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UHD Assistant Professor Named Fulbright Alternate

Natacha Poggio’s Proposal Makes Ecuador Environmental Project A Possibility

UPDATE: On April 21, Natacha Poggio’s Fulbright status changed from “alternate” to “selected.” Read the updated article

The Fulbright Scholar Program might be described as the Oscars of scholarly research and teaching awards: It’s an honor to be one of the finalists.

Natacha Poggio’s U.S. Fulbright application was compelling enough to earn a spot in Ecuador as a Fulbright Alternate Candidate.

“It’s a great honor to have come this far in such a rigorous selection process on my first try,” said Poggio, an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design in the College of Humanities & Social Sciences’ Department of Arts & Communication. “I believe it’s a sign of the importance of the work I’m proposing to do – I’m competing with all kinds of scholars, including scientists – and my application for an environmental design project earned me an Alternate slot.”

If Poggio moves to a principal position, she would be based in Guayaquil, Ecuador, a port city known as a gateway to the Galapagos Islands, working with students at the Universidad de las Artes. Her application includes both teaching and research components, both of which focus on educating the local community about the human-made risks to the biodiversity of the area. Her dream is to empower students and community members to become informed environmental advocates.

The teaching component, Poggio explained, “will entail undergraduate lectures and workshops highlighting aspects of visual communication for environmental awareness – specifically regarding the protection of marine ecosystems from human impact.” Design topics would include visual literacy, composition, color, typography, editorial illustration, infographics, layout, and photography. “The goal is to teach students how to create environmental communications messages across media types,” she added. “Editorial design workshops will serve as hands-on training experience.”

The research component of her application would involve both student and community engagement. “If selected as a principal candidate, I plan to develop an artistic/research project in collaboration with Ecuadorian organizations that are local leaders in raising awareness of environmental issues,” she said. Poggio laid the groundwork for these collaborations during two previous trips to Ecuador. “I was planning ahead before the pandemic,” she noted.

One component of her research project is a student-designed digital publication with compelling environmental messages for distribution to coastal communities. Another component involves teaching local fishermen sustainable fishing practices for catch and release to protect sharks and other fish in the marine biosphere. “Artisanal fishing is an important focus for the local environmental nonprofits because it’s a practice that will be handed down to the next generation of fishermen, creating long-lasting change,” Poggio said.

Given the university’s proximity to the ocean, Poggio believes the environmental communication messages will “raise awareness about endangered species suffering from climate change, environmental pollution, and indiscriminate fishing.” Ultimately, she hopes the campaign will develop a sense of ownership and Natacha Poggiocommunity among the students and the local nonprofits Poggio has connected with during her past trips to Ecuador. “Beyond teaching design, it’s about building on the emerging sense of environmental advocacy among the community so they can carry on this important work,” she said.

Poggio credits her time at UHD for inspiring a change in her approach to teaching that influenced her Fulbright application. “At previous universities, I taught projects with social change objectives so students would become the best (graphic) designers they could be by applying their skills to good causes. While there is no design program at UHD (yet), I still want to empower my students to be good citizens – to become better advocates for the planet and its inhabitants, to seek opportunities to advocate for their education, and to advocate for social issues,” she said. 

“UHD students are very receptive to this idea – they are mature and committed – they have a purpose. They have the willingness and interest to change their lives and their world for the better,” she noted. “If I do receive the Fulbright, I will bring back what I learn from the exchange in Ecuador and share with my students.”

Her approach to teaching her students advocacy for social impact inspired Poggio to create an organization called Design Global Change in 2008 with her students at the University of Hartford. Through this organization, she has been awarded grants for design that positively impact the world.

Recently, Poggio was awarded a $47,905 Sappi Ideas That Matter Grant for “Yasuní: Our Rainforest, Our Life” – a project that will take her to Ecuador this summer. Poggio is one of six recipients this year, making it her third time receiving Sappi’s prestigious and competitive award, which was created more than 20 years ago for designers to create “ideas that matter.”

The beneficiary of the funds is La Poderosa Media Project, the nonprofit organization that Poggio has been collaborating with for many years. Yasuní, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in Ecuador, is one of the world’s most biologically diverse places on earth. Located at the crossroads of the Andes, Amazon, and the equator, this tropical rainforest is home to hundreds of indigenous communities. 

According to Poggio, the integrated multimedia campaign will support La Poderosa Media Project’s vision of transforming communities one story at a time by engaging Waorani children to share their own narratives of environmental stewardship. Elements of the project include a traveling exhibition of posters illustrated by Ecuadorian artists, online content, short documentary videos, postcards, plus an informational children’s book illustrating the stories of wildlife in Yasuní and its unique ecosystem. The book was created by UHD students in Poggio’s ART2302 graphic design class.

What happens to her project if she doesn’t get the Fulbright award? “I’m a very determined person, and if I can’t get Fulbright funding this time, I will find another way to do this educational project,” she said, laughing.

“Nothing will stop me from pursuing these projects,” she said. “Ecuador is one of the most beautiful places on earth, above and below the water.” She added, “I have scuba dived there, so I have seen that unique beauty firsthand. I am committed to empowering the stewards of this incredible place on the planet – the local inhabitants – to protect this treasure – not only for themselves, but for the rest of us.

About the University of Houston-Downtown

The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.

U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.