Focus on Fulbrights

Tobin Stauffer (AGI22) Translates a Johnnie’s Inquiring Mind into a Fulbright Project in India

November 11, 2022 | By Patricia Moore

Fulbright recipient Tobin Stauffer (AGI22) takes in Sikh culture in front of the historic Golden Temple, Amritsar, Punjab.

Fulbright recipient Tobin Stauffer (AGI22) is bringing his penchant for inquiry, amplified through the St. John’s program, to Ludhiana, the largest city in the state of Punjab, India. For his Fulbright research project, Stauffer will interview groups of psychiatrists in Punjab and elsewhere in India to discover how mental illness is understood across a stunning variety of languages, religions, philosophies, and cultures that clinicians encounter around the country. Stauffer will conduct his research through the psychiatry department at Christian Medical College and Hospital in Ludhiana.

India’s immense diversity of cultures offers Stauffer a rich environment for discovering how different cultures approach mental health because “each state, region, language, and religion has its own associated history, norms, philosophy, books, or, broadly speaking, culture,” states Stauffer.

To put such cultural variation into perspective, Stauffer says, “If you put someone from Southern California and someone from Maine in a room together, at the very least they will speak the same language, and likely they will discover things they have in common: knowing the same songs, watching the same Netflix shows, maybe belonging to the same political party. That is hardly the case in India.”

Stauffer formerly worked as an Army medic in a conflict area where he found that asking patients questions in a manner congruent with their cultural backgrounds and belief systems helped Western-trained doctors treat mental health patients with greater success. “I started to realize that my concept of mental illness was derived from a Western pattern of thought,” says Stauffer. “That is self-reflection,” he adds, his Johnnie ability to see others’ perspectives coming through.

By questioning his own assumptions, Stauffer realized that he and other medical clinicians were biased before they even started to ask questions of a patient to determine their problems. That thought led Stauffer to the next logical questions: “How do we train medical providers to address patient care from a culturally-appropriate perspective? And, what can different cultures teach us about medicine?”

The descriptor for culturally-appropriate medical treatment is “cultural relativism.”

How India’s Cultural Smorgasbord Challenges Clinicians

Tobin Stauffer (AGI22) visits a mosque in Lodhi Garden, Delhi, and studies Punjabi at a local café.

Part of Stauffer’s research is determining how clinicians treat mental illness in people from different religious traditions, including Sikh, Hindi, Muslim, Buddhist, and Christian. Throw in the remnants of India’s traditional caste system, and medical care becomes even more complex to deliver with cultural relativism.

“To communicate effectively, it’s important to know the language,” says Stauffer. Though he began studying Punjabi—the dominant language in the region—before arriving in India, he also applied for and received a Fulbright Critical Language Enhancement Award that extends his Fulbright experience to a full year.

A Johnnie’s View of the Intersection of Liberal Arts and Medicine

“I have two interests—literature and medicine,” says Stauffer. “I think this project addresses both. Literature helps shape the culture and is a result of culture. By examining health care from a culturally-appropriate perspective, we can help psychiatrists and psychologists become more aware of their own biases so they can achieve better patient results.”

In December, Stauffer’s research through his grant, entitled “Defining the Medic’s Role in Cross-Cultural Mental Health,” will be underway in India. After completing his Fulbright research project, Stauffer wants to build on his work focused on delivering culturally-appropriate care by attending medical school.

How St. John’s Assisted with a Successful Fulbright Application

Stauffer says he might not have come to the same conclusions about applying for a Fulbright grant without attending St. John’s beginning in 2019. “The self-reflection and discussions we have every day in the classroom require a large degree of understanding of other points of view. We learned how to ask good questions of ourselves and others. This process eventually led to my application for a Fulbright project I am passionate about.”

Jaime Dunn, director of career development in Annapolis, helped Stauffer by reviewing early drafts of his application. Stauffer also contacted previous grantees to learn what the Fulbright committee was seeking in a successful application. “You have to write two big essays,” he says. “One is a two-page statement of grant purpose, stating why and how you will conduct your research. The other is a one-page, single-spaced personal statement of why you are interested in pursuing your project.”

Encouraging Johnnies to Apply for Fulbright Awards—with a Passion

Passion is essential for a successful Fulbright application, according to Stauffer. “Your passion comes through in your writing. If you are interested enough to submit a statement of why you are interested in your project, go ahead and apply. If you don’t get selected, you can reapply,” he advises. “You have to tell a good story, so reach out early in the process to St. John’s career advisors to help you make your case.”

To learn how the college supports Johnnies interested in Fulbright awards and other fellowships and internships, visit
National Scholarships for Santa Fe and National Fellowships and Scholarships for Annapolis.