Fulbright Puts Money Where Problems Are

Keith Dannemiller for The Chronicle

José Antonio Aguirre, a Fulbright scholar, works on a public-art project at the Metropolitan Autonomous U., in Mexico City.
October 24, 2010

The U.S. State Department wants its premier fellowship program to help develop creative responses to problems as serious as climate change and pandemics.

The Fulbright Program, which had a budget of $253.8-million in the 2010 fiscal year (the budget for 2011 has yet to be passed), sent 1,564 students and 1,110 scholars abroad during the 2009-10 academic year to teach or conduct research. Soon it will connect researchers in the United States, Canada, and Latin America in an effort to advance ideas to resolve issues of global concern.

The new Fulbright Nexus Program is one of several projects encouraged by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as they seek to adapt the program to changing needs.

"The administration and the secretary see that there are global issues, and the solutions to these global issues, whether it's health or energy or climate change or food security, require creative collaboration and partnerships," says Alina L. Romanowski, deputy assistant secretary for academic programs at the department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. "We need to create the environment and bring these folks together."

Nexus will award fellowships in May to multidisciplinary scholars working in three broad areas: entrepreneurship; science, technology, and innovation; and sustainable energy.

The goal is for the academics to generate "implementable solutions" and receive financial support or other help from corporations and foundations to test their ideas, she says.

"We wanted to go beyond just theory and just research," says Ms. Romanowski. The department wants "to form a network not just of academicians, but of practitioners and applied research."

Expanding Its Outreach

In addition to tackling global problems, the Fulbright program this year has expanded the number of countries to which it sends English-language teaching assistants. The program, which enrolls many undergraduates fresh out of college, has been in operation since 1946, but participation has increased tenfold since the late 1990s, as more countries have requested such aid.

In the 2010-11 academic year, the department is sending 768 teaching assistants abroad, to almost 70 countries. Nine countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and Latin America are participating for the first time.

"It will continue to expand, but I don't expect it will expand as rapidly next year as it did," Ms. Romanowski says. "We have to take a deep breath and make sure we have the proper program support and the students in the right schools."

Another fellowship that is expanding this year is the International Education Administrators Program, which sends higher-education administrators abroad to study university systems for two to three weeks.

The program, which started in 1986 and sent 33 people overseas in 2010, is making India its fourth destination country; the others are Germany, Japan, and South Korea.

As American colleges and universities seek to internationalize their campuses and curriculum, Ms. Romanowski says, they should not limit their proselytizing to professors.

"You can expose your teachers, but if you don't work with your administrators to support the change you want," she says, "it's much more complicated."

Following are three Fulbright profiles: of a historically black college that is host to four foreign-language teaching assistants, of a student who is teaching English in Brazil, and of college administrators who spent several weeks studying the education system of Japan.