I held the neatly taped, brown envelope, with the distinctive logo of USIEF (United States — India Educational Foundation). As I gingerly peeled the edge, careful not to rip the contents, two years of toil, trepidation and waiting, zoomed past. I held my breath and read the letter. Yes, I had made it to the prestigious Fulbright Fellowship for the year 2018-19. A stringent and transparent assessment and selection process had got me there. I felt elated!
The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the US government. The program was established in 1946, soon after Second World War, under legislation introduced by late Senator J William Fulbright of Arkansas and is sponsored by the United States Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). Senator Fulbright once observed, ‘The essence of intercultural education is the acquisition of empathy — the ability to see the world as others see it, to allow for the possibility that others may see something we have failed to see...’
Over 380,000 ‘Fulbrighters’ have participated in the program since its inception. The Fulbright Program awards approximately 8,000 new grants annually. Currently, the Fulbright Program operates in over 160 countries worldwide.
Designed to “increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries…,” the program has grown into one of the largest academic and cultural exchange programs in the world. It offers grants to US citizens and nationals of other countries for teaching, advanced research, graduate study and professional development.
The primary sources of funding for the Fulbright Program are annual appropriations made by the US Congress to the US Department of State and the US Department of Education. In addition, participating governments, private organisations and host institutions in many countries and in the US contribute financially through cost-sharing and other forms of support.
Screening experts and selection committees look for talented individuals whose projects are important to India and the US and who have the ability to be good ‘cultural ambassadors.’ The ideal exchange fellow is one who both contributes important work in his/her field and encourages Indo-US networking during and after the fellowship.
In addition to carrying out their proposed projects, Fulbrighters are expected to involve themselves in the host community and its culture and sharing their own culture. After their grant periods, Fulbrighters are encouraged to bring what they have learnt through this cultural exchange home and teach others about the cultures they have experienced. Fulbrighters are also encouraged to continue the Fulbright experience by reaching out to their home communities, participating in Fulbright alumni activities and networking with other Fulbrighters.
This programme has carved the lives of some outstanding personalities. Fifty seven Fulbright alumni from 14 countries have been awarded the Nobel Prizes; 70 alumni are MacArthur Foundation Fellows; 84 alumni have received Pulitzer Prizes; 37 Fulbright alumni have served as heads of state or government. Closer home, names like playwrights Girish Karnad, Satish Alekar, theatre historian Ananda Lal, theatre personality Samar Nakhate, poet Vinda Karandikar to name a few, have walked the red carpet.
This year, a total of 148 Indian Fulbright-Nehru scholars and other Fulbright scholars have been selected, who come from varied disciplines, including agriculture, anthropology, climate, education, energy, history, international security and strategic studies, public health, science and technology, performing arts, urban and regional planning and women studies among others.
Pune has its share of seven — Sourik Mandal and Rahul Bodhke (NCL); Prabhat Prakash and Siva Koti Sangabathuni (IISER); Dr Anagha Tambe (Woman’s and Gender studies, Univ of Pune); Dr Smita Chaturvedi (IISER) and myself. Speaking to a few, I was stunned by their stories and their struggles in life to reach this stage.
Prabhat, a PhD student at IISER, who travels to Temple University, Philadelphia, with his work on energy studies, says, “I come from a small village in Etawah, and the journey to this stage has been rocky. I was not sure whether being so highly qualified and doing a PhD was the right choice, since the future is uncertain. But this fellowship has given a new meaning and purpose to my life. I was lucky to get good collaborators for my work in the US and the efficient USIEF team in Delhi helped me propel forward. I was fond of theatre, acting, poetry, debate, but academics sidelined all that. After the pre-departure Fulbright orientation, I returned to write 10 new poems, something I never imagined I would do again. I feel I have rediscovered myself.”
Rahul Bodhke, another PhD candidate at the NCL, who travels to the reputed Mayo clinic, Rochester, speaks with a heavy voice, “It is yet to sink in that I have received this prestigious fellowship. My hometown, Chincholi, is in a remote patch near the Ellora caves. It has no pucca road, post office, bus service or a hospital .One has to travel five km to reach the nearest medical facility. I am the first graduate from there. It is unbelievable that I will be travelling abroad, my first air travel, to be in one of the finest and world renowned hospitals in the world to further my research in cell biology. My village folks are ecstatic’.
Dr Anagha Tambe is at Amherst and will be working on the vulgarisation of folk culture. “This fellowship will help me rethink about my own work, by bringing about a comparative perspective. The US will open avenues for an interdisciplinary approach, which I look forward to. This is a prestigious fellowship and very tough to get, so I feel thankful for being chosen,” she adds.
On a personal front, I am humbled on receiving this celebrated fellowship. Years of work juggling in three professions of dentistry, journalism and theatre, seems to have been recognised and honoured. I look forward to this opportunity, to take Indian culture and the theatre to a foreign audience and collaborate for a meaningful dialogue and interaction. I am immensely thankful to the selection committee for considering me worthy of this scholarship. I will be travelling to Rutgers University, NJ and teaching a course on Culture, Community and Theatre: The Indian Perspective.”
— Ajay Joshi