Emory's strengths yield record percentage of Fulbright grants

By Leslie King | Emory Report | July 8, 2014

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Alizeh Ahmad 14C, an international studies and religion major, will serve as an English teaching assistant in Malaysia thanks to a Fulbright grant. Courtesy photo.

Emory students set a new school record for Fulbright awards this year, with a higher percentage of applicants awarded the prestigious study-abroad grants than ever before.

"We had the highest percentage of recipients since we've been keeping the data and tied with the prior year for the highest percentage of finalists," says Dee McGraw, director of the National Scholarships & Fellowships Program in the Office for Undergraduate Education.

Eight Emory students won Fulbrights this year after 11 were selected as finalists from an original pool of 23 Emory applicants — meaning almost 73 percent of Emory finalists and 35 percent of Emory applicants were awarded the grants, while 48 percent of applicants advanced to the finalist stage.

Last year, Emory cited four recipients out of 11 finalists and 23 applicants (36 percent of finalists and 17 percent of applicants won Fulbrights, with 48 percent of applicants at least being named finalists). The year before, eight students won Fulbrights out of a larger Emory pool of 13 finalists and 35 applicants (62 percent of finalists and 23 percent of applicants were winners, with 37 percent of applicants becoming finalists).

This year's recipients and the countries where they are going:

  • Alizeh Ahmad, international studies and religion major, to Malaysia
  • Celeste Banks, African studies major, to Taiwan
  • Bryan Cronan, journalism and international studies major, to Malaysia
  • Kari Leibowitz, psychology and religion major, to Norway
  • Christopher Linnan, history major, to Indonesia
  • Mia Schatz, history major, to France
  • Benjamin Sollenberger, history major, to Turkey
  • Abigail Weisberger, German studies and philosophy major, to Germany

The key to winning the Fulbright grants, which give recipients an opportunity to experience life abroad while teaching English or doing research, is the support system that students have here at Emory, McGraw says.

"[Emory] students are stronger candidates because they've done independent research; they've been research assistants for professors; they've studied abroad; they've been involved in service learning; they have multiple leadership opportunities; they have teachers committed to mentoring undergraduates," she says.

"Emory is so strong in those areas. I believe that's one of the reasons our students have been so successful in those areas. And I don't get enough opportunities to say that, to celebrate that and to thank our faculty and Campus Life staff for that," she adds.

McGraw administers the Fulbright for Emory undergraduates with Megan Friddle, who has just completed her first year as assistant director of the scholarships and fellowships program. Applicants must have graduated by the time they start their award periods and have a bachelor’s degree, so students apply when they are seniors or return to apply as alumni.

Faculty, graduate students and even professionals can also apply for the grants, but those are administered by other offices at Emory.

Two types of grants

Most of the Fulbright student grants, which are funded by the U.S. State Department, are divided into two types: English teaching assistantships (ETA) and study research grants. Most undergraduate Fulbright winners from Emory are ETAs, according to McGraw and Friddle.

U.S. students are assistants in language learning classes. "Primarily what [the Fulbright administrators] are looking for is students who can serve as conversational partners, help students by practicing with a native speaker, and provide information on U.S. customs, U.S. holidays, U.S. governance," says McGraw.

Ahmad, Banks, Cronan, Linnan, Sollenberger and Weisberger are ETAs. Leibowitz and Schatz have study research grants.

"Fulbright wants these students to immerse themselves in the country and become part of the community, to do community service and get involved in local sports, music, other activities because at its heart this is a diplomatic program," McGraw continues. "They want to create lasting relationships, dispel stereotypes and give people images of the diversity of America.

"We always say they don't want you to eat at McDonalds with the other Americans."

Friddle notes, "We particularly do very well for the placement for the English teaching assistantship program through Fulbright. And I think that draws on Emory's very strong ESL [English as a Second Language] and ESL tutoring program as well as the work students do through Volunteer Emory and other groups who work with the refugee resettlement that provide them with these teaching-mentoring skills with both children and adults."

Students with study research grants often do independent research, such as fieldwork for a doctorate, or they may join a lab's existing work. Leibowitz will study the effects of months of winter on happiness and satisfaction in the northernmost city of Norway.

 "A lot of our students have done honors research, and then take the next step and do something abroad, kicking up their research to the next level of sophistication," McGraw says.

Under study research grants are awards within arts.  McGraw gives an example: "If you're a soprano, you can go and study with a master in Italy."  What students can do is limited only by their imagination. But, McGraw notes, under these research/study and arts grants, students have to find their own affiliations, make their own arrangements and obtain their own permissions.

Because of the level of sophistication needed, graduating seniors are more likely to receive ETA awards whereas graduate students more likely to receive study research awards.

The Fulbright set-up

Fulbright students can be selected to go to one of approximately 150 countries — any country with which the U.S. has diplomatic relations and is not on the no-travel list.

Assignments typically last nine months to a year.  English teaching assistants get placed rather than request their locations and it is often in smaller towns and cities outside the major hubs.

"For many ETAs, students must have at least tourist familiarity with the host language and a lot of countries require intermediate to advanced fluency," says McGraw. "There are a handful of countries where host country language is not required."

"With the research study grant, you have to have language commensurate with the work that you're doing," she adds.  

Fluency in language is a boost to your candidacy, even in the countries that don't require it since the ultimate intention is diplomatic.

The Fulbright pays for one roundtrip ticket to the country, health insurance if there's no universal option and a monthly stipend based on the cost of living in that country.

"It's enough money to live like a comfortable graduate student," says McGraw.

The Fulbright payoff

Employment, entrance to graduate school and professional connections are all benefits of being a Fulbright Scholar.

"There is quite a network of former Fulbright recipients as well as the international administration for Fulbright," Friddle says. For example, "a student here who got an ETA to teach English in Spain has remained in the country teaching English through the connections she made with the Fulbright administration in Spain," she notes.

McGraw agrees that because of the rigorous and highly selective process, the Fulbright is recognized across the board at all academic institutions.

"It is a life-changing experience," she says. "I think it would bode well for graduate school for the level of independence and maturity it gives them."