Tuesday, April 26, 2016
Gwendolyn Gillson

Gwendolyn Gillson, a Ph.D. candidate in religious studies at the UI and winner of a Fulbright Study/Research grant to Japan for 2016-17.

Gwendolyn Gillson, a Ph.D. candidate in religious studies at the UI, is the winner of a Fulbright Study/Research grant to Japan for 2016-17. She will use her research project in Japan to investigate the ways in which Jodo sect Pure Land Buddhist women are transforming religion in modern Japanese society to address the country’s critical social issues of changing demographics and an aging society. The Edmund, OK, native will explore how grassroots Buddhist efforts can address twenty-first century social issues, ultimately allowing older women to develop new roles as leaders and community builders.

Hometown: Edmond, Oklahoma

Degree and field of study: Ph.D. candidate in religious studies (University of Iowa)

What will be the focus of your project/research/teaching?

I will be researching the ways that older and younger Japanese women are utilizing and transforming Pure Land Buddhism through social engagement projects to meet the needs of contemporary society.

What drew you to this field of study?

I have always had an interest in Japan and when my friend convinced me to take a Buddhist philosophy course in my undergrad, I fell in love with Buddhism, particularly as it is lived in Japan. When I started my P.h.D., I had a much different project; it was historical and textual and had nothing to do with gender studies. But the more I learned about the portrayal and understanding of women (or lack thereof) in Buddhism and religion more generally, I wanted to find out what meaning religion has to the women who practice it. What I discovered is that Japanese women are constantly creating new ways of understanding religion that most people just don't know about; I want my research to help illuminate the rich religious lives of these women.

How do you see this Fulbright grant advancing your work?

Most obviously, the Fulbright will enable me to go to Japan and complete the research that I want to do. But it will also enable me meet a variety of Japanese religious practitioners and scholars with whom I will hopefully develop career (and perhaps even life) long relationships. I will be a visiting researcher at Bukkyo University in Kyoto which is affiliated with the sect of Buddhism that I study and will enable me to interact with and learn from top practitioner-scholars in my field. The fact that the Fulbright includes a community service component will also help my work because I study social engagement projects; performing my community engagement project will be an enactment of some of the things I study.

How do you envision this will change your life?

Obviously the prestige of the Fulbright will help my career no matter where I end up working but, more importantly, the Fulbright's emphasis on cross-cultural communication and understanding will help connect my work to the way I want to live my life, as a conscientious participant in a global world. I will be able to build connections with other Fulbrighters and both the American and Japanese government that will transform the ways that I understand the world. Although I have spent time in Japan previously, I have never spent a whole year. The 12 months of the Fulbright grant will also help me get out of my American comfort zone by submersing me in Japanese culture for an extended period of time.

Would you have any advice for future students interested in pursuing a Fulbright?

A Fulbright grant is definitely worth all of the pain and anguish that goes into it. There were so many times that I wanted to give up but I persevered through to the end. I have a couple pieces of specific advice. 1. Rely on your network - this means Dr. Wachsmuth and the International Programs office, your adviser, your department, your friends, your family, etc. Some of these people will help you revise your application into a winning one and some will be the emotional support you need to make it through the process. It doesn't do any good to write a great application but have a mental break in the process. 2. Don't be proud - Yes, you need to be confident in your application but don't get attached to any part of it. The people who give you advice on how to improve your project will tear everything you've written apart but not because they think you're a horrible candidate; rather, because they think you're a great one. Try not to take feedback too personally. And when two (or three or five) people give you different advice on your application, go with the one that feels best to you. After all, you're the one who will be doing the grant so your application should best reflect you.

The highly competitive Fulbright Program, created by U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright in 1946 and sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, provides grants annually for international research and teaching in an effort to foster global partnership and cultural exchange. For more information on applying for a Fulbright through the University of Iowa, visit our Fulbright page.