One of the life lessons Meaghan Patterson learned while completing her undergraduate degree is that when you’re finding your own path in the world, it’s OK to follow in someone else’s trail for a while first.
Patterson’s two sisters and brother all graduated as Bobcats; initially, Patterson — the youngest of the four siblings — was reluctant to follow in their footsteps.
“I didn’t want to come here [to Texas State University] at all — because they did,” she says. “I wanted to do something different. I wanted to go out of state and do something extravagant.”
Her parents vetoed the plan, however, and Patterson soon appreciated their decision. “I’m so grateful that I did end up here, because I’ve had so many opportunities,” she says. One of those opportunities is sending her halfway around the world on a grant from the Fulbright U.S. Student Program.
The Fulbright program is available in more than 155 countries, and annually provides a highly select 1,500 U.S. students with funds to travel and live abroad, where they complete projects of their own design. Patterson is one of only six Texas State students ever to have received the prestigious award, granted to those who demonstrate academic merit and leadership potential.
Her involvement in the program came as the result of a last-minute decision and the support of Texas State staff and faculty. Patterson had been weighing whether to join the Peace Corps or Teach for America when she attended an on-campus presentation by a former Fulbright scholar. She further investigated the Fulbright opportunity on the Texas State website and contacted Dr. Valentina Glajar, the university’s adviser for the Fulbright Program’s student awards, who informed Patterson that the application deadline was just two weeks away. Patterson decided to go for it, even knowing the application, which included the submission of a personal statement, a project proposal and written references from her professors, would require considerable time and effort. Her former instructors worked with her to meet the extremely tight deadline.
“Part of the reason I feel so fortunate to go to Texas State is because of the faculty,” she says. “I really had to ask for their help through the Fulbright application process. It was the first time I’d ever worked that hard on an application, because it was so competitive,” she recalls. “I e-mailed a professor [Nancy Wilson] I hadn’t even spoken to since my freshman year. She was so great. I couldn’t have done it without her.”
Patterson’s Fulbright project is to bring movement therapy to women’s shelters in Bulgaria, an idea that was sparked after dancer/choreographer Gina Gibney visited Texas State.
Gibney’s ensemble is notable not only for its dance work, but also for its focus on community action, bringing dance to segments of society that might not otherwise have access to the art form: people living with HIV/AIDS, at-risk youth, and victims of domestic violence.
Patterson, an English major and dance minor, was moved by Gibney’s use of dance as a means to address societal problems. She explains how dance can assist people in recovery: “It’s just moving and getting your endorphins up and getting your heart pumping. That can bring anyone’s mood up,” she says. “There are skills that dancers are trained in — sensitivity, relaxation, physical recovery — that can be shared with people who are victims of abuse. There’s so much parallel there.”
Patterson learned how life-altering dance can be when she fulfilled a lifelong ambition to take dance instruction. She enrolled in a movement class as part of the university’s Personal Fitness and Wellness (PFW) requirement.
“I wouldn’t have been able to take a dance class at a bigger university because everything is so closed off,” she says. “I took ballet as a PFW – because I could – and I just fell in love. I just couldn’t stop,” she says.
Patterson, whose aunt is modern dance pioneer Nina Martin, describes why dance has come to be such an important part of her life.
“It’s wholly integrative. It’s mind and body,” she says. “I’ve always been ADD. Sitting still is not easy for me. Being in an environment where you’re accessing emotions and your physical movement and your intellect and memory and concentration — all these different aspects of myself are stimulated all at once. I think that’s what has kept me so interested in it.”
Patterson’s final semester will be spent studying Spanish in Costa Rica as part of Texas State’s Study Abroad program. She’ll graduate in August 2012, then take a well-deserved backpacking trip in Europe before beginning her Fulbright program.
Although she is travelling to Bulgaria in a teaching capacity, Patterson sees an enormous opportunity also to learn from her experience. “I know as an American in Bulgaria, I’ll have a lot to teach that maybe I’m not aware of yet. But I’ve been out of the country only once — just one afternoon in Mexico while I was traveling in West Texas! This whole next year is going to be completely life-changing for me. I’m really excited about it. Scared,” she admits with a laugh, “but really excited!”
And after Bulgaria? The possibilities on Patterson’s to-do list include pursuing an MA in movement therapy, joining a dance company and volunteering for a stint with the Peace Corps. The road ahead knows no boundaries. “I want to stay open to whatever the world may throw at me,” she says.