Fulbright Program Adapts to Obama Administration's Priorities

Projects deepen U.S. ties to key regions of the world and champion significance of community colleges

U.S. Department of State

Alina Romanowski
October 18, 2009

The Fulbright Program, run by the U.S. Department of State, has always straddled the worlds of academe and public policy. Tailored to enhance both the international interests of the United States and the scholarship it supports, the program is sending 1,551 students and 1,250 scholars abroad this academic year.

Now, with a new administration in place, the State Department is reviewing the disciplines and areas of the world on which it wishes to focus, with an eye toward putting President Obama's stamp on the program.

In an interview with The Chronicle, Alina L. Romanowski, the new deputy assistant secretary for academic programs at the department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, said both Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have sent clear signals that education exchange is a crucial aspect of the U.S. international agenda.

Although the administration is still discussing new projects, Ms. Romanowski said, "for us working here a long time, we were reassured that Fulbright will continue to grow."

Certainly Fulbright, established in 1946, remains the government's flagship international exchange program. It is financed jointly by the United States—which spent nearly $235-million on it this year—and partner governments abroad. Mr. Obama has requested an increase to nearly $254-million for the 2010 fiscal year.

Ms. Romanowski said recent efforts designed to focus on issues of interest to the United States will continue to be supported. They include the International Fulbright Science and Technology award, through which 40 international students pursue doctoral studies in the United States. She said Secretary Clinton would like to place particular emphasis on studies of such global issues as food security and climate change.

Another popular program is the Fulbright-mtvU Fellowships, which explore the link between music and culture.

"Cultural diplomacy is very much an active part of the tool kit of smart power," she said, referring to the idea that governments need to use softer methods, such as cultural connections, in addition to military and economic might to solve international problems.

Fulbright officials have also worked to diversify the program's pool of applicants and host institutions. Among the goals is to draw in more community-college administrators and faculty members. The number of people applying to the scholars program from community colleges rose 19 percent this year, to 68. While that total is still small compared with the overall pool, Ms. Romanowski said, Fulbright will continue to reach out to those institutions. She noted that both Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton have championed the importance of community colleges.

"When we go out and the secretary talks about the expanding role of education and collaboration between us and other countries," Ms. Romanowski said, "community colleges are a part of that discussion."

One country in which that sector of American higher education is having a notable impact is Russia. This year three community-college Fulbright scholars will teach or conduct research in Russia. And next spring a high-level delegation of American community-college representatives will travel to Russia to meet with university and government officials. They will discuss ways in which Russia could adapt aspects of the community-college model in making its higher-education system more responsive to economic needs.

The United States is building up its Fulbright partnerships in other countries as well. The size of the program with India doubled this year. Exchanges with Indonesia, another country of strategic importance, are also growing. So are the programs in Turkey and China. The State Department is driving much of this growth by asking partner countries to begin sharing the cost, or to increase their contributions, to the bilateral fellowships.

"A lot of these countries are in a position economically to look at ways to strengthen their own education community," Ms. Romanowski said. "And Fulbright is both prestigious and important to their countries. So if they're going to increase scholarships, why not do it under the Fulbright?"

Fulbright administrators are also working to broaden participation within the United States. Among other things, they want to help dismantle the institutional barriers that discourage scholars from even applying. On some campuses, tenure-and-promotion policies do not look kindly on international fellowships. Elsewhere administrators might not see the value of allowing a scholar to work abroad for a year.

The Council for International Exchange of Scholars, which manages the Fulbright scholars programs, has created a Web site ( for administrators that includes research showing the long-lasting impact that Fulbright participation can have on a campus.

Ms. Romanowski said she hoped to get the word out that Fulbrights can be much shorter in duration than a full academic year, for those administrators or scholars unable to get away for a longer period of time.

The State Department would also like to see more colleges take advantage of smaller programs, such as the Occasional Lecture Program, in which foreign Fulbright scholars at American colleges can accept guest-lecture requests from other colleges. Ms. Romanow ski called it "one of the best-kept secrets of the Fulbright Program."

She also expects Fulbrights to increase in appeal as more awards are developed to focus on increasingly important issues including climate change, food security, and public health.

Following are three Fulbright profiles: of the community-college project in Russia, of the expanded program in India, and of a college that has effectively used the Occasional Lecture Program.