Fulbright: The 75-year citizen diplomacy experiment

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We live in challenging times in the U.S. and across the globe. Constructive debates and animated discussions on domestic and foreign policy differences across political ideologies have historically been rooted in passion with an end goal of compromising to focus on improving the lives of our neighbors and community at-large. Somewhere along the line, however, these norms were severely wounded, and in creeped worsening political polarization and an understanding that it was acceptable not to consider other points of view.

While we work to listen to — and not talk at — one another, one prestigious scholarship program offers a beacon of hope to get us back to this previous time of solving — not creating — the U.S. and world’s most perplexing challenges: The Fulbright Program.

Since Aug. 1, 1946, the Fulbright Program — the U.S. Department of State’s flagship international exchange program — has withstood the test of time to continually enhance mutual understanding between Americans and citizens of more than 160 partner countries worldwide. But what makes the Fulbright Program a remarkable return-on-investment for the U.S. government, as well as partner governments globally?

First, the power of citizen diplomacy is undeniable. In a complex and changing world, personal experiences and relationships play a pivotal role in solving pressing problems. It is hard to trust — or even understand — people and their goals without getting to know them and their customs and traditions. And if you cannot trust someone, how can you agree to work together, whether on a small school project or on the global diplomatic stage?

Importantly, in many cases, the beliefs people hold close about others is a product of their life experiences and educational journey. But many may be rooted in biases and misunderstandings, which could be addressed and corrected if only given the chance. Through international exchanges and deep immersion in other cultures, such as those experiences provided by the Fulbright Program, these misperceptions are challenged — and what may have seemed like unlikely partnerships can form, bettering the lives of many.

Additionally, as prejudices about others are challenged and proven wrong, a positive ripple effect can occur as one Fulbrighter — the endearing term given to those awarded Fulbright grants — shares his or her experience with another person and the process of changing opinions commences. On a small scale, this positive impact can change the view of a local village or classroom. On a large scale, this can change day-to-day international affairs. Indeed, a total of 39 past Fulbrighters have become heads of state or government in their home countries, leadership positions that are undoubtedly impacted by their cross-cultural Fulbright experience. 

Second, with each batch of Fulbrighters, the U.S. sends its best and brightest overseas seeking not only a crash course in mutual understanding and cross-cultural competencies but to further ground-breaking scientific discovery and artistic expression. Ultimately, such global teamwork — where the best and brightest from the U.S. work alongside the best and brightest of partner countries, whether in the U.S. or another country — can lead to life-changing innovations and insights that change the world for the better.

Prior Fulbrighters are at the forefront of fighting the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic, buoyed by their Fulbright experience. Additionally, further advancements outside of the current pandemic but in health, science, and technology are inevitable when 88 percent and 90 percent of grantees report exposure to new ideas and concepts in their field and a deeper understanding of their area of inquiry, respectively. Advancements made by Fulbrighters during their grant opportunity bring U.S. and the world one step forward in tackling previously unsolvable issues.

Lastly, the Fulbright Program plays a pivotal role in promoting the ideals of democracy, equality, freedom, and free economic markets — all core elements of the fabric of the U.S. and critical to global security and prosperity.

A prime example of the program promoting a more just world can be seen through examining the recent history of the Afghan Fulbright Program, which allowed qualified Afghan students to study at prestigious American universities at the graduate level. Historically, no women were qualified to even apply; however, over the past few years, half the applicants were women and the last Afghan Ambassador to the U.S. was not only a woman but a Fulbright alumna. While very recent events may place this specific example of remarkable progress regarding women’s’ rights in peril, the core drive of the Fulbright Program pushing the boundaries for a more just and safer world will always remain.

The numbers behind the Fulbright Program speak for themselves. Indeed, alumni include not only the 39 world leaders noted above, but 60 Nobel Prize recipients, 75 MacArthur Foundation Fellows, and 88 Pulitzer Prize winners. Arguably more important, however, is the fact that what started as a hopeful initiative for a more peaceful, prosperous, and secure world following World War II has moved beyond that initial lofty goal and is now a driver of diplomacy, increasing economic prosperity and scientific innovation in the U.S. and around the globe.

Every person who is fortunate enough to have earned the distinction of being named a Fulbrighter not only furthers their personal knowledge and develops critical problem-solving skills but positively impacts the U.S. and world from a local community to a country to an even global level. It is these thought leaders and innovators who are likely to not only be involved in discovering a life-saving medication or writing the next best-selling novel but also in promoting a return to civility with an understanding that differing viewpoints do not make us enemies but are, in fact, a recipe for compromise and tackling challenges together.

Here’s to another 75 years and more of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State’s flagship international exchange program.

David N. Bernstein, MD, MBA, MEI is a resident physician in the Harvard Combined Orthopaedic Residency Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and Boston Children’s Hospital. He is a former U.S. Fulbright Study/Research Student Grantee to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg in 2013-14 and proudly represents the Fulbright Program as an Alumni Ambassador. Follow him on Twitter @DNBernsteinMD The views of this editorial are solely that of the author.

Tags civility Diplomacy Fulbright Program problem solving Student exchange U.S. Department of State

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