Fulbright Seeks More Diverse Pool of Scholars and Students

Courtesy of Jeanne Maddox Toungara

Jeanne Maddox Toungara (right), an associate professor of history at Howard U., with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia. Ms. Toungara has taken several trips to West Africa after spending time there as a Fulbright scholar.
February 22, 2016

Kimberly Jackson, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Spelman College, had long hoped to join the ranks of scholars who had earned one of the U.S. government’s prestigious Fulbright research awards. She succeeded last spring, and began preparing to spend six months in the Caribbean country of Antigua and Barbuda studying food science.

In a world filled with racial tensions, Ms. Jackson, who is black, wanted to make sure that she and her three children would have a positive experience. But during a Fulbright mixer before her departure, she says, she didn’t find a fellow Fulbright scholar who "looked like her," and she didn’t meet anyone who could relate to her concerns.

The Fulbright program, run by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, is widely seen as a prime opportunity to add international experience to one’s résumé. Despite the bureau’s increased efforts to diversify the pool of grantees in recent years, though, the program also has a reputation of being overwhelmingly white.

As Ms. Jackson’s experience shows, in trying to attract more-diverse applicants, it is important that scholars and students alike see participants whom they can identify with.

During the past 10 years, the State Department has been successful in increasing the participation of black people and other underrepresented minorities in both its scholar program, which provides grants primarily to academics, and its student program, which awards grants to recent college graduates, master’s and doctoral students, and young professionals.

In the student program, the number of black grantees rose from 33 in 2005-6, or less than 3 percent, to 99 in 2015-16, or 5.2 percent of the almost 1,900 grantees. But the program’s student participants remained mostly white, at nearly 63 percent, and black and Latino students remain underrepresented in the program, compared with their share of the U.S. undergraduate population.

In the scholar program, 66.4 percent of the 768 award winners in 2015-16 were white. The percentage of black and Latino recipients, at 7 percent and almost 6 percent, respectively, roughly matches the representation of those groups as faculty members at American colleges, according to data from the U.S. Education Department.

Since the early 1990s, the State Department has focused on increasing diversity, which, in addition to increasing participation by underrepresented minorities, includes encouraging applications from women, gay and lesbian candidates, and people with disabilities.

By at least one measure, the department’s efforts have paid off in the student program. The number of applicants has nearly doubled in the past 10 years, to more than 10,000, with increases in all racial and ethnic categories.

"We want to send the message to all students and scholars that Fulbright encourages your interest, and that we’re committed to promoting diversity in the program for the long term," Mala Adiga, the department’s deputy assistant secretary for academic programs, said in a statement to The Chronicle. "We believe that individuals from a wide range of backgrounds, who have the talent and commitment to succeed, should have an opportunity to expand their knowledge of the world as Fulbrighters."

‘Elite, but Not Elitist’

While the State Department has tried to characterize the program as "elite, but not elitist," underrepresented minority students and academics still seem to perceive Fulbright as a program for others, and not for them.

That attitude may have career consequences. In an increasingly global economy, not pursuing an international experience can have an adverse effect on college graduates seeking employment. And a Fulbright award can be a prestigious addition to the portfolio of academics seeking promotion or tenure.

The State Department is exploring new ways to get information about Fulbright opportunities to a broader audience — increased communication with minority-serving institutions and other campuses through webinars, social media, and other outreach — while acknowledging that these efforts can take years to resonate. Potential applicants often need to hear about the program multiple times before they actually apply.

Experts in international education agree, however, that nothing is as effective as potential applicants talking one-on-one with "Fulbrighters" whom they can identify with.

“We seem to be looking for this silver-bullet solution we have never thought of before, but nothing beats being on the ground talking to students.”
"We seem to be looking for this silver-bullet solution we have never thought of before, but nothing beats being on the ground talking to students," says Andrew Gordon, president of Diversity Abroad, a nonprofit group that promotes the benefits of going abroad to underrepresented-minority communities. The key is showing programs like Fulbright not as a luxury but as a value-added experience, he says.

Fulbright is not alone in its struggle to diversify the pool of students going overseas. According to the Institute of International Education, of the roughly 304,000 students who studied abroad as part of academic programs in 2013-14, the most recent year for which data are available, about 74 percent were white, 6 percent black, and 8 percent Hispanic.

For the Fulbright, recruiting program alumni of color to speak on campuses about their experiences is a key approach to finding new applicants.

Jeanne Maddox Toungara, an associate professor of history at Howard University, has promoted the Fulbright at her historically black institution through her position as an alumni ambassador.

Ms. Toungara, who conducted research in west Africa as a Fulbright scholar, says the State Department is doing a good job of pulling in more-diverse applicants. But she also sees room for improvement. Officials from other countries that help fund the Fulbright program — and help select scholars — may not be as committed to "multicultural representation," she says.

Ms. Toungara is also concerned that a lack of institutional support at colleges hinders minority scholars from applying. "I have had people tell me, ‘Look, if I leave, I don’t know if I’ll have a job when I come back.’ "

Emmanuel Johnson, who studied robotics at North Carolina A&T State University, another historically black institution, was the first student in the university’s history to win a Fulbright.

After completing his master’s degree in robotics in England, he landed an internship at NASA. Now a Ph.D. student in computer science at the University of Southern California, he says he feels a responsibility to spread information about Fulbright to other students at historically black institutions as an alumni ambassador.

He praises State Department officials for their efforts to enlarge the Fulbright pool. "It isn’t up there yet, but they are doing a good job of taking the right step of becoming more diverse and having those conversations with those of us who have come through the program," he says. "I definitely think those of us who have gone through the program, it is our responsibility to reach back."