Posted on May 19, 2022 by


Héctor Castrillón-Costa, a doctoral fellow in the Bicultural-Bilingual Studies Department, has been awarded a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship for the 2022 school year. Castrillón-Costa is pursuing his Ph.D. in culture, literacy, and language, and the scholarship will support his dissertation research as he conducts an ethnography of educational language policy in elementary schools on the Caribbean Island of Saint Lucia. His research will focus on how educational practitioners negotiate the use of St. Lucian Standard English (SLSE), Kwéyòl, and St. Lucian English Vernacular.   

Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Castrillón-Costa initially studied political science with plans to become a lawyer. Along the way, he earned a master’s degree in Caribbean history, moved to San Antonio, and became a dual language social studies teacher for Title I schools. However, although he shared a linguistic background with his students, Castrillón-Costa quickly learned this wasn’t enough.  

“I immediately noticed I was completely unprepared to serve the populations I was working with,” he said. “I didn’t have the background knowledge of the history of Mexican Americans or Central Americans, and I only knew a little bit of Texas history.”  

Castrillón-Costa decided to enroll at UTSA and earned his master’s in Bicultural-Bilingual studies, after which he continued to his current Ph.D. program. Although he had already been thinking of conducting research in the Caribbean, it was during his master’s program that Castrillón-Costa’s plans for Saint Lucia began to form.  

“I’m from the Caribbean, I was trained there, lived most of my life there,” he said, “so I wanted to contribute to some scholarship, some type of research that could help the Caribbean community, those living in the Caribbean but also those living in the US.”  

But it wasn’t until he began to research language policy for a class that he learned of a bilingual educational program in Saint Lucia that aimed to integrate Kwéyòl into the classroom. Thinking this would make a perfect dissertation topic, Castrillón-Costa now needed funding to make it happen. He had recently heard about the Fulbright Scholarship and realized that this might be his ticket to Saint Lucia.  

Still, at the end of his master’s degree, Castrillón-Costa would spend the next three years biding his time and preparing for the Fulbright application.   

“It gives you time to reflect,” he said. “It also gives you time to look for academic resources like literature reviews and to get more knowledge about how to apply for a Fulbright, what the requirements and timelines are like.”  

However, while his singular focus enabled him to invest his time and energy into preparing for the application, it wasn’t without its risks.  

“I probably did something I wouldn’t recommend to anyone: I put all my eggs in one basket. I had no plan B, and a lot of professors in the program asked me what would happen if I didn’t get the Fulbright. I just said, ‘I don’t know. That’s the only goal I have right now, the only thing I’m focusing on,’” Castrillón-Costa said.  

Fortunately, Castrillón-Costa was indeed awarded a scholarship for the 2022 school year, a success he credits to a combination of time to research and prepare and the support of his UTSA professors.  

“There’s many UTSA faculty and supports to help you improve your proposal or essays, guide you through the process, and provide letters of recommendation; you really don’t have to do it alone,” he said.  

Now that the reality of the scholarship award is sinking in, Castrillón-Costa says he feels a mixture of relief and happiness, but also a sense of responsibility.  

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime, very unique opportunity, and I feel very responsible to the community in which I’m going to participate and do my research, to give back to that community, to represent the ideals of Fulbright and UTSA, the enormous opportunity to apply what I have learned in my classes to a real-life community that’s struggling with their language, their education, their postcolonial environment,” he explained.   

Castrillón-Costa’s grant will begin on September 1, 2022, and end on June 1, 2023. These dates reflect the school year in Saint Lucia, which begins the first week of September and ends the last week of May. Once he arrives in Saint Lucia in September, Castrillón-Costa plans to spend the whole school year in the classrooms of one or two teachers, actively participating in activities and discussions, attending school staff meetings, and exploring the larger culture.

“I want to capture their everyday life practices, like the way in which they go about their business to hopefully have a more or less clear image of what’s going on every day in school,” he said.

