After 75 Years, Fulbright Program Is Still Looking to Change the World

International exchange students in London.

It was a profoundly idealistic notion from a consummate politician and pragmatist. 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 in the most limited of its geopolitical goals: There has been no third Great War, no nuclear annihilation. But the program’s broader objective—to promote greater understanding and civility among nations—has not occurred.

“I hate to say this. I love the program and international exchange—I’m an educator,” said Randall Woods, Ph.D., a history professor at the University of Arkansas and author of “Fulbright: A Biography,” in a BBC forum. “I don’t think it’s probably made any difference in international politics at all.”

Of course, world peace—or anything approaching it—is a pretty high bar to clear. Better to look at the Fulbright program, which marked the 75th anniversary of its Congressional authorization in 2021, 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.

Dassin, who also participated in the BBC form, also praised what she called the program’s “durability”—the fact that it has maintained a presence in more than 160 countries despite the myriad wars, revolutions, and other conflicts that have ravaged the planet since World War II.

‘An Article of Faith’

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 support; and yet, throughout its history, it has had to deal with periodic pushback from anti-internationalists who distrust global entanglements, which has led to repeated budgetary threats.

“I think of them as ‘zombie arguments,’” Dassin said in an interview. “They just never die.”

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. To those who believe in Fulbright, the benefits are self-evident, “an article of faith,” as Dassin put it. And yet there has been little documentation of these benefits—and not just for the Fulbrights, but for the many other educational exchanges run by the United States and other countries. However, that has changed in recent years as more researchers have begun exploring the topic.

“The problem is: The personal profiles are great, but they’re too idiosyncratic,” said Dassin, co-editor of “International Scholarships in Higher Education: Pathways to Social Change.” “You can’t generalize.”

Soft Diplomacy, Soft Power

The Fulbrights and other educational exchanges have also been viewed as examples of “soft power,” tools that advance American values and interests without political pressure or military might. These tools have been deemphasized by the Trump Administration, which recently proposed, but did not receive, a 75 percent cut for the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which funds the Fulbrights with Congressional appropriations.

This 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.

“This is a program that is funded by the State Department, but the State Department does not take part in the selection,” said Lauren Tuckley, Ph.D., Senior Associate Director of Fellowships at Georgetown University. “That distinction is important, and it allows average citizens to go abroad and set the terms of what it means to be an American by the Americans themselves, not a party or a government agency.”

For the 2018–19 academic year, Georgetown and the University of Chicago each had 30 graduates selected as Fulbright scholars, placing them just behind Brown University (35) and Princeton (33) in the number of Fulbrighters from among doctoral-granting institutions. But while prominent universities like these may have the greatest number of Fulbright scholars, the grants are awarded to graduates of a wide range of two- and four-year institutions nationwide. For a program that aims to show America—all of America—to the world, this diversity of background and experience is key.

A Step Outside the Comfort Zone

Kellee Jenkins spent a semester in France while a student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She studied French culture, language, and literature, and came back knowing a good deal of the language. So, years later, when she was a professor applying for a Fulbright to research educational practices in Northeast Brazil, she remembered thinking that “taking up Portuguese would be easy.”

It proved to be a lot tougher than she expected, especially the pronunciation and unusual sentence structure. But the program required her to have a working knowledge of the language so, in addition to her duties as an education professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., she took courses in Portuguese and worked with a tutor until the moment she departed.

Looking back on her experience, 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, 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.”

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