Two myths about the U.S. Fulbright fellowship program that I want to get out of the way right now:
- Literary writers, journalists, performers, and artists: you too can get a fellowship. I know the program is best known for work in fields like public health, anthropology, economics, and the hard sciences. But the scope of the Fulbright program is more expansive than you may think.
- No, it is not impossible to decipher the Fulbright program and application procedure. But I agree with you: the various online platforms for the program are utterly bewildering and frustrating.
Consider this, then, your primer to the Fulbright. I've been getting a lot of questions about the program, so I've put together a simple overview that is difficult to find in the program's own materials and that, given my time as a creative writing fellow in Kenya, is specially tailored for writers, journalists, and artists. Many Fulbright applications for 2011-2012 will be due in early fall. As you consider whether or not to apply, and then navigate the application process, I hope this will be helpful to you.
The Big Picture
Fulbright is an international exchange program that has been sponsored by the U.S. State Department since 1946. The Institute for International Education administers the program. Fulbright operates in about 155 countries, mostly sending people in the U.S. abroad, but also bringing people from other nations into the U.S. The program boasts that 43 of its alumni have won Nobel prizes and 78 have won Pulitzer Prizes. The program was created by U.S. Senator William Fulbright (D--Arkansas) for the "promotion of international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture, and science."
The Mid-Size Picture
There are at least eleven different kinds of Fulbright grants, several of them for non-U.S. citizens. The one I did is the "U.S. Student Program." This is misleadingly named -- you don't have to be a student to apply for this grant. Rather, these ten-month fellowships are for "U.S. graduating college seniors, graduate students, young professionals and artists." This is the program where you design and propose your own individual project, though folded into it are the English-teaching fellowships that most often go to graduating seniors. More details on the U.S. Student Program follow below.
The other major grant category that you're probably familiar with is "U.S. Scholar Program," which sends American scholars and professors abroad to lecture, teach, and/or research for one year.
Some grant categories, such as the "Specialist Program" and the "Distinguished Fulbright Awards in Teaching Program," are short-term: 2-6 weeks and one academic semester, respectively.
This spring, you may have heard about the cancellation of the "Fulbright-Hays Program" grant. This category is for U.S. teachers, doctoral students, and doctoral faculty focusing on research and training in non-Western languages and studies. It was abruptly cancelled for fiscal year 2011 because of Congressional budget cuts to the Department of Education, which uniquely funds the Hays program (compared to the Department of State, which funds the other Fulbrights.) I hope it will return again next year, but in the meantime, know that the other grants for the Fulbright are still available, if perhaps being offered to fewer people in the coming round of applications.
About The U.S. Student Program
This category includes the English-teaching assistantships and the travel-only grants designed to supplement another award or individual project; travel-only grants are available only for Italy, Germany, and Hungary. I'm setting these aside, though, and focusing on the project program because that is what I know best.
To apply for this grant, you propose a project for where you want to go. They have a lot of categories you can apply for; a random collection of examples includes history, political science, musicology, women's studies, economic development, education, Islamic studies, and, yes, creative writing, visual arts, performing arts, and journalism. I applied for a Creative Writing project in Kenya.
Generally, a set number of grants total are available each year for a particular country. For my year, there were four U.S. Student Program grants available for Kenya. Depending on how politics are unfolding, the Fulbright program may suspend opportunities in certain countries. For example, projects are not available in Syria right now.
Eight unique project categories are available only as a country-specific award, such as "Slow Foods" and "Deaf Studies" in Italy, or "Irish Language" in Ireland.
There are other special programs available withing the U.S. Student Program structure. For example, the "Fulbright-mtvU Program" awards four grants in any countries for individuals who will "conduct research around an aspect of international musical culture." There are special journalism project opportunities available in Germany, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.
The bulk of the U.S. Student Program, though, is you proposing your individually-designed project through the general program. Whatever project category you apply in, you need to have an affiliation; that is, some local organization or school or library or (fill in the blank) that says they are willing to cooperate with you to help you do your work. They are not obliged to pay you anything or provide other material support. So, I proposed coming to Nairobi to work on my fiction and to facilitate writing workshops with young people through Kenyan literary organizations & the University of Nairobi's Department of Literature. It is unusual to have three affiliations; most people have one, though it does strengthen your application (and, hopefully, your project) if you have additional support.
Other creative writing projects have been done differently. I saw a successful application for a writer who wanted to go to Canada to research that country's Gold Rush for his novel. His affiliation was a historical museum that would assist him with his research.
Help is Available
While I haven't been a student there since 2003, I filed my application through the University of Michigan's International Institute. Most colleges have a similar institute that helps students and alums with their applications. This was great for me: I got feedback on my application that made it much better and I got help with organizing all the materials. I did have to go through an extra step -- an in-person interview with two faculty members -- and I did have to turn in my application earlier than the general Fulbright deadline. But it was absolutely worth it for the support I received in return.
I should add that these international institutes often have Fulbright informational sessions starting about this time of year. Whether or not a college near you is your alma mater, you might think about attending the sessions it hosts.
You don't need to apply through a university though; you can also apply "at-large."
