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Voices of the Global Community

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Susan Vdovichenko, Washington & Jefferson College

Susan Vdovichenko.jpgIn 2015, I was appointed the Fulbright Program Advisor (FPA) for Washington & Jefferson College (W&J), a small liberal arts college in Washington, PA. Between 1949 and 2014, W&J students had received 14 Fulbright awards, a number that did not make a lot of sense. Our students are global-minded, active in the community, well-rounded, and high achieving. Fulbright seems like a perfect fit.

For the first two years, I did what seemed reasonable: helped students fill out the application in the fall, read the FPA handbook, held a couple of large information sessions in the weeks leading up to the deadline. It didn’t really get me anywhere; W&J got one grant in 2015, and one grant in 2016.

Since the 2017–2018 cycle, our students have received 16 grants (an average of four per year). When I first started, if I asked students what Fulbright was, they stared at me blankly. Now, though, everybody knows somebody who has applied, or won one, or is currently finishing out their grant. In just a few years, we have created that elusive Fulbright community.

It takes a lot of work, and support from the administration, but it isn’t complicated. The following steps made it possible for our college to increase the number of Fulbright awards from an average of one every 4.5 years to an average of four per year:

Get administrative support, if possible. I have been given a course reduction, which frees up some time to concentrate on Fulbright. This is critical to being able to devote the necessary time to the goal. Additional support—in the form of a dedicated position, staff, additional salary, etc.—would of course be welcome. However, at least being given some extra time to focus on this type of advising is vital for success.

Use Fulbright resources. The best support for me has been the webinars, emails to Fulbright itself (they are exceptionally responsive), and the FPA handbook. Everything you need to know is available through those avenues and for free.

Attend the National Screening Committee (NSC) Observation in December. There are six possible locations (New York, Washington DC, Chicago, Houston, Denver, and San Francisco). Priority is given to those FPAs who haven’t observed in the past two years. This is the single most important thing I have done in building the Fulbright community on our campus. At the observation, you watch as the NSC chooses that year’s semi-finalists. As professors, best practice is to give students a rubric before a paper to clarify your expectations. Observing as the committee deliberates allows you to understand the imaginary rubric behind their selections; thus, as you advise students on their essays, you can help them to highlight the aspects of their experiences that the NSC most wants to know about.

Start early. If a student comes to me in September, I have to work with what they give me. What can we stretch to show that they have research capabilities or English teaching experience? How can we show that they are going to be able to learn Polish or Arabic? If I talk to a student in the spring of their freshman year, though, the possibilities are wide open. Can they take a summer course in Arabic? Volunteer at a literacy center to teach ESL? I always tell the students not to create upheavals in their lives, because in the end, you can’t control what the committee decides—but it’s fairly easy to tweak summer plans to lay the groundwork for a great application.

Make a spreadsheet. Our students typically apply for the open research grants or the English Teaching Assistant grants. Good candidates are those who have studied abroad, are interested in research, are majors in English, foreign languages, or communications, have won on-campus grants for research projects, or have learned a language. In the spring, I create a list of certain majors (education, foreign languages, English, communications, sciences), and contact the study abroad office and the committee that grants our on-campus research/international grants for their lists of students. Excel works great (columns: name, year of graduation, major, study abroad, if they won an on-campus grant, if they have attended an info session, if they have started an application, which grant they are applying for, if they have sent me their essays, if they have gotten letters of recommendation, if they have completed the application). Each year, I remove the seniors from the previous year and start a new worksheet, adding in new candidates.

Cast a wide net. In the spring, I write an e-mail to each person on the list (mostly copy/paste, with tweaks depending on their experiences; addressing students individually gets better responses than a mass email). We have a small campus; the email typically goes out to about 250 students. I set up small group information sessions, with 2–5 students per group. Historically, these have been done in my office, but these info sessions are easily adapted to Zoom.

Information sessions. At the sessions, I cover the grant basics, go over the NSC expectations, give the students a timeline, and answer questions. I make sure they know I’m available if something comes up. The main point here is that a student who knows nothing about Fulbright won’t apply. A student who knows something about Fulbright might start an application and then hit me up with questions when they stumble.

E-mail rising seniors in the summer; now it’s time to start the application. By then, they’re well versed in what I’m selling. A nudge at this time is important.

Feedback. I ask the students to give me their essays by the beginning of September so that I can constructively rip them apart and have them write 3–4 more drafts. This takes up the bulk of the time, both for me and for them.

On-campus deadline. Our on-campus deadline is September 15, about three weeks before the national deadline. This gives me time to check all of the uploaded documents, chase down any late recommendations, hold on-campus interviews, and write the campus endorsement.

In short, there are three main ways to get the Fulbright ball rolling: educate yourself (most importantly from the NSC observation), start early and cast a wide net, and offer constructive feedback to students. While I like to think our students are exceptional, most colleges likely have a large number of highly qualified candidates that are simply not being set up for success.

The best part is that, now that we have had some success, students are coming to me before I can come to them. The culture builds upon itself. Much like laying the groundwork for a good Fulbright grant application helps immensely with earning an award, laying the groundwork for a Fulbright culture makes it much easier to find the most qualified students, leading to increased success.

Susan Vdovichenko
Assistant Professor of Russian
Washington & Jefferson College
svdovichenko@washjeff.edu


Cite this article using APA style as: Vdovichenko, S. (2020, December). 10 steps to building a Fulbright community. Academic Advising Today, 43(4). [insert url here]

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