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Fulbright Spotlight: Professor bridges academia, humanitarianism on Ukraine-Poland border

Oct 10, 2023

This piece is a part of IU Global’s Fulbright U.S. Scholar series, profiling the faculty and researchers who make IU a top producer of Fulbright awardees.

In a world marked by profound societal transformations and global challenges, there are individuals who not only grasp the intricacies of contemporary issues but actively strive to make a difference. Elizabeth Cullen Dunn, esteemed anthropologist and geographer at Indiana University, stands out as one such individual. 

Elizabeth Dunn in front of debris in Ukraine Elizabeth Dunn's research abroad focused on the strategies employed by Polish agencies who leveraged social connections to transport aid into Ukraine. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Dunn

Dunn — professor of geography, director of the Institute for European Studies in the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies and director of IU’s Center for Refugee Studies — stands at the intersection of academia and humanitarianism. With a research focus on responses to catastrophic social change, particularly in the post-Soviet landscape, her expertise goes beyond theory, merging with hands-on efforts to alleviate the suffering of displaced populations.

Her most recent semester in Poland was supported by the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program, a Department of State initiative enabling college and university faculty members, artists and professionals to teach, conduct research and exchange ideas abroad. With her Fulbright professorship grant, she taught at the University of Warsaw as a distinguished lecturer in American studies, bridging knowledge and culture across geographical divides.

Drawing from the focus of labor and food studies in her own work, Dunn’s lectures at the University of Warsaw delved into the intricate interplay between American and Polish food systems, providing insight into how migration shapes culinary practices and labor dynamics. Her exploration of the Rohingya refugee community in the American meatpacking industry revealed layers of migrant experiences often hidden from view.

Dunn herself learned, too; the experience teaching in another cultural context provided insights into how she can engage and elevate students back in Bloomington.

While the Fulbright award was focused on teaching, Dunn jumped at the chance to conduct research outside the classroom. At the crossroads of academic interest and humanitarianism, she conducted interviews with volunteers and professional humanitarians and actively participated in volunteer initiatives along the Polish-Ukrainian border.

This region was a focal point for the influx of Ukrainian refugees, and Polish volunteers played a crucial role in aiding them. Driven by a desire to not only examine the impact, but contribute to it, Dunn took part in grassroot efforts.

“We’ve been working on this research since about two weeks after the war broke out,” Dunn said, referring to herself and Polish scholar Iwona Kaliszewska. “We’re looking at the connections between Polish aid providers, these volunteers, and Ukrainian volunteers and providers. I spent a lot of time with them, experiencing and participating.”

Elizabeth Dunn weaving a net Elizabeth Dunn conducted interviews with volunteers and professional humanitarians and actively participated in volunteer initiatives along the Polish-Ukrainian border during her Fulbright. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Dunn

Dunn’s research abroad focused on the strategies employed by Polish aid providers who leveraged social connections to transport aid into Ukraine. She also delved into the intricate dynamics of Ukrainian refugee families, particularly focusing on the challenges faced by women and children amidst conflict.

Alongside this, she authored seven papers during her Fulbright U.S. Scholar tenure, three of which investigated the plight of Rohingya meatpackers in Greeley, Colorado, and explored the challenges faced by refugees in dangerous jobs as well as the long-term impact of injuries. The remaining papers centered on Polish volunteers aiding Ukraine and showcased how grassroots efforts influenced broader geopolitical relationships, including those between Russia and the European Union. Dunn’s research illuminates the human dimensions of global challenges and underscores the vital role of scholars in effecting positive change.

Her ambitions during her Fulbright journey extended beyond research and teaching. With her impending role as the director of the Institute of European Studies at Indiana University, she saw a unique opportunity to bridge the gap between academia and real-world global dynamics.

“We’re at a moment of crisis in Europe, but also real innovation,” she said. “I want to be someone that helps connect us to the people who really understand the issues we’re facing.”

Dunn ventured to various corners of Europe, including Germany, the Netherlands and France, dedicating herself to reigniting academic networks that would fortify IU’s connections with European scholars.

Her journey embodies the essence of a scholar who navigates beyond conventional confines. Her expertise goes beyond the classroom, her influence extends across borders, and her compassion resonates with the stories of those affected by conflict. She said her time abroad on her Fulbright was an invaluable opportunity.

“I would tell anyone — especially people whose work is not focused on a foreign country — that they should take the chance and go.”


IU Global

Lexi Baker

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