The Fulbright Program aims to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship.
—Senator J. William Fulbright
A few days ago I returned from a 5-day Fulbright conference in Berlin, and many thoughts I had formed about the program throughout the past 7 months developed further during this time. I have many suggestions for improving the conference in the future, which I will convey to the Fulbright Commission if given the opportunity, but I will spare you them. Let’s just say that in my opinion, the conference structure did not seem to match to the intellectual nature of the audience.
Applying for a Fulbright award is a very intensive process, which starts about 1 year before the application deadline. For many students who know they want to apply for a Fulbright from an earlier age, this process may start even sooner, even influencing their decision of which university to attend. An interesting display of intellectual pursuits, stellar recommendation letters, great academic standing, a creative personal statement, and a solid research project proposal–all of these things are necessary for consideration as a Fulbright student award grantee. Given the nature of the application process and the prestige attached to the Fulbright name, those of us who received the research grants assumed that our year abroad would come with high expectations of scholarly rigor.
Much to the dismay of the grantees, Fulbright has been more like an emotionally absent parent than a standard of excellence during our grant period. They don’t seem to care what we are researching or if it is going well. They told us that they won’t even ask for a presentation of our results at the end of the grant period. They told us to travel and have fun during our year in Europe. Granted, the money is nice, and for that we are extremely grateful. But much like desperate teenagers, we don’t need a parent to give us cash and then tell us to go have fun and not worry about what time we get home; we need someone to believe in us. It’s sad to think that our intellectual achievements and the contributions to our respective fields don’t matter to the Fulbright Commission, who awarded us this grant (we thought) because of our intellectual potential. What message does this send us? That we aren’t really scholars after all? Just kids, who at most can travel around Europe and enjoy being young?
This brings me to two realizations: 1) The Fulbright award never was about building a team of highly intelligent future leaders. It’s about cultural ambassadorship. It says this in all of the Fulbright official documents. Why didn’t I (and many other students) take this seriously before? 2) Coming out of undergraduate education, most students are used to having positive feedback from professors and other educated adults as signs that we’re on the right track and that what we’re doing is worthwhile and praiseworthy. In the real world (and thank you, Fulbright, for showing me a glimpse of it) there is no one telling you “good job” at every step of the way. You have to believe in what you do and forge your own path into the future. If you wait for affirmation before doing something, you’ll never do anything. By showing that we’re not going to get any affirmation for what we do, Fulbright is unintentionally transforming us into the strong-willed, independent future leaders that we so crave to be and that the world needs. So actually, I owe Fulbright for my professional formation after all.
In conclusion, you may not have been there to see my baby steps, Fulbright, but man am I walking now!