An American in Spain: Rowan senior Michael Grafals earns Fulbright


Michael Grafals knows his Fulbright Program scholarship will teach him about the culture of Spain. But he also thinks teaching English to high school students in Madrid will help him learn more about being an American.

Michael Grafals knows his Fulbright Program scholarship will teach him about the culture of Spain. But he also thinks teaching English to high school students in Madrid will help him learn more about being an American.

"I know my students will have questions about what it is to be an American. I'm going to spend part of my summer preparing for that.

"I want to have some visuals for my lesson plans, so I plan to do some Niagara Falls and also in areas south and west," he continues. "And I'm going to read some very American novels like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby. When I go to Spain, I think I'll know what it is to be American."

Grafals, a senior at Rowan University and a Collingswood resident, spent eight of his growing-up years in Puerto Rico. He's fluent in English and Spanish and is eager to explore both his native language and his own identity as a bilingual American. Landing the highly competitive Fulbright scholarship to Spain will help with that--and also, he says, with his ultimate goal: a doctorate in English literature.

"With my Fulbright, I hope to make lasting connections in Spain's academic communities that can serve to make a bridge in understanding the arts and language of both countries," says Grafals, who hopes to study Spanish literature, literary theory or comparative literature at the Complutense University of Madrid during his Fulbright year. "This opportunity will provide the foundation for my scholarly career and aspirations."

Grafals, an English and education major, with secondary education certification, at Rowan, is the eighth University student in the past eight years to win a prestigious Fulbright. He's also the fourth student from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in the past three years--and the second consecutive English major--to earn a Fulbright.

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, the Fulbright program, established in 1946, operates in 155 countries worldwide. Grafals, who is just now completing his student teaching at Haddonfield High School, will teach high school students in the Fulbright English Teaching Assistantships Program in Madrid.

"I want to sharpen my skills as a teacher of both the English and Spanish languages," says Grafals, who recently taught Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and the poetry of William Blake to Haddonfield juniors.

In addition to his student teaching, Grafals also served as an AVID tutor, helping struggling students at Cherry Hill's Carusi Middle School develop good study habits, organizational skills and writing skills. In summer of 2006, he worked for the Camden City Board of Education as a college mentor, acting as a supervisor and mentor for high school students.

A film buff who regularly reads film criticism, Grafals, treasurer of Rowan's Philosophy Club and a member of the Sigma Tau Delta International English Honor Society, really got into literature in high school. He made the life-changing decision to read J.D. Salinger's 1951 novel, The Catcher in the Rye, in ninth grade.

"I picked it up on my own because I liked the cover," says Grafals. "I was amazed to find a book that could speak to the psychology of everyone. The characters were so real."

From there, Grafals went on to devour literature-from Hemingway to Shakespeare to Jorge Luis Borges. His love of language, he says, comes from speaking Spanish.

"More than anything else, Spanish taught me the music of language," he says. "My first lesson in comparative literature probably happened when I was 10 and my grandmother gave me my first book of poems: Gustave Adolfo Becquer's Rimas y Leyendas. In Becquer's poems I became enraptured by the simplicity and elegance of his use of Spanish."

Receiving the Fulbright to Spain is thrilling, says Grafals.

"I know Spain through stereotypes-through Hemingway and the romantic poetry...little snippets. But I want a more meaty experience," he says.

Grafals feels well-prepared to lead a classroom in Madrid. His Rowan English professors have been terrific mentors, he says. And his education courses, coupled with his student teaching experience, have given him both theoretical and practical, nuts-and-bolts experience, he adds.

"Every professor has kind of broadened my horizons," says Grafals, whose parents work as a school nurse and a teacher in the Camden City schools.

Grafals is an extraordinary student, says Rowan English professor Bill Freind.

"I've been teaching for 14 years and Michael is, without question, one of the smartest and most motivated students I've had," says Freind. "He's very interested in a variety of different literature and he's very good at taking complex ideas and explaining them."

Recipient of the Dr. Richard Mitchell Memorial Scholarship, given to a Rowan English student who excels in originality as a writer, possesses stellar critical thinking skills and shows enthusiasm during class discussions, Grafals also received the Outstanding English Major Award last year. He placed in the top 15 percent of students nationwide who have taken the PRAXIS II examination for English content knowledge.

Grafals, who carried a 3.8 grade point average, earned his degrees from Rowan at the University's Commencement on Friday, May 16, at 10 a.m. on the University Green.