A University Taps Into Fulbright to Globalize the Campus

Paul van Riel For the chronicle

Nora Lindvall, a recent graduate of Northern Illinois U. who is studying for her master's at the U. of Amsterdam on a Fulbright, remembers thinking, "Only the Harvard kids get that."
October 28, 2012

As an undergraduate at Northern Illinois University, Nora Lindvall didn't think Fulbright awards were for students like her. "Only the Harvard kids get that," she remembers thinking.

But after the university "bombarded" her and her classmates with information about the opportunities, Ms. Lindvall applied. Now a Fulbright grant is supporting her studies at the University of Amsterdam, where she plans to earn a master's degree in conflict resolution and governance.

The Fulbright student program sends some 1,800 Americans overseas each year to teach English, study at foreign universities, and participate in other educational experiences.

Yet according to Deborah Pierce, Northern Illinois University's associate provost for international programs, many students on her campus feel like Ms. Lindvall did about Fulbright. "The primary misconception is that only students from the Ivy League and the flagships can get it," she says.

The university has worked hard to change that image as part of a larger effort to tap into Fulbright to help internationalize its campus. In recent years, it has pushed more students to apply for Fulbright awards, encouraged faculty members to take advantage of Fulbright opportunities, and brought in foreign Fulbrighters to teach.

"The broad array of Fulbright opportunities really demonstrates to our campus community that there are many ways to gain a global perspective, many ways to get involved in crossing borders."

The efforts have paid off for students. In the past five years, eight students earned awards, compared with only three during 2001-6.

Ms. Pierce says the university benefited from workshops offered by the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit that administers the Fulbright program. The institute said Northern Illinois should aim to have eight students a year apply for Fulbright awards. Ms. Pierce says having a goal has helped focus their efforts.

The sessions also gave administrators insight into how the student program works. For example, it allowed participants to watch a committee review applications.

Meghann Curtis, deputy assistant secretary for academic programs in the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, says such workshops are a key part of its effort to help colleges, scholars, and students navigate the myriad Fulbright opportunities. "In concert with IIE and all the Fulbright advisers on campuses across the country, we continue to enhance our information campaign to make people aware of what's out there," she says.

Another program Northern Illinois has tapped into is the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Program, which has strengthened its expertise in Asia.

As part of the university's Center for Southeast Asian Studies, the university provides instruction on all the major national languages of the region except Vietnamese. This year, thanks to Fulbright, it has teaching assistants from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand.

"We thought it would really add value if we could bring in young people who could serve as native-speaker resources in the classes," says Ms. Pierce. "They bring an understanding of the youth of their nations, the popular culture of their nations, and enliven our foreign-language classrooms."

Recently, Ms. Pierce has started to ask the international Fulbright participants to discuss the program itself and encourage students to apply for a Fulbright award that sends American graduates to teach English in other countries.

"It's very powerful to have a peer speaking to our students, saying, 'This is really cool. You should try it, too,'" she says. In all, Ms. Pierce says her goal is to make sure no one on campus is ignorant of the Fulbright students program, like she was years ago.

"I didn't know this existed both at my undergraduate and graduate institution," she says. "I don't want any NIU student to be able to say, 'Wow, Fulbright. That sounds pretty cool. I wish I had known about it.'"