In September 2005, Zermarie Deacon gave her graduate study a nontraditional twist when she took a 10-month break from her coursework in ecological community psychology at Michigan State University (MSU) to study the postwar lives of women living in small, rural villages in northern Mozambique. Her days couldn't have been more different than those of her MSU classmates: Each morning, she rode a motorcycle along windy dirt roads to poverty-stricken villages to speak with women about how war had transformed their lives and how they defined well-being.
How did Deacon take this turn? She won a Fulbright grant through the State Department-administered Fulbright Program for U.S. Students, a competitive, cultural exchange program that seeks to give American graduate students the opportunity to conduct research abroad.
The program offers about 6,000 opportunities to conduct a broad range of research and independent study projects each year and is one of two types of Fulbright opportunities open to graduate students under the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. The other, the U.S. Department of Education-administered Fulbright Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Program, administers around 100 awards per year and seeks only projects that will shed light on the host country's culture and region rather than a particular topic, like cognition. It also requires students to have completed fairly extensive coursework on the host country before they apply.
Students interested in either Fulbright program must lay the foundation for their project before they apply, say Fulbright administrators. That includes targeting a country, establishing contacts there and developing a research plan and budget. For that reason and because the application process can take almost a year, students need to start thinking about Fulbright as early as possible during graduate school, says Tom Farrell, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary of state for academic programs.
Deacon, for one, started planning for her Fulbright two years out. She talked with faculty who had studied in Mozambique or other countries and made contacts overseas by posting to an African listserv. Then she won an international travel grant through her university that enabled her to travel to Mozambique for a month so she could meet her overseas contacts and fine-tune her research plan.
"I'd say that step is almost essential, especially if you want to go to a developing country," says Deacon. "It allowed me to assess the feasibility issues of my research."
Fellow former Fulbrighter Heather Baldwin, PhD, a recent graduate of Boston College's developmental psychology program, says it's also important to be creative in seeking out overseas contacts. Many students stick to establishing contacts at local universities, she says, but she branched out and found contacts at UNICEF who helped her do research in Rwanda. Baldwin, who was the first Fulbright student to go to Rwanda after the genocide, spent four months of her fellowship on an internship at UNICEF offices in Rwanda before starting her fieldwork interviewing child soldiers about issues of trust after they had returned to their families.
Fluency in the language of the country you pursue isn't essential, according to Farrell, but he notes that "a commitment to understanding the language of the host country is important." Recently, he says, the Fulbright programs began helping students prepare by offering up to six months of extra time for intensive language study overseas prior to their fellowship.
The program is most interested in candidates who are deeply committed to cultural exchange, he says: "We are looking for leadership potential and for a commitment to extend and enhance mutual understanding between two countries--individuals who will impact their field and how the United States and their profession is perceived abroad."
Want more Fulbright information? Visit your university's international studies office or campus Fulbright program adviser, as well as the Institute for International Education's Fulbright Web site at http://us.fulbrightonline.org/home.html.