Opening Photo: President Harry S. Truman (center) poses with a group of Fulbright teachers, 1950. Photo courtesy of the University of Arkansas Libraries Special Collections
By Sherry C. Keneson-Hall
Throughout 2021, the Fulbright Program is celebrating its 75th anniversary with hundreds of international events and an anniversary celebration at the Kennedy Center on Nov. 30. Behind the scenes, however, the anniversary is a chance to reflect on how the Fulbright Program—created before the transistor radio—evolved into the Department of State’s flagship international educational exchange program and remains a powerful foreign policy tool today.
The Fulbright Program was signed into law by President Harry Truman, Aug. 1, 1946, to increase mutual understanding between U.S. citizens and people of other countries through academic exchange programs. The program has now grown to include more than 400,000 Fulbright alumni representing more than 160 countries, with approximately 8,000 grants awarded annually.
“Fulbright has evolved into a truly global program and is as strong as ever,” said Mary Kirk, director of the Office of Academic Exchange Programs which manages the Fulbright Student and Scholar Programs in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). “We receive 12,000 applications a year for the Fulbright U.S. student program alone, and applications from U.S. faculty have risen steadily. This is a testament to the continuing relevance of Fulbright to the career paths of recent graduates and the reputation of the program over many decades. We have deep and abiding support from the full range of U.S. higher education institutions, which work with us on all components of the program. We are honored that Congress continues to value this program highly and that partner governments around the world continue to contribute to Fulbright.”
The Fulbright Program’s continued evolution and relevance is part of its design, according to Acting Assistant Secretary for ECA Matthew Lussenhop.
“It is the kind of program that has that flexibility,” said Lussenhop. “While it is one of the oldest exchange programs we have, it is also continually changing and remains as relevant today as it was 75 years ago when it was created.”
“The tools within Fulbright provide a way to tap into the breadth of expertise and knowledge offered by the American community. [Participants] share this with the global community. A fully thought-out foreign policy needs to have a robust academic component. Whether it is climate change, the Arctic, countering disinformation, or other topics, Fulbright is a tool that allows policymakers and implementers to have access to knowledge that is compiled in these and other areas.”
For Fulbright alumni turned Department employees, the connection between foreign policy and the Fulbright Program is clear.
“What Fulbrighters do for soft power is so valuable, and the dividends are innumerable. I cannot adequately put it into words,” said Nadia Ramirez Dominguez, who volunteered afterhours to teach English to North Korean defectors while serving as an English teaching assistant (ETA) in South Korea from 2014 to 2016.
Ramirez Dominguez, who will begin her second tour as a vice consul in Argentina in August, said her first experience with a Foreign Service officer came when she proposed to work with defectors. The Fulbright Program matched North Koreans with American mentors and through this work she realized the full impact of public diplomacy. She said this inspired her to become a public diplomacy officer.
Ramirez Dominguez, who immigrated to the United States from Colombia when she was 10 years old, said, “I realized that I could be the person approving those grants. I could also be the person who showed North Koreans that the United States accepted me, a Colombian immigrant, and the country that accepted me was not what they were conditioned to believe it was.”
She notes that she could make meaningful connections with her students by recounting her personal struggles while learning English.
“I think that a lot of embassy officers don’t realize the powerful tool they have with Fulbright participants. Fulbrighters are teaching or researching in the local community. They touch lives, meet younger generations, and other contacts in a more natural way. Don’t underestimate the network that your Fulbrighters have built.”
Tyra Beaman, serving as vice consul in Rio de Janeiro, reflects positively on her Fulbright experience.
“Every day was a purpose-driven job that taught me the importance of public service,” said Beaman, who was an ETA in the Dominican Republic from 2016 to 2017. “Fulbright allows us to be in spaces and places where we have the freedom to create curriculums for classes that represent the experiences that we have from our previous backgrounds … My Fulbright meant that people saw a different face of the United States rather than what was portrayed in the media. They were able to see the United States through the lens of a Black woman and that offered a different perspective.”
Beaman had previously studied abroad in several countries while an undergraduate student at Spelman College. There she met a mentor who convinced her to pursue a Fulbright program in the Dominican Republic. Through her volunteer work, the connections she made in the classroom helped to build networks with organizations, people, and universities, leading to more meaningful research on racism in policies surrounding human trafficking and sex work.
“My Fulbright experience offered me a snapshot of what it was going to be like to be a Foreign Service officer,” she said.
For Patty Bass, a Fulbright scholar in South Africa from 2000 to 2001, her Fulbright program was an important diplomatic statement.
“Researching and teaching archeology and rock art, I was aware from the very beginning that my Fulbright program was a tool of foreign policy, as the study of past humans didn’t align politically with the apartheid message. So approving research for a U.S. scholar to come [to] teach and conduct studies at the Rock Art Research Institute at the University of Witwatersrand was a symbol that things had changed not only politically, but also in education.”
Bass, who has been a civil servant for 13 years and now works as a program officer for the Fulbright Program in ECA, said even after 75 years, Fulbright is incredibly responsive when it comes to policy priorities.
“It seems like people look at Fulbright and think it’s like a big ocean liner that is slow to respond, but actually it is not because we can look at research projects and we work daily with partners at post and commissions to meet country priorities,” said Bass. “This happens all the time. As issues come up, such as immigration challenges, environmental changes, or other emerging priorities, the Fulbright Program is aware and works with partners to find specialists in those fields or to bring student researchers working on those issues. Currently, we are starting to see a lot of work being done in the fields of global health and pandemic studies. There are a lot of smart people out there and Fulbright enables us to connect them with partners and experts around the world. It is a constantly evolving entity that is a very flexible tool to have at post.”
Jason Haserodt, chief of staff in the Office of Global Partnerships, credits his experience as a Fulbright ETA in Germany from 2004 to 2005 with changing his perception of exchanges.
“One positive outcome of exchanges is that Americans go around and see the world from a different perspective,” said Haserodt. “It is essential to have that in-person experience of being immersed in another culture. There is huge value in that.”
As the Fulbright Program celebrates its 75-year history, there is much to be proud of, said Kirk, “but perhaps most of all we should be proud of the ability to respond to the priorities of the Department of State while providing meaningful connections for students, teachers, and scholars from all over the United States and the world. This is not only Fulbright’s legacy but also our future.”
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Sherry C. Keneson-Hall is a Foreign Service officer currently serving as the Fulbright branch chief for Europe/Eurasia in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.