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April 25, 2016

Fulbrighter at home in world of letters and language

In preparation for a photo shoot, Emilio Feijoo carefully unpacks a box of books that have inspired him. The spines bear names of French and German philosophers; Chilean, Austrian and American poets; a Cuban revolutionary and a Russian novelist.

“If I could teach poetry and philosophy for the rest of my life, I’d be happy,” he says.

At 23, Feijoo still has plenty of time to ponder the rest of his post-FGCU life. He’s interested in exploring how a theory of poetry translates into a theory of politics, how theory can be integrated into civil society, how principals of radical democracy can be put into practice in Cuba and the U.S.

Emilio Feijoo
Emilio Feijoo

The world of letters and language and theory is one where Feijoo feels at home. He graduated from FGCU in December 2015 with bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and English and minors in French, German and World Literature. This spring he was selected for a yearlong Fulbright Study/Research Grant to pursue a master’s degree in the Ideology and Discourse Analysis Program at the University of Essex in Colchester, England. He is one of the first two FGCU students to be named Fulbright fellows. They will be honored along with faculty Fulbright recipients during a reception from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 26 in Cohen Center Room 247.

“I’m a little worried about the transition — being in a new country,” he says. “But courage is having fear and yet still acting.”

And Feijoo, 23, already has shown the conviction to pursue his own path academically as a first-generation college student. Born in Cuba, where his father still lives, he came to the United States 20 years ago, eventually settling in Naples with his mother. He struggled with family expectations and depression in his first two years at FGCU on a pre-med track, he says. When he changed his major to English and studied languages, philosophy and literature he found his true passion and his equilibrium.

His achievements since then suggest he made the right choice. Feijoo has presented research at the University of Florida’s Marxist Reading Group, at the Society for Comparative Literature and Arts conference in New Orleans and at the University of the Antilles in Martinique. He served as co-editor of FGCU’s Mangrove Review literary magazine and has translated articles for an international journal devoted to the work of Slavoj Žižek a Slovenian philosopher and cultural theorist.

“If you work hard and set goals you can accomplish great things – even if you come from unfavorable circumstances. Your circumstances do not wholly determine who you are,” he says. “I’m really thankful for my professors. This is not an individual accomplishment. There’s no such thing as a self-made person. You are a bundle of narratives bound up with other people.”

Assistant Professor Delphine Gras, Foreign Language Program Leader in the Department of Language and Literature, is one of those people. She calls Feijoo one of the most promising students she’s encountered at FGCU — hard working, well read, empathetic. Since 2011, Gras has seen him transform from a somewhat shy, caring health professions student into the amiable, confident graduate about to embark on an incredible educational opportunity, she says.

“I still remember the glimmer in his eyes when he first explained to me why he studied languages: to be able to help as many patients as possible,” Gras says. “Now, his love of language, literature and theory have led him to a different career choice, but the motivation to use his skills to be a better and more conscientious world citizen is still there. I can see the same excitement and passion now when he talks about studying discourse analysis at the University of Essex as I saw five years ago. This is why I have no doubt that he will excel. We can be proud of everything he has achieved, and I’m certain he will achieve much more.”

Feijoo also wishes to acknowledge Drs. Carolyn Culbertson, Kim Jackson and Jim Brock for mentoring him and helping him refine his thinking. “Without them, I would not have been able to foster the motivation needed to excel at the undergraduate level. The philosophy and English programs here are full of wonderful and caring people.”

Being selected for a Fulbright certainly is sign of excellence in itself. Only a fraction of students applying are accepted. In the research/study category that Feijoo submitted his proposal in, only 36 of 1,031 applicants for programs in England were offered grants last year. And the Essex program admits only a handful of students a year, and Feijoo was accepted before he was awarded the Fulbright.

Part of the School of Government, the Ideology and Discourse Analysis Program helps participants secure a solid grasp of key debates in social and political thought, a strong foundation in theoretical principles whose relevance and application goes beyond politics and a wide range of analytical, critical and communication skills that enable them to pursue varied careers, according to its website. Recent graduates have gone on to work in civil service, local government, The World Bank, The United Nations and NATO.

Although he doesn’t foresee a career in politics or diplomacy, Feijoo would like to put his linguistic, literary and philosophical aptitudes to work towards a political practice.

“As a Cuban-American polyglot my academic work is informed by my commitment to social amelioration,” he says. “For me, poetry represents the best space where ideology critique and social practice manifest themselves as arbiters of democratic principles.

“Radical democracy is, etymologically speaking, ‘getting to the root’ of democracy; it is about the collective articulation of social demands — for instance, ecological crisis, economic inequality, racism, feminism or gender discrimination — into a political bloc that constructs ‘a people.’ ”

As Feijoo prepares for his exit to Essex, he offers these parting words of wisdom relating to life philosophy: “Change your metaphors.”

“A good metaphor frames an idea or experience in such a way as to change your outlook on things; it makes the familiar look new, different, and sometimes, uncanny. If you change your metaphors life takes on new possibilities.”