Riverhead High School grad wins prestigious Fulbright scholarship

Kellie Griffith courtesy photo.
Kellie Griffith courtesy photo.

Riverhead native Kellie Griffith had trouble believing the April 1 email she received telling her she had been accepted as a 2014-15 Fulbright Scholar was genuine, given the date.

“I actually thought the government was playing an April Fools’ joke on me,” the 22-year-old said recently with a chuckle.

“I still kind of think the government is playing an April Fools’ joke on me.”

Happily, it’s no ruse: Ms. Griffith, a senior elementary education and Spanish major at Wagner College in Staten Island, will travel to Ecuador in September as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant, where she’ll spend 10 months teaching English to college students.

“I totally did not expect to actually get it,” she said of the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, which offers government fellowships to students, teachers and professionals that enables them to study abroad for one academic year.

Ms. Griffith, who graduated 8th in her class of more than 330 students from Riverhead High School in 2010, almost didn’t apply for the Fulbright at all.

She said a faculty adviser encouraged her to do so after she returned from a trip to San Jose, Costa Rica last summer, where she taught English to preschoolers as part of an 8-week internship.

“It was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had,” she said. “As soon as I came back I talked to my faculty adviser and said, ‘I gotta do it, I gotta go back. I’m never gonna stop.’ Someone mentioned the Fulbright and I said, ‘No way — the Fulbright is for Nobel Peace Prize winners.’”

But Ms. Griffith, who has taught dual-language classes at P.S. 19 in Staten Island’s economically disadvantaged Port Richmond community since her junior year and began teaching ELS to adults as a freshman, said she eventually did decide to apply — because she wasn’t ready to be a full-time teacher upon graduation.

“I realized that I wanted to grow more as a person and in my Spanish skills,” she said. “I wanted to see more things and go more places before I got in a classroom with elementary kids and kind of shaped their futures.”

Ms. Griffith’s own future was shaped in large part, she said, by the Riverhead teachers who taught her Spanish — a language she didn’t learn until she was a seventh-grader.

“It was really the teachers I met at Riverhead who inspired me to be a teacher,” she said.

Ms. Griffith especially credits Riverhead Spanish teacher Penelope Boerum with encouraging her to pursue teaching.

“She completely believed in me and supported me, even when I was the only non-native Spanish speaker in my AP Spanish class,” she said. “She really took me under her wing.”

Once she returns from Ecuador next year, Ms. Griffith said, she plans to apply to Teachers College, Columbia University.

“I want to get my masters in bilingual education and be a dual-language teacher,” she said. She plans to keep teaching at New York City schools.

“And then who knows where I’ll go from there?” Ms. Griffith said.

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