Fulbright at 65: An Interview with Chairwoman Anita McBride

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Written by Anita McBride, Special Interview

Sixty-five years ago, freshman U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright championed a simple concept to foster understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries. He believed that not only education but also educational and cultural exchange were essential to advancing peace, freedom, and international cooperation. He envisioned “a modest program with an immodest aim.” While he later deemed his namesake program as “probably the most important and potentially rewarding of our foreign-policy activities,” one wonders whether he could have fully imagined the impact of his vision.

At 65, the Fulbright Program has proven to be one of the most profoundly humanizing, life-changing, and adaptable instruments of peace ever created. The program’s flexibility and range allow its adaptation to U.S. priorities and global concerns. Indeed, the Fulbright Program today is a model of international cooperation, diversity, and return on investment.

Anita McBride serves as Chair of the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. She is a veteran of three Presidential Administrations and is Executive in Residence at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University’s School of Public Affairs. She is also a member of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council.

The Diplomatic Courier: With more than 300,000 participants worldwide, what does it take to become a “Fulbrighter?”

Anita McBride: All “Fulbrighters” share a strong academic background, leadership potential, a passion for increasing mutual understanding among nations and cultures, and the adaptability to pursue their proposed Fulbright project successfully. While each participant pursues specific academic or professional objectives, the ultimate mission of a Fulbrighter is to foster understanding and respect between the United States and other nations. Fulbrighters are cultural ambassadors and they participate in a range of social and community activities to absorb the history and culture of their host countries. On returning home, Fulbrighters share their exchange experiences widely and create a positive ripple effect, as they work to “give back” in myriad ways that contribute to the wellbeing of their communities and countries. Fulbright alumni can also support the Program by engaging in alumni community activities, serving on selection committees, recruiting new applicants, and hosting visiting Fulbright grantees.

DC: Who are some of the most renowned former Fulbright scholars?

AMB: There are many. To be sure, any Fulbrighter joins a special group of alumni in over 155 countries who, since 1946, have become heads of state, judges, ambassadors, cabinet ministers, CEOs, university presidents, journalists, artists, professors and teachers who have influenced thousands of others.

Among the renowned American Fulbrighters, I would mention Samuel Kountz, pioneering surgeon in kidney transplants; Thomas Pickering, career diplomat and former Ambassador to the UN; writer Sylvia Plath; multiple Academy Award-winning actor and performer John Lithgow; poet Maya Angelou; and soprano Renée Fleming.

Fulbrighters of other nations include Sebastian Piñera, current president of Chile; John Atta Mills, former president of Ghana; Urs Hölzle of Switzerland, Senior Vice President of Operations and Google Fellow at Google Inc.; and Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh, economist and founder of the Grameen Bank.

DC: Since being appointed to the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board in 2009, and becoming the Board Chair in 2010, what are some of the progresses you have seen or been part of?

AMB: We’ve developed new models for faculty and senior researchers in the Fulbright Scholar Program to support strategic regional policy priorities. Last year our Board worked closely with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) to launch the Fulbright Regional Network for Applied Research program (NEXUS) in record time. It’s the first ever regional Fulbright program, designed for the Western Hemisphere to support social inclusion and economic growth policy goals by fostering an applied research network in areas related to energy, innovation, sustainable development.

We also significantly expanded the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Program bringing young teachers of English from around the world to help teach their native languages on U.S. campuses while taking coursework in the United States.  The program reaches a more diverse participant base overseas while building foreign language capacity and raising awareness of Fulbright across a broader range of American students.

In Indonesia, we’ve launched the Fulbright Indonesia Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Program which increases exchange of Indonesian and U.S. students and scholars in priority fields that address common challenges including climate change, food security and public health. And, to respond to the U.S.–Russia Presidential Commission and reach new sectors, we sent two delegations of U.S. community college leaders to Russia to meet with counterparts, and we facilitated Russian educators’ visits to U.S. community colleges and other institutions.

The Fulbright and other exchange programs continue to support mutual understanding in the changing Middle East. This year, for example, we commemorated the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the Fulbright Program in Iraq, which is a significant milestone in the history of U.S.-Iraq educational exchange and cooperation. In addition, the new Fulbright Visiting Scholar Program for Iraq brings cohorts of Iraqi scholars in key fields to U.S. institutions for ten weeks of faculty development, research, and other study activities to equip them with knowledge and tools to build the capacity of universities in their country and to advance the education of future generations of Iraqis. In June, I was honored to meet in Washington, DC, with a group of Iraqi Visiting Scholars attending an orientation before heading to their host institutions across the United States. Their accomplishments were inspiring.