“I want to capture their everyday life practices, like the way in which they go about their business to hopefully have a more or less clear image of what’s going on every day in school,” he said.   

His goal for all this research is to present his findings in Saint Lucia, as the conversation around the new educational language policy continues. Castrillón-Costa says that while some of the Caribbean islands have implemented bilingual education with varying levels of success, Saint Lucia has yet to do so. English remains the officially sanctioned instructional language, even though teachers and students regularly speak Kwéyòl at home and in the classroom. Castrillón-Costa hopes that his research can shed some light on the policy issues from a classroom perspective and give a voice to the island’s teachers and educators.  

However, if not handled properly, such an approach runs the risk of alienating the very people Castrillón-Costa hopes to help.  

“I will be very cautious, and very careful not to position myself as the elite student that’s coming from the U.S. to tell them what to do because they don’t know any better; you have to avoid that at all costs,” he said. “I’m just here because I’ve been trained at UTSA with some qualitative research tools that can be very effective in capturing reality that happens in their schools, and then I can bring that into their conversations for them to use as they wish.”  

Other ways of mitigating this risk include letting the participating teachers drive the research, choosing what to share and how, and thereby finding their own voices and contributing to the policy discussion from the bottom up. Furthermore, the length of his stay in Saint Lucia will help Castrillón-Costa to build rapport with teachers and administrators, and give him a chance to immerse himself in the island’s culture.  

“That way you really integrate with the community,” he said, “which is part of what Fulbright wants you to do, that cultural exchange. That’s also part of what you’ll want to do, because it’s interesting, you’re living in a community that’s not yours and you’re learning a lot. And it’s a key element for the success of the research, of course, because if you don’t do that you won’t be able to capture what you want to capture.”  

Although such immersion is a great benefit to his research and imparts an element of adventure to his dissertation experience, Castrillón-Costa will be away for his family for months at a time. Fortunately, he’s able to keep the distance in perspective.  

“I have other colleagues here at UTSA that applied for Fulbrights in Uzbekistan or Russia, and that is very, very far away from home,” he said. “So, you could feel more homesick if you’re 24 or 30 hours away from home instead of Saint Lucia which is really close to Puerto Rico and two planes away from San Antonio.”  

After he completes his dissertation, Castrillón-Costa plans to apply for a tenure track position at a research university to refine his methodology and continue his research. However, this doesn’t mean his studies will be limited to the tropics; he hopes his work can also benefit Caribbean communities in the United States.

"...They face the same challenges that Mexican-Americans and Asian-Americans, and anybody who migrates here with a different native language is going to face.”

“Once they migrate, they face the same challenges they were facing in the islands,” he explained, “and they face the same challenges that Mexican-Americans and Asian-Americans, and anybody who migrates here with a different native language is going to face.”  

One of the most common challenges, he says, is the marginalization of students’ home languages; whether it’s Kwéyòl in Saint Lucia or Spanish in San Antonio, the language that students grow up speaking in the house is frequently not the language they are expected to use in school. Thus, Castrillón-Costa hopes his research can contribute to the creation of bilingual education policies, both in the Caribbean and in the US. And given the need for this kind of research and policymaking, Castrillón-Costa hopes that other scholars might undertake similar projects.  

“I would like to encourage other researchers to go to other islands, follow my methodology, and conduct similar studies that can contribute to a linguistically responsive pedagogy,” he said.  

Ultimately, Castrillón-Costa says he is excited to begin his Fulbright scholarship and would encourage other students at UTSA to apply. Even if they don’t receive the scholarship, he says, the experience can be very beneficial. Furthermore, he believes that UTSA equips its graduate students to succeed in their education and careers.  

“In terms of the faculty and their research interests, the BBL department has such a broad spectrum of researchers and research interests that you can learn and gather information from so many people; that helps you put the pieces together for your own ideas and actually move forwards to your goal,” he said. “You have a whole supporting cast behind you rooting for you, making an effort, and providing feedback to help you aspire to the highest possible goals.”