Kathleen B. Aspiranti, Associate Professor, University of Kentucky
In the fall of 2021, I embarked on a journey to complete a Fulbright award at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary. When I began my position at my current university in 2019, I soon met three colleagues in my field who had recently completed Fulbright awards: one to Southeast Asia, one to Finland, and one to Hungary. Through conversations with these colleagues, I learned that although all three had very different focuses for their projects they all had amazing experiences, would recommend the Fulbright program to others, and would most definitely do it again. After encouragement from these colleagues, I decided that I would apply for a Fulbright. But where to start? Below I discuss some considerations when applying for a Fulbright award.
Where do I want to go? The Fulbright program partners with over 135 countries across the world, which can be quite overwhelming as you can only apply for one Fulbright award at a time. An important part of the application is to highlight the specific award that you are applying for and why you need to be in that geographic location to complete your project. For this reason, many Fulbrighters have a specific reason to apply for an award located in a certain country based on ongoing research or professional goals. For instance, perhaps you already have a connection with a research lab in Myanmar working on a specific research question. Or maybe you have always been interested in how the education system in Singapore compares to that in the United States.
The catalog of current Fulbright awards lists all of the available awards for the upcoming cycle. Each award specifies the requested discipline. In some instances, the title of the award will specify the discipline. In others, the award will be titled ‘All Disciplines’, but then at the bottom of the Award Details page there will be a list of specific disciplines that will be considered. Some awards even specify areas of interest, for example, in one case within the discipline of Education the award is really interested in the areas of Higher Education Administration or Curriculum Development. By filtering through the countries and the disciplines, your choices narrow significantly. For me, there was an award for Hungary titled Education and Psychology, which was perfect for school psychologists. I had no previous connections to Hungary but I was able to tailor my application to my match to the specific award, my contribution to the host institution, and my desire to learn more about the country.
Awards for some countries are more competitive than others. Countries such as Australia, the United Kingdom, and France typically get a lot of applicants, but they also have more awards available. Countries such as Hungary, Romania, and Serbia typically have fewer applicants, but they also offer fewer awards. The award I applied for only grants two awards per year, but the number of applicants received for each award are not published.
What do I want to do? There are four main Fulbright activities: Research, Teaching, Teaching/Research, or Professional Projects. In research, you are conducting a specific research project. This could take place in a lab, school, using secondary data, or archival data. There should be a tangible outcome such as a journal article as a culmination of the Fulbright. For a research award, it is preferable to already have a relationship with collaborators in the host country to make it easier to conduct research. If you want to do a research-based Fulbright, think about the time and resources needed to make the project happen from beginning to end. With the applied school-based focus of my research, it was not feasible to obtain IRB permission from both my university and the host institution, find a willing site, obtain permission and parental consent, and complete a research project all in one semester.
A teaching activity Fulbright requires teaching classes, usually two per semester, as well as providing guest lectures, workshops, and seminars. My Fulbright was a Teaching award, and I taught two graduate-level courses in English, attended conferences and workshops, visited and observed in several primary schools, and provided eight guest lectures/workshops. I also had the opportunity to consult with several graduate students on their theses.
A teaching/research Fulbright combines both the research and teaching responsibilities, although the teaching load would be lessened. For a professional projects Fulbright, you would engage in various activities in your area of expertise. This could include serving as a consultant, gaining practical experience, or visiting scholars and practitioners in the field. The professional project can vary, but the primary focus is not either research or teaching.
How long is my project? Typically, Fulbright scholar awards are either one or two semesters, varying from four to nine months. This usually depends on the award and the country. In Hungary, all scholar awards are four months, whereas all student awards are nine months. In other countries (such as Czech Republic), the applicant is given the option of award length based on the specific award. Some awards have the option of a flex grant, where scholars can propose multiple stays in the host country of one to three months over the course of two to three years. This may be useful for someone doing a longitudinal study who would want to return to the country for short periods of time. It is important to ensure that your award length is long enough to be able to accomplish what you have planned for your project.
But what about funding? It is daunting to think about continuing payments on responsibilities from home (such as house or car payments) while having to pay living expenses in a separate country. All Fulbright awards will provide some sort of funds to complete the program. This typically includes a monthly stipend and may also include a housing allowance, travel allowance, and extra allowance for dependents. In some cases, the university will provide housing; in other cases you will need to find your own place to live.