In Afghanistan, the Fulbright Program aims to increase Afghan participants’ academic and professional skills in order for them to lead in the reconstruction and development of their country and to strengthen ties between our two nations. Afghan Fulbright students and scholars in the United States focused on education, science, engineering technology, transportation infrastructure, business development, and health among other disciplines. Fulbright Scholar Dr. Abdul Tawab Saljuqi at the University of Arizona, for example, formed a team of scholars from around the world to develop Soapeace, Inc., a company that aims to reduce infection, mortality and unemployment in Afghanistan through the sustainable production and sale of affordable soap. And, in Dallas, Texas, in March 2010, Fulbright joined forces with the U.S. Afghan Women’s Council when Afghan Fulbrighters Rona Kabiri and Zabiullah Zamani presented at “Educating and Empowering the Women and Girls of Afghanistan: A Conference on Education and Literacy,” hosted by former President George W. Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush.

The Board has particularly encouraged the State Department’s vigorous efforts to make the Fulbright opportunity more accessible, particularly to people from underserved communities, and to people interested in an immersion experience in such communities in another country. As a result, we’ve witnessed applications to the Fulbright Program increase to record levels. That is an important measure of the accessibility of the program and represents major progress towards extending mutual understanding around the world.

DC: Fulbright already has partnered with 155 countries as part of the exchange program, are there any potential countries Fulbright is seeking to incorporate with the program that it hasn’t yet?

AMB: Fulbright is an essential part of the long-term relationship building between the people of the United States and the people of countries around the world. It is a dynamic and adaptable program that responds to major U.S. policy priorities.  It’s at the core of the highest profile bilateral strategic dialogues created by the President and Secretary of State to expand and deepen people-to-people ties, and it is part of the equally important effort to sustain the broad international commitment to friendly and peaceful relations around the world. In recent years, Fulbright Programs with Iraq and Afghanistan were reestablished after a long period when Fulbright did not operate in those countries. We are focused on maximizing the impact, opportunity, and participation where we have successful programs.

DC: What are some of the recent efforts by Fulbright scholars and professionals to resolve issues of global concern?

AMB: Nearly 200 Fulbrighters are among the exchange alumni engaged in the U.S. Department of State’s Alumni Engagement Innovation Fund (AEIF), a new initiative offering them the opportunity to share their experience as exchange participants while addressing global issues on a local, regional, national or international level. ECA’s Office of Alumni Affairs launched the initiative in February 2011, inviting teams composed of ten or more alumni to submit project proposals for the first annual AEIF competition. The project themes aim to respond to a range of global concerns, including democracy and human rights; economic opportunity and prosperity; food security; environmental protection; women’s empowerment; health; and outreach to marginalized communities. The participants have one year from their funding dates to complete their projects. In one such project, the goal is to help women and men in rural Sub-Saharan Africa to cope with the impact of globalization through capacity building and training. By investing in women and men through cutting edge monitoring and empowerment techniques, the result will be to help them navigate a fast globalizing world free from the cycle of poverty. This project will also identify opportunities available locally and invest to reduce donor dependency. The project is anticipated to create a model for such interventions and an NGO dedicated to women’s empowerment to be run by Fulbrighters in Tanzania.

DC: Currently, how is Fulbright working to fulfill its mission during changing times? How has the level of performance impacted the organization’s goals?

AMB: The Fulbright Program constantly evolves, serving its core mission while responding to the aspirations of each new generation.

For example, the State Department has created dynamic new programs for international Fulbrighters in the United States. Last fall, it organized the first annual seminar on Food Security for 80 international Fulbright students from four world regions. Last spring, ECA hosted three seminars for Fulbright Visiting Scholars on: diversity and conflict resolution in Philadelphia; democracy and human rights in Chicago; and food and energy sustainability in Vermont. ECA’s two annual four-day seminars on “From Lab to Market” themes help 200 Fulbright students translate their scientific knowledge into innovative products and services that will improve lives in their home communities.  Seminars for selected women Fulbright students promote leadership development and successful re-entry. ECA also sponsors nine annual seminars for more than 1,000 foreign Fulbright students focusing on a priority topic, such as social entrepreneurship or the environment.

Yet, as the Fulbright Program evolves in response to changing times its timeless mission remains to foster learning, understanding and empathy between cultures. On that note, as a proud Italian – American, I am personally pleased with the steady evolution of the Fulbright BEST (Business Exchange Student Training) Program, which brings Italian students to the United States for six months for a full immersion in American entrepreneurship and looks to bridge the science and business fields. BEST demonstrates that an established 60-year relationship can produce exciting opportunities that adapt to market demands and enhance U.S. universities and research institutions.

DC:What will be the next steps for Fulbright and where is the program headed in the next 10 years?

AMB:The Fulbright Program will continue to provide life-changing opportunities to a new generation of thousands of U.S. and foreign students, scholars, and teachers each year to study, teach, and research in one another’s countries. Fulbright alumni go on to foster ties and work together in every field of human endeavor, to explore global challenges and issues of common concern, and to generate solutions and opportunities for increasing peace and prosperity.