Center for Strategic Communication

 By Patricia Lee Sharpe 

Approximately 325,400 intellectual leaders or leaders-in-the-making—122,800 from the United States, 202,600 from other countries—have participated in the Fulbright  Program since its inception in 1946.  The founding idea was that greater international understanding might help to prevent world wars like those that disfigured the first half of the 20th century, and maybe it has, though civil wars are still a serious problem.  Nevertheless, international understanding is the universal lubricant for the complex machinery of global interaction.  Blind ethnocentricity is increasingly a losing game.

Today the Fulbright Program is active in over 155 countries and awards about 8,000 grants annually.  Congress supported the program with  $242.8 million in FY 2013.  Some $80 million more comes through binational commissions or foundations in countries that share the Fulbright vision and have the resources to contribute.

A willingness to share costs! 

If that’s not proof of success, what is?  Clearly Congress should ignore any shortsighted suggestions to cut back on U.S. support for this universally applauded program.  What’s more, however viewed, whether as a part of the entire national  budget, as part of the national security budget or as part of the State Department budget, the Fulbright  program costs a pittance compared to the gratitude and respect it earns for the U.S. around the globe. 

America isn’t getting much of either these days.  Not much gratitude.  Not much respect.  We should treasure a program that everyone loves us for. 

Win-Win Educational Exchanges

Fulbright  grants insert U.S. teachers into the faculties of foreign institutions, exposing many thousands of foreign students to instructors who are American (and model American values) even if they aren’t teaching American studies as such.  Other American grantees do research around the globe, thus acquiring or strengthening the degrees or other certifications by which they can qualify as area studies professors at American colleges and universities.  Unexposed to such expertise, Americans might find it more difficult to wrap their minds around global issues,  and an ill-informed citizenry isn’t likely to understand or support a wise foreign policy.  Meanwhile, foreign grantees absorb American culture along with specialized training in the U.S.

Another plus: ex-Fulbrighters often land in the  recruiting pool for American national security agencies, all of  whose personnel need to understand other cultures if our foreign policy is to be soundly formulated and applied.  The latter process is facilitated if there are people in other countries, Fulbright alumni, for example, who know and sympathize with the U.S.  

Last but hardly least,  a truth we should never forget when we’re seized by our recurrent anti-intellectual spasms: American leadership in the world depends very much on its intellectual leadership and the ability to deploy that expertise in world fora.  In this category the Fulbright program excels.

An Untarnished Reputation

And here’s the real magic: yes, the Fulbright program has served America well, but no one has ever been able to discredit the Fulbright program with the ugly label:  propaganda.  It’s intellectual integrity has survived for sixty years.   So where’s the downside of this program?

In short, with the world in the throes of chaos and major change, this is no time to withdraw serious support to a successful academic program.

So why (except for inertia) aren’t American beneficiaries, those tens of thousands of individuals, those colleges and universities and think tanks, why aren’t they all joining together to put more audible public pressure on Congress?  Why aren’t they shouting from the rooftoops, why aren’t they using every possible electronic medium, why aren’t they flocking with flags and banners to Congressional offices? Individuals have jobs they’d never have snagged if it weren’t for the benefits of a Fulbright experience.  Universities wouldn’t have been able to enrich their offerings with superb area studies programs conducted by first rate professors.   And this, too: American foreign affairs agencies would have had far fewer well-trained people to recruit.

Fulbright to Foreign Service

I’m one of those recruits, by the way.  When I speak in support of the Fulbright program,  I speak from long experience among grantees and administrators. 

I first went abroad as the young wife of a Fulbright student researching his Ph.D. dissertation in India.  During those two years I learned Hindi by sitting in on my husband’s Fulbright-funded language lessons and and learned it well enough to publish translations of Hindi short stories.  My second Fulbright experience was as the wife of a Fulbright professor in India, but my third was quite different.  While my husband was a Fulbright researcher looking into aspects of Pakistani politics, I was a Fulbright lecturer in American Literature at Lahore University in Pakistan.  Evidence of effectiveness: one of my Pakistani students earned a Ph.D in American literature and became a professor of same.  As for my ex-husband, the book form of his dissertation on the Indian National Congress is still in print.  He taught hundreds of American students about South Asia and maintained life long connections with South Asian colleagues—and his story is far from unique.  

Had it not been for my Fulbright experience in Pakistan, I’d never have joined the U.S. Foreign service.  As a U.S.I.S. cultural affairs officer or as branch or full public affairs officer, I oversaw the administration of the Fulbright process abroad.  Working with local leaders and institutions in India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Sierra Leone and the Dominican Republic, I sought the best and brightest and sent them to the U.S. for appropriate academic programs.  Coming home, these grantees became ambassadors for American higher education and also for bedrock American values such as those enshrined in the Bill of Rights.  Meanwhile, I worked to place well-prepared American Fulbrighters with local universities or other institutions for teaching or research.  With a very few exceptions, mostly due to rigidity on one side or the other, Fulbright pairings were productive for all parties.  And, thanks to the prestige of the Fulbright program,  my own list of valuable contacts grew longer and longer in every country.  

Bottom Line

Am I indulging in nostalgia or hyperbole?  Not at all.  Short term.  Long term.  The Fulbright program is one of the best investments the U.S. has ever  made—and, with the U.S. confronting so many complex international crises, this is no time to underfund it.