Sharing Fulbright As An Alumni Ambassador

Amy Werbel, Associate Professor, History of Art, Fashion Institute of Technology
2011-2012 Fulbright U.S. Scholar to China

Say “Fulbright Scholar” and most academics think of a stiff competition in which faculty at colleges and universities with massive endowments are at a significant advantage. As a Fulbright Scholar Alumni Ambassador, my job is to spread the truth about our programs: yes, Fulbright is prestigious and competitive, but no, it is not elitist. The goal of the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program is to celebrate and share a representative sampling of all of our fantastic higher education institutions abroad and to spread the benefits of the program widely back at home.

Hopefully, my own story is convincing. When I applied for the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program to China in 2010, I never thought I had a chance as a professor at a small liberal arts college in Northwestern Vermont. A year later, I had no such misconceptions as I sat on an airplane headed for Guangzhou, China with my two sons. Our year in China was transformational for all of us, and when I came home, there were many more ways to contribute. Thus far, I also have served as an orientation leader, a peer reviewer, and now an Alumni Ambassador.

Between January 16th and January 25th this year, I made my first major trip as an Alumni Ambassador, crisscrossing the American South to encourage faculty and administrators to dream big and draft proposals with clarity and conviction. Prospective applicants have lots of questions -- about the application process, whether certain countries are harder than others to get a Fulbright grant, and what happens with kids, mortgages, pets, health benefits, sabbatical clocks, and more. Hopefully, my own experience serves as proof – if I can do this, so can you.

I chose to tour the South for several reasons. As a longtime New England resident and native New Yorker (now living in the Big Apple again), I have spent very little time in the South and was curious. Also, I recently created a new online course focusing on African American art and history and hoped to see many of the places referenced in my course materials. I was especially delighted then, when several Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) answered my e-mail requests and invited me to speak. My visits to these institutions were inspiring.

                        Shaw University faculty and administrators who hope to become Fulbrighters in future years: Mark Branson,Phyllis Hilliard,
                                                                            Désiré Baloubi, Dorothy Browne, and Beverly Clark

In the case of Shaw University, I realized profound parallels between its storied past and the Fulbright program. Shaw was founded as the first HBCU following the Civil War in 1865, as the product of enormous idealism about the capacity of higher education to uplift newly-freed bondsmen who for so long had been denied access to even basic instruction. Today, Shaw is a vibrant institution with a long history of embracing idealistic causes, including serving as the birthplace of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the Civil Rights Era. Fulbright, of course, also was born in the wake of a terrible war (in 1946), with a similarly idealistic objective to use education to lead the way to a brighter future.

The last stop on my 4,000-mile road trip was historic Bennett College in lovely Greensboro, North Carolina, which is one of only two remaining women-only HBCUs (the other is Spelman College). Students from Bennett took part in the sit-in demonstrations at Woolworth’s in Greensboro that resulted in desegregated lunch counters, and today Bennett women still find empowerment in their sisterhood. How wonderful if faculty and administrators from Shaw and Bennett can serve as inspiration in the many countries abroad in which student organizations similarly hope to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. Needless to say, I wish all of the faculty and administrators I have spoken with the best of luck in their applications. For my next big trip, I am thinking about a tour of tribal colleges in the Dakotas. I will keep you posted!