It’s the 75th anniversary of the Fulbright Scholarships. They were a profoundly idealistic notion from a consummate politician and pragmatist, and they came from a time when some in the United States, wanted to acknowledge there was a whole world out there beyond their own borders. An attitude that seems far-fetched in today’s America.
Horrified by the devastation of the Second World War and the emergence of a new threat of nuclear war, Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright proposed an educational exchange between the United States and the world. It was a program he hoped would lead, if not to global peace, at least to an understanding that people from competing countries “were not devils who had to be eliminated.”
Authorized in 1946, the Fulbright program can be counted as a success: There has been no third Great War, and no nuclear annihilation. However, the program’s broader objective—to promote greater understanding and civility among nations—has proved more elusive.
Of course, world peace—or anything approaching it—is a pretty high bar to clear. Better to look at the Fulbright program for what it has accomplished, beginning with the more than 370,000 students, scholars, artists, teachers, and scientists who have received Fulbright grants since 1948. It’s a list that includes 59 Nobel Laureates, more than 80 Pulitzer Prize winners, and such notables as playwright Edward Albee, actor John Lithgow, and opera singer Renee Fleming.
“Just the output of the program is evidence of its success,” said Joan Dassin, Ph.D., a professor of International Education at Brandeis University and three-time Fulbrighter, who did research in Brazil. It has maintained a presence in more than 160 countries despite the myriad of wars, revolutions, and other conflicts that have ravaged the planet since World War II.
The more than 8,000 Fulbright scholarships that are awarded each year, work in two different ways: They provide funding for U.S. residents to teach or study in foreign countries, and they enable people from other countries to teach or study here. The fellowships include student grants for recent college graduates, graduate students, artists, and young professionals; teacher grants for teacher exchange programs or research projects; teaching and research grants for U.S. and foreign scholars; and other grant programs.
Well-established and prestigious, the Fulbright program has traditionally received strong bipartisan political support; and yet, throughout its history, it has had to deal with periodic pushback from anti-internationalists, who distrust global entanglements. This has led to repeated budgetary threats. “I think of them as ‘zombie arguments,’” Dassin said in an interview. “They just never die.” An apt description of Donald Trump, who tried to cut the program’s source funding by 75%.
So what is the impact of the program, both on the host countries, and the nations that send young people abroad? That’s difficult to answer, at least in any quantitative way.
The Fulbrights, and other educational exchanges like Peace Corps, have always been viewed as examples of “soft power” tools that advance American values and interests without political pressure, or military might. Their ability to endure while minimizing the effects of partisan politics is due in part to the Fulbright program’s organizational structure. While Fulbright relies on government money, the government doesn’t run the program: It is administered by the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, and about 50 bi-national committees.
I met, and worked with, many Peace Corp volunteers during my time as a British volunteer in Sierra Leone, and as a Peace Corps consultant in Kenya. The effect of the Peace Corps experience was profound on all those volunteers. I can still say today, nearly sixty years later, that when I meet someone new in the U.S. I can almost always tell, within minutes of meeting them, if they had had a Peace Corps, or similar, experience. The effect is that significant.
Looking back on her experience, Kellee Jenkins, Ph.D., who now heads the National Capital Area Chapter (NCAC) of the Fulbright Association, said it was more than worth it. Jenkins specializes in the teaching of underserved, marginalized students, helping teachers find their own voice and identity so they can pass that knowledge on to their students. In Salvador da Bahia, she worked with one of the poorest populations in Brazil, the largest population of African descendants outside Africa itself.
“I worked in an area where the communities were poor and did not have a lot,” Jenkins said. “But they were proud people, proud of their culture and heritage, proud of their families and country, proud of the work they do professionally and in the community. It really made quite an impression on me and energized me to do more in the field of education.”
For her Fulbright scholarship, Stephanie Kim, Ph.D., did research on international education in South Korea as part of her doctorate at UCLA. Now Faculty Director for Georgetown’s graduate program in Higher Education Administration, she said the program helped her step outside her comfort zone and see the world as others might experience it.
“It’s not just the research or the technical skills I picked up,” Kim said. “There’s a real cultural immersion. It helps you develop a deep empathy for how connected we all are.”
I think that says it all, and is the best compliment the Fulbright Scholarship Program, Peace Corps, and all other similar international programs from all countries could receive. If enough people feel and act that way, there is hope we can control the idiocies of egotistical politicians, the world over.