Sunday, December 06, 2009

Participating in the Fulbright Scholars' Selection Process

Tuesday, December 1, 2009 (en route by train to New York City)

Apart from a Thanksgiving Day lunch and dinner (with two different groups of family/friends, I spent much of the holiday long-weekend reading Fulbright Scholar’s Program applications. This venerable program, well known to academics and students with international interests, is named after its founder, Senator J. William Fulbright, who headed the U.S. Senate Committee for many years. Like the Peace Corps, it has had sufficient clout to survive political buffetings from political leaders with very different values and views than Senator Fulbright, most notably conservative Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina.

The program for which I was selecting provides transportation and modest funding for a year of study abroad. The typical applicant is a recent university graduate who seeks to deepen his or her international experience before returning to the US for additional graduate study. A small number of applicants are enrolled in MA or PhD programs. An even smaller number are unaffiliated individuals, often older, who are seeking an opportunity for personal enrichment and/or to make a contribution to the country in which they intend to work. Most applicants have international study and travel experience. Even for some of the younger ones, this can be amazingly extensive.

My responsibilities as a member of the three-person South Asia subcommittee of the Fulbright National Selection was to evaluate applications seeking study opportunities in Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. There were more than sixty applications, typically about 25 pages in length. Each included an application form with personal/professional information, a ‘project description,’ an autobiographical ‘personal statement,‘ one or more statements from individuals/organizations with whom the applicants hoped to affiliate and one or more statements evaluating the applicants language competence. Each packet concluded with two to four letters of recommendation. As is typical, such letters Range from brief, perfunctory statements to detailed, sometimes lyrical endorsements from caring mentors whose knowledge of applicants and concern for their success was demonstrable. The application pile’s height was more than 7 in., somewhat more massive than the one volume Colombia Encyclopedia that my parents gave me for Christmas during my first year of junior high school.

How does one deal with such a mass of paper in reasonable time seeking, simultaneously, to be efficient (selection committee service is pro bono) and to give applicant’s hopes, dreams, aspirations and accomplishments their full due? Meeting both these conflicting goals is virtually impossible. The two full working days I had budgeted for the task, was not nearly enough.

When students and young faculty members seek my advice about scholarship, fellowship, and research funding and about graduate applications, my advice is always the same. Try to put yourself in the ‘seat’ of the selection committee member and view the process from their vantage point. Make their task of reviewing your application, according to criteria set forth in the program description, as easy as possible. Be meticulous about meeting every program requirement, providing every document and filling in every blank on application forms. Remember that in any competitive selection process, committee members will be looking for reasons not to chose your application, rather than the reverse.

Here is a brief window into how the Fulbright selection process works. After reading each 20-30 page application packet, committee members are asked to capture the essence of your materials in one number: 1.0 for outstanding, 1.5 for excellent, 2.0 for very good, 2.5 for above average, 3.0 for average, 3.5 for marginal and 4.0 for not recommended. Tomorrow, we will begin our day by simply reading of the numbers we have assigned for each applicant.

The Committee’s program manager, an employee of the International Institute of Education (IIE) that manages the program for the Department of State will compile the numbers and identify applicants about whom there is consensus. She (or he) will also know about how many awards can be given for each country. More than half the applicants will be dropped from consideration within the first two hours or so. The remainder of the day, with a break for lunch at the spectacular UN staff cafeteria, overlooking the East River, will be devoted to discussing and ranking applicants for the remaining open slots.

Like any process where scarce resources must be allocated among a greater number of deserving applications than funding will allow, this one may have its shortcomings. But in my experience it is efficiently administered and free of any obvious bias. Despite the time involved, Selection Committee members are knowledgeable professionals who take their obligations seriously and play out their role’s responsibly. Perhaps this brief description of the process will be both demystifying and empowering. My hope is that it will help prospective applicants, especially those from American University, to participate more confidently and effectively.



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