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To Sir (Elton John), with Love: Fulbright recipient Eldonna May encouraged by performer to pursue career in music

April 27, 2016

Reflecting on the honor of receiving a 2016-17 Fulbright “Core” teaching and research award for Botswana, Eldonna May, a part-time faculty member in the Department of Music, can’t help thinking of Sir Elton John.

“I met him briefly as a teenager while visiting my cousin, whose job at Trans World Airlines included leading international group tours and entertaining celebrities,” says May. “I intended to pursue music in college and had just returned from an eight week European tour with Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp’s orchestra. Others were trying to dissuade me because they believed it was not a suitable, financially-stable career track for a woman, and here was Elton John encouraging me to follow my bliss. Before he left, he wrote a note of support on a napkin: ‘Eldonna: Stay with music. You never know – look at me. Elton John.’”

Framed and prominently displayed with other treasures, the personalized memento has remained with her throughout her schooling and her 24-year career with Wayne State.

Botho University in Botswana is the destination for May (CFPCA ’79, ’92), an expert in African/African-American music and certified online professor, who will work with Botho University’s Faculty of Education Distance Learning unit in developing an online learning program and teaching commons for faculty; she also will launch the country’s first music business program at Botho during the next academic year. Finally, she is continuing research and fieldwork in kwaito music (a genre that emerged in Johannesburg in the 1990s) for her most current book.

The catalyst for May’s decision to pursue a Fulbright award was a student applicant, whom she met while serving as a Fulbright student grant review panelist. “As we discussed the viability of her proposal, she asked me if I had ever applied or been awarded a Fulbright, and I had to admit I hadn’t because there are other award tracks in the arts,” says May, chair emerita of the WSU President’s Commission on the Status of Women and the U.S. delegate to the African Deans Education Forum.

An active international scholar, May has made presentations in Cyprus, South Africa, Botswana, Ghana, Mauritius, Australia, Finland, and England in the past four years; so although the seed was planted, May says, it wasn’t until 2014 that she began to develop her proposal.

As an experienced grant writer, May says successful proposals create a lasting impact for those involved and the community served. For the Fulbright specifically, faculty and student applicants are representing not only themselves, but their university, their country, and their discipline.

“Botho needs assistance in leveraging its online learning platforms and web-based communication with students,” says May.  “And with the wealth of artistic talent in Botswana, a program on entrepreneurship and employment in the arts is an important addition to the university’s curriculum.”

Fulbright, with more than 500 scholarship grants available, is accepting applications for the 2017-18 academic year. To learn more, contact Jaclyn Assarian, associate director, Office of International Programs (OIP), and Wayne State’s Fulbright liaison for faculty programs, at 313-577-9319 or jassarian@wayne.edu.

OIP is always interested in hearing from faculty and student Fulbright alumni. If you have received a Fulbright award, email Carol Baldwin, carol.baldwin@wayne.edu, and tell her about your experience.