Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program Seeks Diverse Citizens to Serve as Diplomats

The core Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program — the faculty portion of the international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs — takes professors beyond the classroom and into the world of diplomacy.

Established in 1946 as part of the broader Fulbright Program to increase mutual understanding between U.S. citizens and people of other countries, the Fulbright U.S. Scholars Program provides educational exchange opportunities for American college professors and some professionals.

Meghann Curtis, U.S. deputy assistant  secretary of state for academic programs
Meghann Curtis, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for academic programs

Every year, about 3,500 American professors apply to the U.S. Scholar Program to be considered for 1,200 grant-funded opportunities. These scholars apply based on the country they wish to visit, and they must specify whether they plan to lecture or conduct research while abroad. Although no set criteria exist for projects, those focused on diplomacy tend to receive special consideration.

“We have a unique interest in promoting projects that really advance the relationship between the United States and a foreign country,” says Meghann Curtis, deputy assistant secretary of state for academic programs at the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

With this goal in mind, Curtis, who oversees all academic exchange programs for the State Department, and her team work to ensure each group of scholars embodies our country’s diverse makeup.

“We’re looking to have the Fulbright Program represent the full complement of the diverse American population because, at the end of the day, the Fulbright Program is a public diplomacy program,” Curtis says. “The idea is that Fulbrighters are citizen diplomats going around the world representing the United States to other foreign public, and if that only represents a small portion of the U.S. population, then we aren’t doing our job.”

The State Department, which oversees all Fulbright programs, achieves this goal through very specific outreach and marketing efforts aimed at ensuring that people from all levels of higher education are aware of and are represented in the program.

“We do particularly aggressive marketing in a lot of public institutions, community colleges, and so forth because we know the Fulbright Program is less well-known in these places,” Curtis says. “We believe the wealth of knowledge and the experience that Fulbright scholars bring back to their home campuses is really important for Americans getting educations here in the United States, and so we have a mandate also to ensure that this experience is had among the professoriate at public institutions, land-grant institutions, and community colleges. We’re not just looking at Ivy Leagues.”

Much of this work involves dispelling myths about the program. According to Curtis, one such mistaken belief is that the program is solely for scholars in the humanities. “I think there is an old idea that Fulbright is only for artists and anthropologists, … and that’s certainly not the case,” she says. “While those types of scholars are welcome, there are many scientists, biologists, chemists, … political scientists, and much more.”

In marketing the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program, Curtis also emphasizes the diversity of the program itself. By offering a mix of types and lengths across all disciplines in more than 150 countries, the program opens the door to all who are interested.

“It’s a program [in which] we get great participation from all across the U.S. higher education sector,” Curtis says. “Regardless of who you are, what you do, what you research, and what your resources are, we have a way to make the program work for you.”

All Fulbright programs are executed by the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES). For information about upcoming programs, visit cies.org.●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity