The spring typically brings a flurry of excitement for Bowdoin applicants to the Fulbright Student Program. Bowdoin students have fared well in the past—the College had 19 successful applicants in 2018-2019, second only to Williams College among American liberal arts colleges.
This year, however, the COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented disruption for both current and prospective grantees. In mid-March, all current grantees were advised to quickly depart from their host countries, and on April 21, the program informed incoming study/research and English Teaching Assistant (ETA) grantees that they will not be permitted to begin their work before January 1, 2020.
“[Fulbright] is large, well-established, and it’s been continually running since 1948,” said Kate Myall, assistant director of the Center for Cocurricular Opportunities, in a video interview with the Orient. “While there have been moments since 1948 … when things have been disrupted, this worldwide effect is completely unprecedented.”
Owen Tuck ’20 learned last week that he had been awarded a study/research grant to work at a lab in a Max Planck Institute in Potsdam, Germany. Usually, the scientists at the lab work on developing solutions to antibiotic resistance.
“My project would be designing a vaccine for one type of really deathly resistant bacteria that plagues a lot of hospitals, especially in the developing world,” Tuck said in a video interview with the Orient. “The research now looks like it would probably be more like vaccines for coronavirus, because a lot of groups have pivoted.”
Tuck, who would have started his research in mid-September, learned about the new January start date from a friend before he was notified of his acceptance, and after he received his acceptance email, he then received an official email about the delay.
Like Tuck, Ely Spencer ’20 found out last week that he had been awarded an ETA grant to work in Spain and that the program would not begin until January. The Spanish Fulbright commission has yet to tell him where in the country he will be placed or what school he will be working in.
The delayed Fulbright start date creates a logistical puzzle for Spencer.
“I’m applying to other stuff too and looking at other opportunities—I don’t really know how it all might fit together,” Spencer said in a video interview with the Orient. “I think this is true for more seniors this year.”
Neither Spencer nor Tuck have officially accepted their grants, and both are making alternative plans as they await more information from their respective commissions. Tuck, who was accepted to a doctorate program in chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, had planned to defer matriculation if he received the Fulbright grant, but he is now considering starting graduate school this fall. Alternatively, if his supervisor at the lab is able to pay him a salary, he would consider starting work in Germany in September as planned and then making use of the Fulbright funding once it is made available after the updated start date in January.
Neither Spencer nor Tuck have received specific information about the impact of the delay on their funding, their program’s updated end dates or the date by which they would have to accept their grants. Myall explained that the rapidly-evolving health crisis forced countries participating in Fulbright to make multiple decisions before they had formulated concrete contingency plans.
“They’re making decisions before they have plans,” she said.
Myall and Janice Jaffe, interim director of Student Fellowships and Research, explained that the Fulbright, which is bilaterally run and funded by the U.S. State Department and the countries where grantees work, typically allows countries to make their own decisions about evacuations and safety concerns. They expect countries will make decisions about altering end dates to allow grantees to stay for the full ten-month period. They added that the countries’ decisions would likely depend on what sources of funding they had available and, for ETA grants, whether the start of the school year had also been delayed.
In the meantime, Myall and Jaffe said they continue to receive frequent email updates from the Institute for International Education, the entity within the U.S. State Department that runs the Fulbright Student Program.
Current grantees also experienced this long-term planning process when they were told to depart from their countries in March. Myall and Jaffe explained that grantees were given a $1000 relocation stipend and will continue to receive funding and health insurance at least through June. Students were not given this information in initial emails from the U.S. State Department which urged them to return to the United States.
Some Fulbright recipients were sent home on a country-by-country basis, but all remaining grantees were urged to return by the U.S. State Department once it had declared a global Level 4 Travel Advisory on March 31.
Myall and Jaffe explained that there have been disruptions to the program in the past, including several years ago when students who were awarded Fulbright grants to do work in Venezuela were reassigned to neighboring countries for safety reasons, and one instance where a student who was awarded a study/research grant in Egypt in 2013 was reassigned to Jordan due to the Arab Spring.
However, Fulbright’s capacity to reassign grantees is limited. In 2016, in the wake of the coup in Turkey, the entire cohort of 80 incoming ETAs had their grants suspended, not reassigned, during the summer before their planned departure.
“Super large cohorts … [are] not so easily reassigned,” Myall said, relating that instance to the current situation. “I don’t think Fulbright wants to suspend [all of its programs] for the first time since 1948, but when it’s a global pandemic, where are people being reassigned to?”
Jaffe and Myall also explained that their phone and email conversations with prospective Fulbright recipients involve discussing the possibility of being on lockdown in their host country after arrival, which would not be conducive to the kinds of intercultural interaction that many applicants desire.
While acknowledging that these circumstances put recipients in a complicated and stressful situation, Myall and Jaffe also emphasize the importance of keeping American grantees in the United States until the situation becomes more stable to avoid placing a strain on other countries’ healthcare systems, and they praise current and prospective grantees for their flexibility in navigating this process.
Indeed, while Tuck and Spencer both expressed some anxieties about putting a plan in place for the upcoming year, they also demonstrated attitudes of acceptance when discussing their current decision-making processes. Tuck had been told that he will be contacted by a Fulbright regional representative at an unknown time, and he will then have two weeks to decide whether he will accept the offer.
“It certainly seems rushed, especially because you’re essentially asking someone to forgo a source of income or any sort of financial support that they had counted on,” he said. “But that’s also the case for a lot of people all over the world right now; it’s not Fulbright-exclusive by any stretch.”
Spencer echoed this sentiment, emphasizing the gratitude he felt for having received his acceptance.
“I think there’s a ton of uncertainty involved,” he said. “More than anything, I think this is a really cool opportunity that I’m really excited about, and we’ll see what happens.”
The application for the 2021-2022 Fulbright cycle is now open, as originally scheduled, and the process is proceeding normally as of now.