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Fulbright scholar’s experience bridges Abu Dhabi, Barbados, Kentucky

Mackenzie Kelley, Diploma Programme (DP) graduate of the American Community School in Abu Dhabi, shares her experience as a Fulbright scholar, her IB takeaways and how she built a supportive community at university.

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Mackenzie Kelley is conducting research and connecting with the Barbadian community using her international experience

The Fulbright Program offers accomplished students, scholars and others the opportunity to study, teach or pursue research abroad as part of an international exchange. During her final year as an undergraduate at American University, Mackenzie Kelley prepared a Fulbright application to build upon her research interests. Her efforts led to an award and after receiving a degree in biochemistry, she moved to the island of Barbados to study the influence of gender and culture on type 2 diabetes.

The IB’s alumni relations team caught up with Mackenzie to hear more about her research and how her Diploma Programme (DP) studies at American Community School supported her career aspirations.

Listen to the full interview on the IB Voices podcast

Tell us a little bit about yourself and where you are now?

I grew up in Kentucky and went to Kentucky public schools all my life. Right before I was a sophomore in high school, my parents moved us (my siblings and I) all to Abu Dhabi. That was my first time living abroad and only my second time being abroad in general. I started at American Community School of Abu Dhabi and did the IB during my last two years of school. After I graduated from the DP, I went to American University in Washington, DC. I gained a strong foundation in biology and chemistry from my IB science classes and wanted to continue building that by majoring in biochemistry. While on this track, I realized that I also had a really strong connection to sociology and wanted to pursue that interest by studying health through other lenses outside of biochemistry. And now, I’m doing a Fulbright in Barbados, which I just started a week ago, in hopes of expanding my interest in this intersection of health studies!

What is the focus of your research with the Fulbright program, and how did you become interested in this topic?

My research is focused on the gender disparity in type 2 diabetes in the Caribbean, which has a unique patterning of type 2 diabetes in that women have higher rates than men. In most of the world, that is reversed, with men having higher rates than women. I’m trying to investigate the social and cultural factors that could shed light on why. I’ll be conducting focus group interviews with patients with type 2 diabetes and try to get their perspective on why, as well as some of the different influences that affected them in being at risk for the disease and how they manage their diabetes.

“I became interested in the social side of health when I was in college when I found that intersection between biochemistry and society and culture.”

To be honest, my interest in this research topic is less about diabetes and more so about my interest in non-communicable diseases. These diseases have a lot of different potential for social factors to be a cause of it, because it’s not just about genetics or the biochemistry of the disease, but also the way that you live your life and the different pressures that are on you. This could include the different roles that you have, your amount of stress or even your education level. So, I became interested in the social side of health when I was in college when I found that intersection between biochemistry and society and culture. Type 2 diabetes is a really unique case where all these things are definitely a major factor.

Looking back to your IB experience, are there any aspects the programme that stuck with you after the DP?

I think the IB has shaped me, in ways, almost more than my college experience. In particular, I had one IB educator, my HL English teacher and theory of knowledge teacher, who was just incredible. She had conversations in her classroom that supported the coursework so well and included all of the different voices that we could take advantage of from the different countries present in the classroom. I had a lot of a lot of really amazing IB educators.

The programme is so well set up where even if you don’t have that perfect IB educator, all of the objectives and everything that you need to know is laid out for you, and you have the power to do it yourself as well. So, at every step of the way, it was kind of set up for you to be successful, and just have these really meaningful educational experiences. I would find myself, even at high school parties, having conversations that had started in the classroom with my classmates. It was an incredible educational programme!   

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Beach views from Barbados courtesy of Mackenzie Kelley

I could talk about something from every class that I had. Honestly, even my extended essay experience and being able to work independently helped me apply for my Fulbright and will help with research projects in the future. For example, we read this book Things Fall Apart, and the discussions that we had about that book really primed me for understanding some of the social justice issues I encountered in my time living in the United States during college. Even now that I’m here in Barbados, a lot of things that I learned in the IB supported me for deeper and further learning.

Was it difficult to move back to the U.S. to study at American University after being immersed in another culture?

I was really struggling to find a community that was as meaningful to me as the community I had at my high school in Abu Dhabi. My sophomore year, I started playing ultimate frisbee and it changed my life. Finding community with ultimate frisbee was just, like, super important to me and helped me with those adjustment issues that all college students go through. It’s kind of a way that I got to know my school and be part of like my school community, and it’s just an awesome sport in general.

When I moved back to the U.S. I was also just really interested in keeping that same kind of international community and open mindedness that I had found in Abu Dhabi. Each place I’ve lived in has been different … I kind of just adjust to the environments of those places. Being in the IB programme definitely sparked my interest in travelling and I’ve become more comfortable, I guess, with that feeling of discomfort and not knowing anyone at first, and just being okay with that.

“The IB is completely a different form of education, where I am the owner of my education.”

In broad terms, what is one piece of critical advice you would give to a student considering an IB programme?

Well I would definitely say to do the IB programme! But I know everybody needs to consider different things. I was not the smartest person in my class when I first went to my school in Abu Dhabi. I really wasn’t prepared for the level of challenge that my new school presented but, in my experience, the IB programme is set up for you to be successful and a lot of people are there to support you.

I have a lot of appreciation for the IB just because I did come from a public school in Kentucky and I did AP classes, which are great in and of themselves as well, but the IB is a completely different form of education, where I am the owner of my education.

I think by the end, you get a lot of say in what you’re going to focus on, so you’re very invested in your chosen topics and your success in those topics. Even though you’re like, “I have to do the extended essay, I have to do my CAS, I have to do all these classes in between all those things,” there are a lot of really special moments that you wouldn’t expect, and that are going to benefit you greatly. So, I think once you start IB programme too, you become open and willing to letting that become your whole life, because it really is designed to help you have really meaningful years in high school.


Mackenzie Kelley is a graduate of American Community School of Abu Dhabi and American University in Washington, DC. After graduating with a degree in biochemistry, she pursued her interest in studying non-communicable diseases by applying for the Fulbright program. Through her Fulbright grant, Mackenzie is currently researching type 2 diabetes in Barbados.

To hear more from Diploma Programme (DP) graduates check out these IB programme stories. If you are an IB grad and want to share your story, write to us at [email protected]We appreciate your support in sharing IB stories and invite you to connect with us on LinkedIn, Twitter and now Instagram!

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