Jenna Birnbohm-Kaminski ’21 is preparing for once in a lifetime opportunity to make difference on a global scale. A recent Bryant University graduate, she has been awarded a research grant by The Fulbright Program, one of the most widely recognized and prestigious scholarship programs in the world. Through the grant, she will conduct research on how open-source intelligence can be utilized to help investigate human rights violations and war crimes at the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU), in Germany
Bryant’s third Fulbright recipient, Birnbohm-Kaminski is excited to expand her horizons and advance a field of research that is important to so many—and she appreciates the mentors who’ve helped her get to this point. “I don't think I've wanted anything more,” she says. “I’ve never been so clear in what I’ve wanted to do. It means so much to me to have this experience and to be a part of this.”
A meaningful opportunity
Awarded by the U.S. State Department, Fulbright grants have funded international research and teaching opportunities since 1946. Recipients are selected based on a variety of factors, including the strength of their application, personal qualifications and the extent to which the candidate and their project will help to advance the Fulbright mission of mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the those of other countries. Fulbright alumni include 61 Nobel Prize recipients, 75 MacArthur Foundation Fellows, 89 Pulitzer Prize winners and 40 current or former heads of state or government.
“I think I have a duty of care. This is deeply meaningful work that means so much to so many people.”
At FAU, Birnbohm-Kaminski will examine how new technologies and communications methods can be used to compile witness statements and evidence, guided by Professor Christoph Safferling, LL.M, an expert in the fields of international law and the legal processing of war crimes. In the past, war crimes investigations have relied upon direct witness testimony and on-site evidence to prove the existence of human rights violations. More recently, however, open-source intelligence, such as social media and satellite imagery, is being used to gather evidence that is otherwise difficult to obtain.
Birnbohm-Kaminski, who has previously worked as a paralegal specializing in veterans’ disability issues at the law firm of Chisolm, Chisolm & Kilpatrick and as Regional Director for the nonprofit The Borgen Project, will conduct research specializing in issues related to the Syrian civil war. The grant, she says, offers an important opportunity to contribute to international law and justice. “I think I have a duty of care,” she notes. “This is deeply meaningful work that means so much to so many people.”
Considering the world
Birnbohm-Kaminski’s interest in foreign affairs was ignited as a first-year student during Bryant’s MyPATH Showcase, a day-long program designed to help students consider all of the academic and professional paths to success open to them. Initially undecided as to her course of study, she chose to attend an information session hosted by Associate Professor of History and Social Sciences Richard Holtzman, Ph.D. “I said, ‘all right, I'll give this a try,’” she remembers. “And I ended up really liking it.”
“We’re a small, close-knit group and there's something really special about that because you get to know your classmates and your professors so intimately. You know that you can always rely on them for help.”
As a Politics and Law major, Birnbohm-Kaminski was enthralled by a new understanding of how the issues she was learning about played a role in the everyday lives of people. “I felt like I got a taste of a little bit of everything from classes on subjects from civil rights to world politics,” she says. “I’ve benefited so much from that education, and it really opened my eyes to what's happening around me.”
She also developed a range of mentors who proved to be instrumental to her academic success and helped her chart out her future. “The close connections that you're able to build with your professors really set Bryant’s Politics and Law program apart,” she says. “We’re a small, close-knit group and there's something really special about that because you get to know your classmates and your professors so intimately. You know that you can always rely on them for help.”
Asking and answering
Through her Bryant Honors Thesis, Birnbohm-Kaminski developed research, analysis and project management skills that will be invaluable to her Fulbright research. Guided by her thesis advisor, Lecturer of History and Social Sciences Ilisabeth Bornstein, JD. she investigated the link between academic major and political affiliation.
Birnbohm-Kaminski drew upon her mentors and the connections she’d made at Bryant, from librarians to statisticians, to develop new skillsets that help her to ask and investigate complex and challenging questions. “I learned so many new things when I took on the project,” she says. “I needed to learn from other people, draw from their successes and try to emulate them.”
“It made me want to continue to do research. Because, coming off my thesis, I could say, ‘all right, I can do this and I can do it again.’
Her thesis project also helped Birnbohm-Kaminski adopt a researcher’s mindset. “The most important thing is to be prepared, but also open to any possible outcome,” she says. “You have to be open to where the data leads you.”
Completing her thesis gave her a newfound confidence in her abilities as well. “It made me want to continue to do research,” she says. “Because, coming off my thesis, I could say, ‘all right, I can do this and I can do it again.’”
Becoming a Fulbright scholar
Inspired by her internationally focused education, Birnbohm-Kaminski sought out post-graduate opportunities for global travel and immersion. In the summer of 2020, homebound due to the Covid-19 pandemic, she began to consider applying for a Fulbright research scholarship. “I really wanted to fully experience and understand another culture,” she says. “I wanted to be challenged and I wanted to learn something new about a different way of life.”
“I was very, very overwhelmed and excited to have this opportunity to go and live amongst another culture, learn something new and enrich myself and others.”
In order to pursue the Fulbright, Birnbohm-Kaminski needed to find a research project to join and a university in another country that would agree to oversee her work. Aiming to pursue a project that focused on her passions for international relations and human rights, she discussed her options with her mentors, including Professor of History and Social Sciences Michael Bryant, Ph.D., who specializes in the impact of the Holocaust on the law, human rights, German criminal law, and international humanitarian law. It was Bryant who introduced her to his colleague Dr. Safferling, who agreed to take her on as a researcher.
Professor of English and Cultural Studies Jeffrey Arellano Cabusao, Ph.D., aided Birnbohm-Kaminski in completing her Fulbright application, and encouraged her to pursue other opportunities such as a prestigious Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange scholarship, which she was also awarded but had to decline in favor of the Fulbright. “We walked through all of the different components of the Fulbright application process together,” she remembers. “He read through my essays, gave me advice and reassured me throughout the whole thing because its quite a long process.”
Months after she submitted her application, Birnbohm-Kaminski received a notice that her proposal had been approved and she would be awarded the research grant. Reading that approval letter, she says, nearly brought her to tears. “It felt like so much hard work was paying off,” she states. “I was very, very overwhelmed and excited to have this opportunity to go and live amongst another culture, learn something new and enrich myself and others.”