Fellowships for International Graduate Students

As an ornithologist in Brazil, Cindy Barreto says she carefully searched for Ph.D. programs at U.S. universities that would allow her to work in avian conservation but also provide her with a fellowship to fund her studies.

Last year, she was awarded the Harriott Fellowship from the University of Connecticut. Fellowships are a type of financial support awarded to graduate students pursuing a master’s or doctoral degree, typically for students pursuing training or research in a particular field, and do not need to be paid back.

The fellowship Barreto received is available to what the university calls “outstanding young scholars” admitted to doctoral programs and provides a $20,000 annual stipend for up to five years. It does not have a service commitment, meaning award recipients aren’t required to work to earn the money, though they must make progress toward their degree.

“Personally, this fellowship means achievement and a reward for what I did in the past and still do for the promotion of diversity and inclusion in higher education,” says Barreto, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology.

Here some things prospective international graduate students planning to study at a U.S. university should know about fellowships:

  • They’re almost always merit-based.
  • There are fewer fellowships for international students.
  • They’re not well-advertised.

They’re Almost Always Merit-Based

Rather than being based on financial need, most fellowships are merit-based – which means students will need to demonstrate some type of achievement or potential to achieve something great in their chosen field, experts say.

“Fellowships are typically merit-based awards given to students without having a teaching or research-based rider attached to them,” says Tripti Asrani Singh, a counseling psychologist in Shanghai who works with The Red Pen, an independent education consulting company based in Mumbai, India. The majority of the students she works with apply to multiple U.S. graduate schools.

She says some merit-based fellowships are offered by a university while others are provided by an external institution or independent body. Examples include university fellowships for students from certain regions – like Cornell University’s Africa Fund, an internal fellowship for Ph.D. applicants to the New York-based graduate school who are citizens of an African country – and the Graduate Women In Science National Fellowship Program, an external fellowship that supports women’s academic and professional careers in the sciences and is open to all nationalities.

“We have three fellowships that are open to all applicants, whether or not they are international. They are our Harriott, Jorgensen and Crandall fellowships,” says Stuart Paul Duncan, director of fellowships, outreach and programming at The Graduate School at the University of Connecticut.

The first two are for candidates seeking doctoral degrees and the third is for those seeking master’s degrees. Once prospective students submit their application to UConn, they receive an email invitation to apply for the appropriate fellowship, he says.

“These fellowships are merit-based and are first reviewed by individual departments, who can nominate a select number of applicants, and then reviewed by a universitywide committee,” Duncan says.

Melanie Morgan, associate dean of The Graduate School at Purdue University—West Lafayette in Indiana, says the school’s recruitment fellowships – awards to attract top-quality graduate students to a school – are open to all students, including international students. She says the awards are “merit-based and students are nominated by the program they are applying to.”

Likewise at the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, graduate recruitment fellowships are merit-based and applicants are nominated by faculty or program directors from 80 graduate programs across campus after they apply for admission to a program, says Jennifer Gerz-Escandón, associate dean for interdisciplinary education and fellowship programs at UNC’s Graduate School. The awards cover tuition and fees and include a stipend and health insurance.

International graduate student applicants are also eligible for UNC’s merit-based interdisciplinary graduate fellowship programs, the Royster Society of Fellows and the Weiss Urban Livability Fellowship. All students, international and domestic, are nominated by their prospective program or department for these awards, Gerz-Escandón says.

There Are Fewer Fellowships for International Students

While there are fewer fellowships for international students, EducationUSA advising centers, which are supported by the U.S. Department of State and located throughout the world, can be a good resource since they maintain updated lists of open fellowships.

“Funding for prospective international students is extremely limited, externally. Fulbright and governmental awards are the primary mechanisms for external funding,” Morgan says. “The governmental awards vary by country, but the Fulbright award is merit-based and competitive. Most external fellowships require that the student already be enrolled at that university for eligibility.”

The Fulbright Foreign Student Program is geared toward prospective international graduate students, young professionals and artists who seek to study and conduct research in the U.S. About 4,000 international students receive Fulbright scholarships each year.

But even with fewer fellowships, international students still have other possibilities for funding.

“Typically, if a department gets a strong application packet from a student, that program will work with the student to help them get funding of some sort. It may be a research assistant or teaching assistant position,” Morgan says.

Thomas Pilnik, who has dual British and Brazilian nationality, says he made the conscious decision to apply only to fully funded Master of Fine Arts programs that offer tuition remission and a small stipend in exchange for a teaching assistant or instructor appointment. When offered admission to UConn for the MFA in studio art program, he found out that he had been nominated by the art department for the university’s Crandall Fellowship, which he says greatly supplemented the stipend.

“The Crandall Fellowship has increased my funding to equal a living wage while I pursue my MFA. The freedom attached to that is incomparable,” Pilnik says.

They’re Not Well-Advertised

Prospective international students may need to do a bit of digging to find fellowships as they’re usually not well-advertised, experts say.

The Graduate College at the University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign has a fellowship finder tool, and the Institute of International Education offers a searchable database for funding for U.S. study at all levels.

Apart from those research tools, experts recommend students contact their university’s international student office and their program’s department secretary, and to also check school websites to find fellowship listings available to international students.

“It is far easier for a student already enrolled to learn about and avail of the internal fellowship opportunities than for a prospective student who is applying to the university and is trying to gather information about the funding opportunities as well,” Singh says.

Singh recommends prospective international students get on the mailing list of the college or university they are interested in applying to. Once the applicant is admitted, he or she can reach out to the admissions team to ask for additional funding information beyond what’s on the school’s website. She also says to attend virtual admissions events to ask focused questions on funding opportunities available within the specific graduate program as well as from the university.

When Barreto sent in her application to UConn – the only school she applied to – she knew that the ecology and evolutionary biology department offered a teaching or research assistantship for all graduate students admitted, but wasn’t sure she would get a fellowship.

“It enabled me to reach my dream of doing my Ph.D. abroad,” Barreto says.

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