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At 75, the Fulbright deserves respect and more funding

Seventy-five years ago, President Truman signed legislation, proposed by Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, to create an international exchange program that has grown to be the world’s most respected. The Fulbright Program is a centerpiece of American public diplomacy, connecting ordinary people to the extraordinary missions of cooperation and peace.

“Fulbrighters” prove that across borders partnerships can be built to solve problems. We learn to respect each other to lessen conflict. We see our common humanity while savoring cultural differences. We teach each other lasting skills. We do not rely on politicians because we all have the power to make the world a better place.

The Fulbright mission may seem naïve given the realpolitik of international relations. But if that were true, why would nearly 50 other countries collectively contribute a quarter of the program’s budget? Why would China create a program patterned after Fulbright, if it did not advance their strategic goal of building a friendly network of alumni? Exchanges are pragmatic, not idealistic.

Public diplomacy programs fit a global environment where nation-states cannot control cultural and religious movements, and where digital influencers have more power than ministers. Better to have leaders who understand America, who appreciate peace and understanding, embedded in the cultures of 165 countries, as Fulbright does, than to rely on foreign and military policy alone.

Finally, exchange programs are efficient tools of American diplomacy because they pay off for years. There are now more than 400,000 alumni of the Fulbright Program worldwide, carrying the power and mission throughout our lives and careers. This network has been an engine of innovation, leadership and peace for generations. Fulbright advances our national security for a yearly investment that is four-fifths the cost of just one F-22 fighter.

Despite these advantages, and a history of bipartisan support in Congress, the tools of public diplomacy gain little attention and even less funding. The Fulbright Program has had flat funding for more than a decade, despite its efficient impact. To rectify that, Fulbrighters believe support will increase if these tools are better understood. We also acknowledge that, like any well-used tool, the Fulbright Program needs some sharpening after 75 years. Here are some ideas:

Advance balanced strategies. It can be tempting to emphasize countries where security interests seem threatened. The Fulbright Program in Afghanistan, now suspended, was part of a larger effort to build goodwill in a perilous environment. Indeed, the lives of Afghan Fulbright alumni are threatened, so we support Rep. John Garamendi’s (D-Calif.) bill (HR 5482) to facilitate their evacuation. But these investments come too often at the cost of programs with traditional allies such as Germany and France, when deepening those relationships is equally important to national security.

Be ambassadors. American Fulbrighters need reminding that they are not just on an educational mission. We are sent as researchers, students and teachers to build relationships that create understanding and goodwill. Free of political agendas and partisanship, we are just as much ambassadors as any diplomat.

Do more outreach. American and visiting Fulbrighters must better connect to the community they inhabit. We need to sing in choirs, volunteer in soup kitchens, and tutor local children. On my Fulbright to India, I talked with hundreds of Indians who had never met an American, and I celebrated Easter with Mother Teresa while working at her center in Calcutta (now Kolkata).

Reflect diversity. Making the Fulbright fully reflect America’s diversity is a State Department priority, but we should include more people of color, those coming from state universities and small colleges, and participants from rural America. More resources and wider alumni support are needed, such as the Fulbright Association’s “Fulbright in the Classroom” outreach to under-represented communities.

Recruit more teachers. Fulbrighters who teach English and cultural literacy are powerful ambassadors overseas, each touching hundreds of families who never before knew an American. That means expanding the English Teaching Assistantship program and strengthening K-12 teacher exchanges.

Value our partners. Eighty percent of Fulbright grantees are connected to programs managed by the nearly 50 bilateral commissions worldwide. Those partnerships embody the mission, help fund the program, and deserve better recognition. Again, traditional alliances need investment and respect.

Engage foreign alumni. The Fulbright Association has engaged American Fulbrighters for more than 40 years, but most international alumni need support to remain connected to the mission. That should change if we expect them to continue their healthy relationship with, and respect for, the United States.

Follow the data. With relationships at their core, all exchange programs struggle to quantify impact. The program needs greater investment in empirical studies to guide logistical and budgetary decisions. The State Department invests this way, but it is short of resources.

Assure impact. The threat of ceded leadership to China should not be needed to awaken policymakers to invest more in educational exchanges. We know this is a smart, efficient use of taxpayer dollars, yet funding has been flat for 11 years. Congress should significantly boost our commitment.

Anniversaries are a good moment for reflection, assessment and renewal. The 75th anniversary year of the Fulbright Program is such a moment. The COVID-19 pandemic also reminds us, by stealing global travel, that people-to-people exchanges are powerful and positive.We must appreciate the tools that strategically advance American interests and use those tools more effectively. On this Veterans Day, we can best honor our armed forces — past, present and future — by investing in the tools that prevent armed conflict and doing all we can as citizen diplomats to promote peace.

Given the appetite for bipartisan solutions that work, Fulbright and other public diplomacy programs deserve greater support.

John Bader is the executive director of the Fulbright Association, the alumni organization of American Fulbrighters.

Tags Education Fulbright Program John Garamendi Public Diplomacy State Department Student exchange

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