Milwaukee Journal Sentinel


Fulbright scholar headed for El Salvador


Marquette University winner plans cultural research

In a little over a month, Chris Hallberg will be in El Salvador, starting a 10-month research project.

That's not until October, however, and it's still late September. So Hallberg jetted off to Seattle for Coffee Fest this weekend, where he hopes to attract investors and business partners to his new creation, the "smart mug," or SMUG.

It's all part of what makes Marquette University's first full Fulbright Scholarship winner in four years a "Renaissance man," as Marquette University Dean of Students Stephanie Quade described Hallberg.

While other students might kill time musing about how cool it would be to create a coffee mug that contains radio-identification frequency tags so it can be debited like a gift card, Hallberg created a prototype, applied for a patent and won Marquette's annual award for best undergraduate business plan.

"It's classic Chris Hallberg," said Quade, who has known Hallberg since he was a student at Marquette University High School and supervised him as a recipient of the university's full-tuition Burke Scholarship.

"He didn't just have this crazy idea," she said. "He had contacts with enough people and enough drive to keep pushing it."

And he did it in his spare time, between finishing his bachelor's degree with majors in Spanish and sociology this spring; firming up his research plan on ways nongovernmental organizations can reach rural Latin Americans; and organizing the campus group Student Advocates for Health and Human Dignity.

He's still pinching himself about the Fulbright, however.

"My idea for a Fulbright, before I got it, was it was something people going to Harvard got," said Hallberg, 22, a native of Wauwatosa.

Hallberg's research project grew out of his previous trips to the impoverished Central American country of El Salvador. During his time in the country, which included a summer abroad and spring break trip, Hallberg had a chance to shadow surgeons.

Poverty's barriers

There, he saw physicians trying their hardest, but encountering barriers that medicine couldn't overcome. In one case, a bus driver who was experiencing extreme stress revealed his symptoms were the result of driving a route under regular attack by gangs.

"That's when I realized the limitations of biomedicine," Hallberg said.

A universal concern for people in the country also is the loss of their young people, many of whom come to work in the United States and send checks to support their families back home.

Hallberg hopes his Fulbright-funded research project is able to give organizations that want to help people in the country a window into their lives while also giving youths an opportunity for self-expression.

Based in the rural town of Torola, he plans to identify a dozen young people in their teens to early 20s and give them cameras so they can document their environment. Combined with interviews, he hopes to develop a complex picture of the youths from the town.

He wants to use the information to create recommendations for development organizations working in the region as well as preserve the photographs and videotape recordings of the people of Torola as a snapshot of its youth population.

"I don't know how much of an effect I can have," Hallberg said. "It's more about me being there and learning."

Hallberg, who also has traveled to Ecuador and Guatemala, plans to enter medical school after his scholarship is over and one day would like to divide his practice between the United States and South America.

Lucky for him, coffee's big in both places.