Last Friday I had the opportunity to attend an information meeting on the Fulbright award. It’s an opportunity to spend a year abroad doing research, teaching English, and in some cases learning a critical language. The purpose of the program is cultural exchange, in both directions. If you’re teaching English, as I want to, you aren’t just teaching your students about grammar but about the United States. Meanwhile, you’re integrating yourself into the local community and bringing back a wealth of cultural knowledge when you return to the US. Returning is very important, because the Fulbright is in some ways an investment into American youth. Even though there isn’t a service component, like the Boren award, the people who are benefited by this program are expected to use the talents they gain in the country that gave them such an opportunity.
There are two main types of award, research grants and ETA awards. Research grants are for people who want to conduct any kind of research, from lab interviews to field work, in the country they choose. ETA awards are for people who want to teach English in the country of their choice, and may have an opportunity to audit classes or start a small research project in the time they don’t spend teaching. You can’t apply for both options, nor can you apply to multiple countries; you have to pick one situation and learn as much about it as you can.
However, there are ways to combine elements of research and teaching grants. Not only is it possible to pursue some research while teaching, there’s a special type of award, called the Critical Language Enhancement Award, that allows you to research or teach while receiving funding to learn a crucial language to US national defense. The languages offered are Arabic, Indonesian, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Mandarin, Marathi, Urdu, Punjabi, and Russian. Unlike the Boren Awards, there aren’t options to learn a target language in places where it isn’t the dominant language. If I wanted to study Russian with a Boren award, for example, I probably wouldn’t be allowed to go to Russia, and would instead study in a place like Kazakhstan or Estonia; with Fulbright, the only option for learning Russian with CLS is Russia. I could pursue a Fulbright in those countries and still audit courses in Russian, but I wouldn’t receive a special award to do so.
The process of applying for a Fulbright is relatively straightforward. There are three dates to turn in the application, and two of them are specific to OU. There’s the date by which you have to have your application turned in to the OU office, so they can give you an interview and talk about ways to improve your application. That interview is in September and is only half an hour. But there’s also an earlier date to submit the application, late July. In that case, you get an hour-long interview, which goes into far more detail about how to improve your application, and people who use that deadline have a much higher chance of being accepted. I’m not sure how that deadline would work if one was off-campus for the summer; I’ll have to ask at a later date.
Chances for the Fulbright are complicated by the fact that a lot of people who are applying simply aren’t qualified. The national average is something like 16-18 percent, but OU’s average has been around 25% for the last five years. This is probably due to the incredible amount of work the staff does at making sure people are ready to apply, in part by hosting excellent seminars like this one.