In 1945, as the world was reeling from the aftermath of World War II, James William Fulbright—a U.S. senator from Arkansas—proposed the creation of a program aimed at averting future nuclear wars. The concept was founded in Fulbright’s belief that connecting people from different countries would ultimately foster greater understanding and cooperation between their nations. Fulbright came to call this “converting nations into peoples.”
Seventy-five years later, the Fulbright program has become the largest exchange program in history. The original spirit of reciprocity endures and is part of what makes the program unique. Eleven students arrived at the Salt Lake City campus in Fall 2021—the U’s largest incoming class of “Fulbrighters,” as participants call themselves—representing 10 different countries. The U also hosts four continuing Fulbrighters, along with three Fulbright alumni who have progressed to doctoral studies. In total, 14 countries are represented on campus.
What does it mean to be a “Fulbrighter?”
Students participate in the Fulbright Program in one of three ways: some serve as foreign language teaching assistantships in local schools, some students pursue graduate study and other awardees work on research projects related to their destination country.
The program is “bilateral,” meaning that students come to the U.S. from other nations and the U.S. State Department sends around 2,000 students out internationally each year. This year, eight U students were selected as Fulbright semi-finalists and two received awards to represent the U.S. abroad. For the 2022 application cycle, 22 U students applied for a Fulbright award, the second largest number of applications on record.
Bringing the Fulbright Program to the U
“Every student fulfills certain obligations related to their program goals,” said Dr. Howard Lehman, professor, Political Science and director, Fulbright Academy at the U. “You do your work, but the larger philosophical goal is to get out of the lab, or classroom and go to the grocery store, take trips and really interact with those you meet. Every participant is a cultural ambassador.”
Lehman received three Fulbright Scholar awards of his own as a faculty member. It was when he returned to teach after his last fellowship that he realized the need for a larger Fulbright presence at the U.
“There had been a couple of students who had won awards, but there was really no coordinated promotion or support of the program. Today, I’m passionate about helping U students create winning applications,” said Lehman.
As a top-tier research university with international work at the heart of its mission, Lehman felt the U had more to contribute. In the seven years since he started a concerted effort promoting Fulbright, 27 students have received the sought-after award.
The Fulbright way
“It’s hard to track the many deep impacts that my Fulbright has had in all aspects of my life—it really feels like this experience molded my personal and professional worldviews. I spent a lot of time out of my comfort zone, which opened me up to exciting challenges and memorable experiences,” said Caitlin Silianoff of her experience. Silianoff was awarded a fellowship to teach English in Taiwan and graduated from the U in 2020 in International Studies.
“These students stand out,” said Kendra Taylor, Sponsored Student Coordinator for the office of International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS). Regardless of whether they are coming into the U.S. or going out to other countries, Fulbrighters have a reputation that can be summed up in one word — involved. “They are all heavily involved in the community–both on campus and at large. They are engaged on a whole other level.”
Fulbright changes lives
“Fulbrighters are essentially curious,” said Lehman. There’s a feeling when you’re a part of the Fulbright program that you don’t want to waste a minute. Fulbrighters really try to embrace the moment; they tend to be busy every day exploring and learning. And, for many of these students, the experience is truly life-changing.”
The Fulbright Program operates in over 160 countries around the world and many students are exposed to living conditions abroad that are vastly different than their home country through their fellowship.
“I realized that every day of my program at the University of Utah costs the same as the minimum monthly wage of an indigenous family living in extreme poverty in rural Guatemala,” said Joaquín Lopez-Huertas, a 2021 Fulbrighter at the U studying City & Metropolitan Planning. “This is a reminder that I received an opportunity in which I must do my best.”
“Coming to Utah from occupied Gaza, this is not just a cultural and academic exchange opportunity,” said political science graduate student Aziz Abuzayed. “It is also another chance at a normal life, where I am not in constant fear for my life even if I just sit at home.”
Many students who complete a Fulbright at the U enjoy their time in Utah so much that they even chose to return for further study. “Students become major ambassadors for the University of Utah and they go back and tell their friends what a wonderful place it is,” said Taylor.
A bright future
At the beginning of the fall semester, the 2021 class of incoming Fulbrighters had the opportunity to meet each other at an outdoor potluck hosted by ISSS. It was a joyous celebration of international friendship made sweeter by the rarity of social interaction since the beginning of the pandemic. (Several awardees had to postpone their fellowships until travel restrictions were lifted.) Over shared dishes from their home countries, the group began to build the bridges Senator Fulbright envisioned over 75 years ago.
“The Fulbright Program’s mission is to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship,” said Fulbright when founding the program.
It’s a mission the U is proud to continue to play a part in.