Many scholars will complete a Fulbright during a sabbatical to alleviate concerns about funding. If that is not possible, speak with your administration about creative solutions. My administration was very supportive of the Fulbright award and agreed to supplement the Fulbright stipend with additional funds to match my current salary. Have conversations with your institution about funding and coverage of your current responsibilities prior to applying for the Fulbright; you don’t want to get stuck in a financial bind.
What if I have a family? Many Fulbrighters complete their award alone, but plenty others bring their family along! This is definitely a personal consideration, but if you have a partner that can travel it can be a wonderful experience for them. My entire family came for the Fulbright, including my partner and our three preschool/elementary school aged children. It was very daunting to organize everything and there were many more logistics to consider when bringing a family, but it was a wonderful experience for our family. We collaborated with our public school and while we technically homeschooled our kids while in Hungary, their teachers would email us the lesson plans each week and we would work from those to ensure our kids were on track when returning to school. In Hungary there were a few Fulbrighters who travelled with their partners and there was one other family; the Hungarian Fulbright Commission and the other Fulbrighters were very supportive of the families and our children still talk about the other Fulbrighters they met.
What else do I need to consider? By carefully reviewing the Award Details for each award, some awards specify the host institutions that are approved for that particular award or will provide a list of potential institutions in the country who can host that award. If you want to work with a particular institution make sure they are authorized as a host institution. The Award Details will also tell you if a letter of invitation from the host country is required. In my case, a letter of invitation was recommended but not required; I obtained a letter by cold-emailing the chair of the department at the university I wanted to host me. This allowed me to show the committee that there was a university who valued my expertise and wanted to host me. Some countries do not allow you to contact the universities in advance, for example, awards in Bhutan indicate that a letter of invitation should not be sought.
Many Fulbrights can be completed without any additional language expertise. The Award Details will let you know if another language is required or if English is sufficient. In many cases, there is no need to be proficient (or even know a word) of the host language. I didn’t know any Hungarian prior to applying, and my current Hungarian is very rudimentary. All the courses I taught were in English and the majority of my students were Erasmus students (foreign students in Hungary for an exchange semester/year). There are several other types of Fulbright awards in addition to the traditional Fulbright Scholar award. These include the International Education Administrators award, Distinguished Scholar awards, Postdoctoral awards, Student awards, and English Teaching Assistant awards.
On the Fulbright Scholar Directory | Fulbright Scholar Program (fulbrightscholars.org) website, you can search by person, host country, home institution, discipline, and other filters to learn about past Fullbrighters. It is highly beneficial to hear about the experiences of other Fullbrighters as you determine the specifics of your application. Each university should also have a Fullbright liaison through their international center that will be able to connect you with Fullbrighters at your own institution.
Is it worth it? The unanimous vote from me, my family, my colleagues who have been on Fulbright, and the other Fulbrighters from my semester in Hungary would be yes, the Fulbright experience is definitely an experience that will not be forgotten. The best advice I can give is to make the most of the Fulbright experience and immerse yourself in the host country’s culture. Learn at least the basics of the language and experience the country’s food, music, history, and holiday traditions. Visit the local markets, playgrounds, ruin pubs, hillside wineries, and ride public transportation. The Hungarian Fulbright Commission sponsored excursions at least monthly for all the Fulbrighters with trips to historical sites, experienced guides, and special customs such as traditional gingerbread decorating. Talk to people and learn from those that live in the country. We were able to get to know the other scholars and students within the program, none of which had expertise in psychology or education but were studying other fascinating areas specific to Hungary. Our building landlord was wonderful and brought our children holiday treats while trying to teach them Hungarian.
Finally, make sure to explore! This was the first time I had been out of the country for an extended amount of time and the first time I was fully immersed in a different culture. On the weekends we visited many different cities and towns within Hungary and the surrounding countries, most of which were easily accessible by train. Although the Fulbright awards limit the amount of time during your actual award time period that you are allowed to spend out of the country, we took several longer trips before the Fulbright started, after the Fulbright ended, and during the university’s fall break week to visit other countries and explore more of Eastern and Western Europe. Overall, the Fulbright was an incredible experience that I would recommend to anyone wanting to immerse themselves in another culture while working on a special project related to school psychology.
What intrigues you about obtaining a Fullbright? How might this experience benefit you as an early career scholar?