Wayne State University is ramping up its efforts to raise faculty awareness of opportunities to teach and conduct research overseas through the Fulbright Program, the world-renowned awarder of competitive, merit-based grants for international educational exchange.
The university's Office of International Programs has embarked on an outreach campaign to explain the grants that are available to scholars, dispel common misconceptions about the program, and describe the resources and assistance available to interested faculty. Led by Associate Director Jaclyn Assarian, who helped administer the Fulbright Scholar Program in Washington, D.C., prior to joining OIP's staff, the campaign entails campus-wide information sessions as well as presentations at faculty meetings within the university's various colleges.
Despite their tremendous cachet in academic circles, Fulbright scholar opportunities often fall below the radar, according to OIP staff and WSU faculty familiar with the program.
"It's one of the best secrets in town," said Fulbright scholar Feleta Wilson, associate professor and graduate director of public health nursing at Wayne State, who received an award to teach and conduct research in Jamaica in 2000. Wilson, whose interest in a Fulbright grant was piqued by a colleague, said two years passed before she did any research about her options and eligibility. "It just wasn't broadly broadcast," she said of the program.
According to Assarian, who oversaw Middle East and North African scholar programs for the Council for International Exchange of Scholars, which administers the Fulbright Scholar Program, OIP wants to address a number of encumbrances to the program. Many faculty, she said, are unaware of the breadth and variety of available scholar grants, have misconceptions about how the selection process works, or simply find the Fulbright Program – which encompasses grants for scholars, students, teachers, professionals, scientists and artists – difficult to navigate.
"Most people hear 'Fulbright' and think of the more traditional experience, where one goes overseas to teach and do research for anywhere from three to ten months," Assarian said. "But faculty can also serve as expert consultants to foreign universities that need their expertise in matters pertaining to curriculum, faculty development or institutional planning. These assignments may last only two to six weeks and can be enormously enriching. My role is to work with faculty to identify available grants that are most suited to their interests and research plans and to coach them on how to make their application appealing to the selection committee."
Assarian also works to debunk misconceptions about Fulbrights, namely that they are difficult to obtain and awarded only to scholars at the most prestigious universities.
"The Fulbright program is a public diplomacy program that promotes an exchange of culture and ideas," noted Assarian, "and consequently one criterion by which applicants are reviewed is the impact the award will have. Will the recipient come back to the United States, write an article and never do anything more with the experience? Or will the recipient return home and infuse their teaching, curriculum development and programming with their experience so their students and colleagues benefit from it as well? Because Wayne State is a large research institution in a big urban area with a fairly international population, Wayne State faculty can make an extremely good case in their Fulbright applications that their experience will have a positive ripple effect throughout a large and diverse student body. This is what the Fulbright program wants to see."
Wilson, who teaches public health nursing at the undergraduate, master's and doctoral levels, said she frequently draws comparisons between the U.S. and Caribbean health systems and the role of nursing in each when she teaches and lectures for other faculty. She believes the strength of a Fulbright application comes from the research plan it describes.
"It's not about the place you're from, but how well you write your proposal, what you plant to do, and how this matches with the goals and objectives of the Fulbright Program and of the host country," she said. Wilson taught at the University of the West Indies near Kingston, researched pregnant women's knowledge of childhood immunization at public health clinics, and gave educational workshops to some 250 public health nurses across the country. Her health literacy research focus proved to be an excellent fit for university, she said, as did her desire to teach in addition to conducting research.
Have passion and a plan
Kevin Deegan-Krause, an associate professor of political science at Wayne State who went to Slovakia on a Fulbright scholarship in 2008, knows what makes a Fulbright application stand out. Upon returning from his Fulbright, he served on the national committee that screens U.S. applicants for Fulbright scholarships in several Central European countries.
"I think the first and most important thing is if for applicants to follow some kind of passion or have an inherent connection to the institution or place they've selected," Deegan-Krause said. "Even people whose research isn't internationally related can still find a country or subfield they are passionate about."
Next, said Deegan-Krause, applicants should assure the Fulbright Program it will get the maximum benefit for its investment.
"Fulbrights are really decided on the basis of three criteria: the value for the scholar, the value for the host institution, and the value for the home institution," he said. "That was a pretty hard-and-fast thing, and if anyone failed notably in those three contexts, it was very difficult to forward them on."
Deegan-Krause urges applicants to discuss how the Fulbright experience will fit into their "broader academic trajectory" and to show they have already developed close ties with the institution they wish to work with. "Don't just say, 'This lab exists in Hungary,'" he said. "Show that you've built a relationship with the lab, have emailed with it or visited it, and have a welcoming letter from it inviting your collaboration."
Getting the right letters of recommendation is also critical. "They should come from someone senior in the department who can talk explicitly and elegantly about a candidate's teaching and ability to adapt," Deegan-Krause said. "Fulbright wants evidence that a scholar can hit the ground running and not reach their stride two months into a five-month stint, so the letter should characterize the applicant as someone who can go to a foreign country, start right away with the necessary material, make the right adaptations, and go."
If the letter is from the department chair, said Deegan-Krause, it should be explicit about the department's support for the applicant's experience abroad and indicate how the department plans to help him or her disseminate newfound knowledge upon return, such as threw a new course centered on the Fulbright experience. Because bilateral relationships are important to the Fulbright Program, the chair might express interest in hosting a Fulbright scholar in the future.
Good writing is essential to the application, said Deegan-Krause, and so is a memorable and direct approach. "The average person screening these is going to vet a hundred of them," he noted, "so it should catch someone's imagination." Applicants should also bear in mind that the people reviewing the application aren't likely to be experts in their field and tailor their language accordingly. Deegan-Krause's committee included a business professor, a robotics expert, and an expert in 19th century European literature, and they appreciated applications that presented a robust but jargon-free research plan.
Finally, said Deegan-Krause, applicants can improve their chances of acceptance by applying to countries, such as Slovakia, in need of Fulbright scholars and by offering to teach the host institution's faculty academic methodologies, such as use of content management systems and peer review of writing.
"America is pretty advanced in pedagogy in ways that other countries are interested in," said Deegan-Krause. "Host institutions are often grateful to have an applicant who can disseminate best practices in teaching."
Those interested to learn more about Fulbright opportunities for faculty should contact Jaclyn Assarian at 313-577-9319 or firstname.lastname@example.org.