The purpose of the prestigious Fulbright scholarship is to encourage individuals from the U.S. and other nations to share ideas with one another, establish friendships and work together.
In fact, the man who came up with the concept for the Fulbright Program – now-deceased Democratic politician and longtime U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright, who represented Arkansas – envisioned it as a catalyst for the type of international discussions and collaborations that help people discover solutions to urgent global problems.
Fulbright scholarships may be used to pay for post-college scholarly pursuits such as graduate education and academic research. Anyone who dreams of securing a Fulbright scholarship should keep the goal of the Fulbright program in mind when crafting an application, experts say.
“A demonstrated interest in a different culture and a passion for helping others are certainly among the qualities that are assessed in every Fulbright applicant,” Anne Lundberg, director of fellowships at Trinity College in Connecticut, wrote in an email. “Fulbright evaluates applicants on characteristics including maturity, motivation, and personal stability.”
The Fulbright Program is sponsored by the U.S. government and also supported by academic institutions, corporations, foundations and foreign governments. There are Fulbright scholarships for U.S. citizens through the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, plus Fulbright scholarships for citizens of other nations that are available via the Fulbright Foreign Student Program – so the application process depends on a candidate’s nationality. Detailed instructions for U.S. Fulbright applicants are available online.
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Fulbright U.S. student grant amounts are based on federal appropriations, but typically the grant includes round-trip transportation to and from the host nation, room and board plus incidental costs, accident and sickness health benefits, and access to a 24/7 support number.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of State provides all international Fulbright students who study in the U.S. with a health benefit plan and enrichment activities, which may include orientations, seminars and cultural outings. U.S. colleges and universities that host international Fulbright students typically provide tuition and fee waivers for two courses per semester or one per quarter, according to the Fulbright website.
In addition to grants for U.S. and non-U.S. students, the Fulbright Program also provides funding to U.S. and foreign scholars through its Fulbright Scholar Program.
The duration of a Fulbright scholarship varies depending on the type of grant, but a Fulbright experience will often last for one academic year.
Applying for a Fulbright Scholarship
Fulbrighters are “chosen through a rigorous selection process that includes submission of a thorough application and several layers of review,” Domenica Dominguez, director of international engagement and Fulbright student program advisor with Montclair State University in New Jersey, wrote in an email.
“There are many factors and considerations that determine who is ultimately selected,” she added. “Criteria varies between types of grants and the needs of the host country. Applicants for any grant can enhance their application by thoughtfully reflecting on and articulating how their participation in the Fulbright program will support the Fulbright mission to increase goodwill and mutual understanding between people of the U.S. and people of other countries through exchange.”
“Some of the important factors that are considered include the strength and feasibility of the applicant’s project; qualifications and experience related to their proposal; and personal characteristics of the applicant, including their commitment to cultural exchange,” she says.
“While academic success is one important consideration, it is not the primary factor and there is no minimum GPA requirement to be considered,” Dominguez adds. “Applicants from all fields are welcome – sciences, the arts, education and the humanities. Fulbright seeks individuals who are excellent communicators and leaders who will engage with their host community.”
Michael Westrate, director of the Center for Research and Fellowships at Villanova University in Pennsylvania and an alumnus of the Fulbright scholarship program, says selection committees like to see evidence of community service and community engagement. It’s also helpful if candidates can show a capacity to adapt to unfamiliar surroundings and demonstrate strong intercultural competency, he says.
The tone of Fulbright application essays is crucial, Westrate says, adding that applicants should consciously avoid writing in a way that makes it seem like they believe their culture is superior to all others.
“That’s not what the Fulbright program is looking for,” he says. “These are not missionaries they’re looking for.” Fulbright applicants should show that they are willing and able to learn from other cultures, Westrate suggests.
Experts say the Fulbright Program is intended to spur immersion in and appreciation of a new culture. The goal, they say, is for Fulbrighters to bring the insights they gain from the experience back to their home countries.
Sojourner White, who received a Fulbright grant to be an English teaching assistant and U.S. cultural ambassador in Spain in 2016-2017, says that when she was crafting her application, she focused on telling a compelling and heartfelt story.
“My advisor told me to write down every experience of my life that I could remember and its impact on me,” White wrote in an email. “From there, I picked the most salient experiences to my life and career goals to discuss in my application. It seemed tedious at the time, yet it helped me find my voice (within the word limit) and share why I was the best fit for the TA program. It made it seem like I had been waiting my entire life for this opportunity, and in a way I was.”
Likewise, Leah Zuidema – who participated in a 2018 Fulbright program in France for college and university administrators – says that she also spent a significant amount of time fine-tuning her application essay.
“My approach was to try to be who I was,” says Zuidema, vice president for online and graduate education at Dordt University in Iowa. “So I’m from rural Iowa, and I emphasized that I was from rural Iowa. I didn’t apologize for that or make that something that was a negative.”
Zuidema, who has a doctorate in English, provided the following tips for aspiring Fulbrighters.
“First, find the Fulbright opportunity that is right for you,” she wrote in an email. “For example, if you are an administrator with limited time for travel, there are shorter Fulbright programs designed especially for administrators. Second, seek feedback on your draft application from people who have successfully completed a Fulbright, as they’ll see your writing through eyes familiar with Fulbright goals and values. Third, be persistent, and if your first application doesn’t succeed, revise and update it the next year and try again.”
Americans who are chosen to participate in the Fulbright program are expected to set a good example. “Fulbright grantees are considered by the U.S. government to be ‘cultural ambassadors’ for the United States, so applicants would need to demonstrate how they would represent the best of American culture and American values,” Lundberg says.
U.S. Fulbright awardees are “accomplished students, scholars, teachers, artists, and professionals who come from a variety of backgrounds and fields, are current and future leaders, and represent all facets of diversity in the United States,” Marie Royce, assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs at the U.S. Department of State, wrote in an email.
Royce offers some advice to U.S. Fulbright applicants: “We encourage applicants to develop proposals that reflect their academic and professional goals and interests, their leadership qualities, and demonstrate how a Fulbright award to the proposed country will allow them to fulfill those goals. The Fulbright Program is an educational and cultural exchange that supports U.S. foreign policy. Thus, it is essential for applicants to demonstrate how they will build upon the professional and personal connections they make during their Fulbright experience to help to increase understanding between the people of the United States and their exchange host countries.”
The Impact of a Fulbright Scholarship
Fulbrighters often go on to pursue stellar careers, according to the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs website.
“Fulbright alumni have achieved distinction in government, science, the arts, business, philanthropy, education, and athletics,” the website states, adding that 37 Fulbright alumni have become heads of state, 60 have won a Nobel Prize, 75 have become MacArthur Foundation Fellows and 86 have been awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
Famous Fulbrighters include John Hope Franklin, an American historian who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi social entrepreneur and economics professor who started the Grameen Bank, a microlending financial institution that provides small collateral-free loans to the poor.