Tunisia native Wajdi Balloumi taught Arabic in the United States on a Fulbright scholarship.
Tunisia native Wajdi Balloumi taught Arabic in the United States on a Fulbright scholarship.

WASHINGTON - When Tunisia native Wajdi Balloumi came to teach Arabic in the United States on a Fulbright scholarship, he expected to find students who were little interested in the wider world and not particularly passionate about their studies.

After nine months teaching at Southern Illinois University, he found that the community in Edwardsville, Illinois, was rather curious about foreign affairs and open to welcoming foreigners "as they are."

"This surprised me because I was expecting something different, more conservative, less open," he told VOA.

In addition, he was struck by the fact that most of his students were deeply committed to their studies and many were working part-time jobs in gas stations and grocery stores to finance their education.

Allie D. Surina, a native of California, was a student at Western Kentucky University when she traveled to China to conduct field research. After high school, she couldn't afford a four-year college, so she enrolled in a community college instead.

While in China, she said she explained her humble background to others in an effort to explain that Americans believe in second chances and that opportunities are available even to the "least expected people, in the least expected places."

Building bridges

Balloumi and Surina both were able to travel internationally, building bridges between the United States and other countries, as beneficiaries of the highly competitive Fulbright Program, which sponsors some 8,000 fellowships for Americans and foreigners every year.

They were speakers at a recent "rebranding" event at the U.S. Capitol, where officials unveiled the program's new logo, featuring a stylized letter F spanning a bright blue globe.

"We tell each nation, send us the pride of your nation," said Jeffrey L. Bleich, chairman of the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, during the event.

"We will care for them here, introduce them to our finest minds, collaborate with them, open our homes and culture to them, and when they are done, we will return them to you safe, and sound, and enriched by the experience. And we trust you will do the same for us," he said.

The more than 70-year-old U.S. government-funded program, named for U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, appears to be on solid ground after surviving a severe threat to its financial future. 

In the first two years of the Trump administration, the program was targeted for deep budget cuts along with most other State Department funding.

But the administration's request for $309 million in the coming fiscal year nearly doubles its current-year request for the relevant State Department bureau. And Congress added back even more money in the latest approved budget, designating $730 million for educational and cultural exchange programs. 

Marie T. Royce is the assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs.

Marie T. Royce, the assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, said she is encouraged by the bipartisan support among U.S. lawmakers during an interview on the sidelines of the Capitol rebranding event. But, she said, she and her staff will work to make the most of any budget they receive.

Support from Trump

Royce also maintained that the administration's proposed budget cuts did not reflect a lack of support for the program on the part of U.S. President Donald Trump.

She said the president "is very receptive and warmly embraces the Fulbrighters," adding that earlier this year he hosted half a dozen Fulbright scholars along with four beneficiaries of another exchange program at a White House meeting.

Former State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert is one of three new members appointed by President Donald Trump to the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.

The administration's commitment to the program was also avowed by former State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert, one of three new members appointed by Trump to the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.

"The president supports it, the administration supports it, and certainly the State Department where I was, we're big supporters," she said.