The Fulbright Program may no longer be the darling of the State Department’s study abroad initiatives. President Obama recently proposed a 13 percent cut for what has historically been the prime international exchange program in the 2015 budget proposal. He wants to direct funding toward international academic exchange programs in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia instead.
“$30 million represents a 13 percent cut to the budget, which means 13 out of every 100 prospective Fulbrighters within the next year would not have the opportunity to participate in the program,” said Stephen Reilly, executive director of the Fulbright Association. The association and alumni have been working together to stop the cut by contacting legislators and creating a petition, which now has over 27,000 signatures.
The money saved by cutting the program would be used to fund programs like the Young Southeast-Asian Leader’s Initiative, Young African Leaders Initiative, a Fulbright University in Vietnam and scholarships and fellowships.
The Obama administration and the State Department have a keen interest in these regional areas and aim to use youth ambassadorship as a diplomacy tool. Fulbright generally has had the most student enrollment in Western Europe, but the region has declined as a focal point of U.S. foreign policy in recent years, while focus on Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia has increased.
“These are two critically important parts of the world in terms of our foreign policy agenda,” said Meghann Curtis, deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs at the State Department, “and areas we are seeking deep bonds, particularly with emerging leaders.”
Reilly acknowledges these programs have merit, but says these new programs focus on giving foreign students a chance to study in the United States without sending as many Americans abroad. The programs are also generally shorter.
“Taxpayers are covering the costs of these new initiatives but there’s no exchange program in them, meaning we’re bringing young African leaders and young Southeast Asian leaders into our country,” said Reilly, “but we are not exchanging them for any Americans going abroad and having their own opportunities to study in those locations.”
The Obama administration and the State Department have used study abroad as a foreign policy tool during the past few years by initiating and increasing funds toward academic exchange programs as a whole. These programs intend to bring students from different regions, while still representing their respective nations, to study abroad in the U.S.
Curtis also explained a growing shift in focus within the State Department toward short-term instead of long-term exchange programs, so that more students can travel abroad because of the inexpensive costs associated with shorter periods of time.
During the 2012-13 academic year, the number of American students studying abroad increased by three percent and the U.S. also accepted the largest number of international students in history, according to the Institute of International Education. Fulbright, a cornerstone of American diplomacy, had 8,003 students enroll last year, the highest student enrollment in history for the program, among both American and international students.
“I guess it would impact me with my professional relationships in Austria and in other countries,” said Dr. Timothy Young, a Fulbright alum who did research in Austria, when asked how he would be affected by the budget cut. “It could possibly impact my international collaborations from the university perspective with my colleagues.”
Fulbright is not the only program to offer Americans a chance to travel abroad to pursue their ambitions. There are other international programs, such as the Rhodes Scholarship, Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, and the Peace Corps to name a few, and they provide for living expenses, tuition and stipends. These programs have not been hit with funding cuts in the budget proposal.
“The most important thing for everyone to know is that the State Department remains committed to the Fulbright Program,” Curtis said. She added that Fulbright is still the most funded and the flagship international exchange program for the State Department.
The Fulbright Program was originally proposed by Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.) in 1945 as a means of fostering peace and friendships among countries by creating a binational system for exchange students. Now, the Fulbright Association, its alumni and the State Department must wait for the final budget from Congress to see what its future will hold.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that several of the programs mentioned are not run by the federal government.