says. “I am very aware that my small rural community is just that. And while that’s beautiful in ways, I knew I needed experience from the outside world in order to help move my community along.”

She also hopes the experience will impart a sense of hope in not only her children, whom she will be bringing along with her to Hungary, but also to others in her community.

“I want to show them that if I can start as a farmer here push myself to finish an education even though it was challenging and remote, and then push myself to apply for this crazy thing called the Fulbright, and get it, that they have options, too.”

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