Here's What Applying Looks Like
For the application, which I filled out mostly online, I needed the following things: a letter from my affiliation (the folks I was doing writing workshops with), a creative sample (10 pages, in a requirement unique to my project category), a personal statement (2 pages), a project statement (2 pages), and letters of recommendation (3, I believe).
It's not part of the official application, but because the professors that I interviewed with at the University of Michigan also filled out a one-page evaluation of me that was added to my application. I didn't get to see this before it was submitted.
If you are going to a country where you need to know a language that is not English, you will also need to have your language skills evaluated. Because English is an official language of Kenya, I did not go through this process and can't describe what it is like.
Here's What Acceptance Looks Like
There are two stages to acceptance: one by a panel in the U.S. and one by a panel in the country you are going to. After turning in my application in September, I heard from the first round of cuts in February. I got the final answer in April.
You will have to attend an orientation. My region -- Sub-Saharan Africa -- had a pre-departure orientation, which meant we all gathered at a Marriott in Washington, D.C., for three days in late June. The people going to South and Central Asia had their orientation overlap with us, but in some regions, you have your orientation once you arrive in-country. A friend of mine doing a Fulbright in family law in New Zealand had an orientation there after she arrived in January.
Practicalities and Other Notes
- The Fulbright will pay for you to bring along your spouse and dependents. (UPDATE: Availability of these funds varies from country to country.)
- There is not a set Fulbright grant amount: it is calculated differently for different projects in different places, based on cost of living. You will receive it in installments, with most of the funds coming up front. The first installment cannot be deposited into your account earlier than about 4-6 weeks before you leave.
- The grant amont does not allot funds specifically for the costs of visas or vaccinations.
- The Fulbright funds are flexible. While they give you money based on certain categories ("research," "travel"), they basically just deposit it in your account and you can spend it as it makes sense for you.
- If you are doing research as part of your project, you will probably have to apply to the local government for a research clearance. Don't worry about this until you receive your grant; the Fulbright folks can help guide you through the process. I bring it up now, though, because I'm told that this process can sometimes take a long time and a frustrating amount of paperwork.
- The standard U.S. Student Fulbright grant is for 10 months, though there is room for negotiation. In some cases, you can go for a shorter length of time (I did) and in others you can apply for an extension once you are partway through your grant. I should note that as soon as I arrived in Kenya, I and the other Fulbrighters were told that grant extensions wouldn't be available at all that year because of budget restrictions.
- The only concrete requirements after you receive the Fulbright and arrive in the foreign country is that you fill out a mid-term and final evaluation for the program. You also will be obliged to stay in touch with the local U.S. embassy, including by attending a security briefing shortly after you arrive in-country.
- Creative writing Fulbright fellowships are still quite rare: only a handful of us are around the world this year. But I wonder if this doesn't have something to do with more creative writers just not knowing about it ...
The Fulbright program is quite clear about being primarily an inter-cultural program. They invest in the person, rather than the project. (Though obviously, the in-country folks in particular are looking for great projects that are relevant and interesting.) I personally felt honored by this trust, and found that it enhanced my desire to make the most of my time in Kenya. This foundational inter-cultural philosophy also leaves room for adaptation when plans change. Some of my plans with my affiliates in Kenya did not work out. The workshops I wanted to do weren't happening, and I struggled with disappointment and feelings of inadequacy.
But rather than beat on a closed door, I had flexibility to find alternative opportunities to engage with communities of Kenyans. I ended up doing workshops with iHub, with young children, and with teenage boys in Kawangware. I mentored individual writers in one-on-one meetings at Nairobi Java House. I co-directed the Women, Action, and the Media event series. I spoke to university students, instead of doing workshops with them. I did editorial work with Kwani, instead of doing workshops with them. And again, instead of workshops, I did editing and proofreading for The Imagine Company before I left for Kenya, while I was there, and I will continue to do so whenever they ask. Just about all of this was un-planned -- not part of my original project proposal.
The point for me was to match my own writing with time in community, having a particular attentiveness to how a literary culture emerges. I wanted to see how stories are told in a nation that is not yet fifty years old, and to see who is doing that telling. It was good for me to arrive in Nairobi with a plan, and with people I was connected to, but it was also good for me to be agile. Personally and professionally, navigating the uncertain ground was, for me, powerful ground.
- The Fulbright Association: an organization independent of the Fulbright Program and not associated with the U.S. Department of State. It is a private nonprofit, membership organization with over 9,000 members, and it is designed for Fulbright alumni "to educate members of the U.S. Congress and the public about the benefits of advancing increased mutual understanding between the people of the United States and those of other countries."
- The Fulbright Academy: an organization independent of the Fulbright Program and not associated with the U.S. Department of State. Non-partisan and non-profit with members worldwide, it focuses on " the professional advancement and collaboration needs among the 100,000+ Fulbright alumni in science, technology and related fields."
- ExchangesConnect: an online community "that connects potential, current, and former exchange program participants so that they can discuss application processes, programs, and living abroad." It is administered by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.
- On Twitter: @FulbrightSchlrs, @FulbrightPrgrm, @FulbrightAssoc, @ConnectStateGov.