America's prestigious Fulbright Program, which funds international educational exchanges, marked its 60th anniversary on August 1st.
Thomas Farrell, the deputy assistant secretary for academic programs at the U.S. State Department, which runs the program, says that a record number of American students are applying for admission."Right now, we are at the highest point ever in terms of the number of American students, both applying for Fulbrights [awards] - and the highest number of awards in history. So we're close to 1,200 scholarships a year. We hadn't reached levels like that, even at the earliest period of the program in 1954.
Conceived and established by U.S. senator J. William Fulbright in 1946, the program remains non-political -- avoiding disputes between governments -- devoted instead to so-called people-to-people diplomacy still doing what it was designed to do, says Farrell -- foster mutual respect and understanding.
"It has tremendous credibility around the world -- even though it's supported by the people of the United States and in the case of 60 or 70 other countries by contributions from those partner nations. It has a status that allows it be considered quite appropriately non-partisan."
The Fulbright Program provides a total of approximately $250,000 dollars a year in educational grants to American students and scholars to study and teach abroad -- and similar grants to their overseas counterparts to do the same thing in the United States.
Thomas Farrell says that American Fulbrighters -- as they're called -- are generally welcome wherever they go for their year of teaching or research "Exchange students and faculty are received remarkably well in foreign university environments and other places. It's counter-intuitive in many ways," he explains, "but in fact, the reception is usually good because people recognize as soon as someone's there [from the United States], the students and scholars and others are interested in learning about them, learning about their society and culture. It really gets at the heart of -- not only mutual understanding -- but mutual respect. But I'm not going to say that an American is not going to experience some problems."
Farrell adds, "There certainly will be debate and discourse -- because we are dealing with university students. But by and large, when one conveys a desire to learn about another society, one is also conveying respect and that generates a kind of acceptance and hospitality that nothing else can do."
Last year, 26-year old Nicolas Block from the state of Vermont got a Fulbright grant to take photographs of Riga, Latvia -- and its wide range of architectural styles from ancient Roman to medieval Gothic to modern office buildings. Block plans an exhibit of his photographs. He says Riga residents often approached him at his tripod outdoors and asked where he was from. "I tell them 'the United States. Then, we usually talk about foreign policy for a couple of minutes," he says, laughing. "One night, I met a soldier who had gone to Iraq, a Latvian. He was very positive about the whole thing. Some other people had different opinions."
Another Fulbrighter, Abel Adekola, a professor of business at the University of Wisconsin, recently received a grant to teach college students in Vilnius, Lithuania, how to set up their own private businesses. But the course on entrepreneurship isn't what Adekola says he'll remember most. It's the impression he made -- as a symbol of America as a land of opportunity and diversity. This professor of business from a prestigious university in the American Midwest created quite a stir in Vilnius. Adekola is a black man born in Lagos, Nigeria.
"Somebody came and told me, 'You guys are rare. We don't have people like you here,' he recalls.
There was the memorable time he first went to a shopping mall in Vilnius. "One lady, well-dressed, was eating ice cream. She was just staring [at me]. The ice cream was falling on her clothes. She didn't pay attention to the ice cream falling on her clothes. Then, I decided to sit next to her at the bench on the mall. I said, 'Hi.' She said, 'Uhhhh.' Just like that. Then I realized this is a city of 650-thousand. I did not see other blacks. The first time I saw black people was when I went to watch a basketball game. They recruited [black players] people from the U.S. The players don't stay. As soon as the game is over, they go to Frankfurt or London. So that was really unique. God knows how many of my pictures are in Lithuanian homes right now. They loved to take photographs with me: 'Please can I take a picture with you?' I became [like] a rock star!"
Adekola says what he experienced wasn't racism. "That is one thing I can say emphatically. It was just curiosity. It baffled me that in 2006 there are still some places in the world [where people haven't seen black people]. That is when you realize what the Soviet Union did. They didn't let them travel outside. They contained them. They grew up in that locality. So they never saw black people."
Officials at the university where he taught had a going-away party for him. Adekola recalls with a broad smile, "All of them spoke: 'You taught us so much. We just can not explain.' I guess what they were saying was - part of my race. I was able to come in, not let it deter me "
In the last six decades, nearly 250-thousand individuals from some 150 countries have been Fulbright scholars, pursuing the program's enduring and still vital mission: overcoming cultural barriers and fostering mutual respect and understanding.