The Fulbright Program at 70: Now more than ever

By Daniel B. Oerther | 08/04/2016

People-to-people diplomacy makes the planet a better place.​​


Oerther_Daniel_ID_embed_SFWFor 70 years, the Fulbright Program has successfully promoted people-to-people diplomacy. In 1946, then-Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas introduced legislation that led to creation of the world’s premier competitive, merit-based opportunity for international exchange of students, scholars, teachers, scientists, artists, and other professionals. Since its inception, more than 310,000 people have participated in one or more of the Fulbright programs. 

James William Fulbright was born in Sumner, Missouri, USA, on 9 April 1905. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from the University of Arkansas in 1925 and later, a master’s from Oxford University, where his views of the critical importance of people-to-people diplomacy were nurtured. After completing a law degree at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Fulbright returned to Arkansas to teach law and, in 1941, was appointed the then-youngest-ever president of the University of Arkansas. Beginning in January 1943, Fulbright served five consecutive terms as senator representing Arkansas in the U.S. Congress, where he served as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1959 to 1974, the longest to serve in that role.
Selecting Fulbrighters
The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs administers the Fulbright Program under the direction of an assistant secretary of state. Twelve presidential appointees to the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board establish policy guidelines for the program and make final selection of “Fulbrighters.” Approximately 50 binational Fulbright Commissions have responsibility for implementing the program with 155 partner nations, with U.S. overseas diplomatic missions providing direct oversight of Fulbright scholars. Private organizations, including the Council for International Exchange of Scholars, provide additional support.
Each year, about 8,000 people participate in the Fulbright Program. Approximately 1,600 U.S. students travel overseas, while 4,000 foreign students visit the United States. About 1,200 U.S. scholars (including faculty and professionals) visit other countries, and some 900 visiting scholars come to the United States for extended stays. The impressive portfolio of opportunities available through the Fulbright Program include semester-long academic experiences for undergraduate students, two-week-long visits by U.S. professionals to other countries through the Fulbright Specialist Program, and yearlong studies by eminent scholars through the prestigious Fulbright Distinguished Chair Awards.


In 2015, I was honored to receive an invitation to a reception in Washington, D.C., of Fulbright alumni to witness swearing-in of newly appointed members to the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. Assistant Secretary of State Evan Ryan administered the oath in a ceremony in the Treaty Room of the U.S. Department of State Headquarters in the Harry S Truman Building. My attendance at the ceremony reflected my successful completion of three Fulbright scholarships, including a Fulbright-Nehru Core Award to the Indian Institute of Science in 2005, a Fulbright-Pai Fellowship to Manipal University in 2005, and the inaugural Fulbright-ALCOA Distinguished Chair in Environmental Sciences and Engineering to the University of Western Para, Brazil, in 2012.
Connecting people and nations
For me, the Fulbright Program is all about relationships—relationships I made with students, faculty members, administrators, staff members, and locals in India and Brazil, as well as those I made with fellow citizens in the United States when I returned home to share stories about my Fulbright experiences. Today, the power of social media has greatly influenced our ability to know more about and share more of our stories with people in other countries. For me, Facebook friends, Instagram followers, tweets, and contacts on WhatsApp have replaced David Hasselhoff and “Baywatch,” Levi’s, and rock ‘n’ roll. In the short timespan between my first Fulbright visit to India in 2005 and my most recent Fulbright experience to Brazil in 2012, a brave new world of connectivity has changed the landscape of diplomacy.
Oerther_article2_embed_3Q16_SFWIn my view, the cultural ambassadors of the Fulbright Program transformed the professional diplomatic corps of foreign service officers in a manner similar to the role social media has played in transforming pen-pal relationships. For good and bad, we have become a more interdependent and interconnected world of citizens who are only thumb’s-length from our global neighbors. And while some may argue that our newfound abilities to communicate over great distances in asynchronous time has created a world where physical travel of cultural ambassadors is no longer necessary, I would argue that there is a greater need for the Fulbright Program today than at any time since its inception.
Because of its size, reputation, and robust screening process, the Fulbright Program selects high-quality cultural ambassadors, providing them with financial and logistical support to effectively navigate what can otherwise be challenging cultural divides. When successful Fulbrighters return home and share their stories, they stimulate desire in others to know more about people around the world and, in the process, encourage humanity to dismantle the mistrust and harmful stereotypes that often separate otherwise-similar families, neighbors, and co-workers. Aided by the technology that is always at my fingertips, I can count on my extended Fulbright family in India and Brazil to “like” pictures of my wife and children on Facebook.
Want to know more?
For colleagues, friends, and family members who want to know the tricks for a successful Fulbright application, my advice is to read carefully the materials provided by the U.S. Department of State and its partners. A Fulbrighter is first and foremost a cultural ambassador who shares knowledge of home with his or her host and gains knowledge about the host and his or her culture in return. While licensed professionals such as nurses, engineers, accountants, architects, attorneys, pharmacists, and physicians may not be able to practice their skills as part of a Fulbright Award, the Fulbright Program actively seeks those with advanced training in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). In particular, the Fulbright Specialist Program (click link for details) represents an excellent opportunity for full-time professionals to nurture their desire to establish linkages with scholars and professionals at host institutions in countries around the globe.
If you have never spoken to a Fulbrighter, do yourself a favor and reach out to your local university. Chances are good that a cultural ambassador from another country will be visiting nearby and would enjoy meeting with you. Even better, meet with a U.S. Fulbrighter and catch his or her enthusiasm for traveling overseas to represent the United States.
The mission of the U.S. Department of State is to “create a more secure, democratic, and prosperous world for the benefit of the American people and the international community.” In my opinion, the people-to-people diplomacy of the Fulbright Program plays a major role in achieving these ambitious goals. Beginning this month, I hope you will join my fellow Fulbrighters and me in celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Fulbright Program. RNL
Daniel B. Oerther, PhD, PE, BCEE, honorary member of the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International, and Jefferson Science Fellow in the U.S. Department of State and National Academies of the United States, is the John A. and Susan Mathes Chair of Environmental Health Engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology.
In Part 2 of this two-part series, “Thinking about applying for a Fulbright award?” Kathleen Nokes identifies steps that improve an applicant’s chances for receiving this prestigious award that promotes international understanding.
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