A program of the U.S. Department of State, the Fulbright Specialist Program is a unique opportunity for U.S. academics and established professionals to engage in two- to six-week, project-based exchanges at host institutions across the globe. This short-term award is an incredible opportunity for experts in their field to share their knowledge and skills with like-minded professionals and organizations while fostering collaboration and cross-cultural understanding. University faculty, legal experts, journalists, artists, scientists, agriculturalists, and more are encouraged to apply.
Want to learn more about how you can share your knowledge abroad by earning a spot on the Fulbright Specialist Roster? Senior Outreach Officer for the program Amirah Nelson recently talked with ProFellow Founder Dr. Vicki Johnson to share everything you need to know about The Fulbright Specialist Program. Watch the full interview above!
What is the Fulbright Specialist Program?
This particular component of the Fulbright Program was established about 20 years ago in 2001. World Learning, who I work for — which is a global non-profit headquartered in Washington, D.C. and Brattleboro, Vermont — serves as the program’s implementing partner. The Fulbright Specialist Program was really established with the idea of finding a way to help institutions overseas access U.S. expertise for the purpose of advancing their own particular institutional objectives and needs.
Operationally, how this program works is it aims to do that by providing short-term opportunities for U.S. academics as well as established professionals to work with institutions in nearly 160 eligible countries to complete a two- to six-week project that’s designed by that host institution.
The idea here is really on emphasizing having the Specialist share knowledge and skills with the host institution and help build their capacity to work towards their own goals. The hope is that through these short-term impactful exchanges, not only are host institutions going to receive some immediate support with their own initiatives and objectives, but also that this will strengthen and start sustained connections between academics and professionals in the U.S. and those institutions overseas.
I would say we typically expect to have about 400 of these projects implemented annually, and they really take place on a year-round basis. The program by its structure is designed to be flexible, not only for participating Specialists, but also for the institutions themselves to have these exchanges take place at a time that really works best for them and for the objectives of the project at hand.
Who is eligible to apply for the Fulbright Specialist Program?
We do have a full list of eligibility criteria on our website that I encourage everybody to check out before they actually start their application. But to give some idea of the basic criteria, we really look for folks who are U.S. citizens with significant expertise in one of our eligible project fields. When we talk about significant expertise, because this program is open to both professionals and academics, there is no specific terminal degree requirement.
Evaluating what significant experience means with respect to each of these different fields and professional trajectories is a challenge, but as a baseline, I would typically say that a competitive professional applicant would have, at a minimum, five years of experience. I believe at this point, the youngest person on the Fulbright Specialist Roster is 26 years old. So there are some candidates on the young end of the spectrum, and I think the key to their admission to the Roster is really having at that stage in their career already amassed some pretty specific areas of expertise and really being able to articulate that in their application: explaining what exactly that expertise is and what experiences they’ve had to date.
Certainly, I think the more experience, the more years in the workforce you have, the more straightforward it will be to establish that criteria of significant expertise. I’d say the bulk of folks on the Roster tends to be in the age range between 35 to 50. So hopefully that gives you some idea of the general level of experience that most competitive candidates will have.
What is the Fulbright Specialist Program Roster?
The Fulbright Specialist Program operates on a Roster-based structure. This is fairly unique, at least within the constellation of different program offerings within the Fulbright Program. And the reason for this roster-based structure is because the projects themselves, as I mentioned, are, are being driven by host institutions abroad. And while individual countries may have specific deadlines for institutions to submit their proposals to host a Specialist, on a global scale, we’re really receiving these proposals from institutions on a rolling basis throughout the year. So having this roster-based structure really allows us to have a group of previously vetted, peer-reviewed individuals who have already been deemed to be not only very highly qualified and accomplished in their field, but also having a good understanding of the program, a commitment to that mission of advancing mutual understanding, and having that high potential to really be an effective Fulbright Specialist.
To explain this a little bit more, from the U.S. applicant side of things, what this really looks like is that you’ll submit an application to join the Fulbright Specialist Roster. This happens completely online. And then once you submit that application and it’s completed, that will be undergoing a very technical review by World Learning just to make sure everything’s complete and we don’t have any additional questions about your application. Then, your application is going to be turned over to a peer review panel, which will be comprised of three individuals from that same general field that you selected from the subject area list when you submitted your application. They’ll really be making the key determination around whether or not to recommend you for admission to the Roster.
Once you’re admitted to the Roster, you’ll be placed there for a period of three years. That’s the time during which you have the potential to be matched with one of these projects designed by an overseas institution. From here, there are a few options: you’ll have access to an ongoing list of projects that you can put yourself forward for if you find one that interests you, or you may also be requested directly by an institution as well. Oftentimes that latter option is if they’ve had some collaboration or connection with you in the past.
What is the application like for the Fulbright Specialist Program?
In terms of the actual application component, the application is pretty straightforward. A lot of the basic things that you would expect in an application: personal information, education and employment history, your resume or CV, and then two essay prompts and three reference contacts. You can submit that application at any point in the year. We operate six different cycles each year, and essentially, every cycle we will review all applications that are completed to date.
In your application, you need to talk about why you’re interested in serving as a Fulbright Specialist and not only how your participation would benefit an institution abroad, but how it’s going to impact your institution or employer or community in the U.S. Also, you will include specific examples of activities that you might be interested in leading or completing at your institution abroad.
Now, one key pitfall I see people make is sometimes folks really struggle to condense their ideas because they’re thinking, “I have to put every big thing that I might potentially be interested in doing in the list because what if an institution looks at my essays and then they don’t see the thing that they need.” In reality, the way the program is structured is that once you’re on the Roster, you’ll have access to that ongoing list and you can see all projects that become available in all disciplines. Then you can curate your statement of interest to that specific project and what they’re asking for.
So that part of the prompt is really not so much meant to be a laundry list of everything you could potentially do for an institution. It’s really better to think of it as an opportunity to really articulate to the peer review panel how you envision operationalizing your expertise. You’ve got all this expertise, all this work experience, all this knowledge. How would you distill that, do you think, in a two- to six-week project? What specific activities do you think would lend themselves best to sharing your knowledge with an institution abroad, keeping in mind again, it’s a short program, so pretty quick and intensive?
Also, I think for professional applicants, one thing to be mindful of is, while not every project is going to involve teaching formally, many, many projects involve working with an institution of higher education. And even if they don’t, it involves conveying knowledge in some way. So look for those experiences and opportunities that you’ve had to share knowledge with others. Have you delivered workshops in the past? Have you done trainings in the past even internally within your organization? You don’t have to be a professor who teaches a course every semester to participate in this program, but being able to show in your application that you do have that experience or if you don’t yet, thinking about ways that you could get that experience will really strengthen your application.
How much advance notice will I get before moving to my Fulbright Specialist host country?
The key thing to know about this program is there’s generally some typical ways that the program might work, but there are always exceptions and outliers to that typical process because the name of the game with this program is flexibility for the host institutions, particularly so that we can make sure we’re really serving their needs.
Typically, what we would advise institutions who submit a proposal to do is submit their proposal at least four to six months in advance of the time they’re hoping to host the Specialist for that project. So when it comes to, like I mentioned earlier, that list of ongoing projects that you’d have access to if you were on the Roster, people who are on the Roster right now are seeing a lot of projects for summer and later this fall.
There are certainly though some outliers, for example, for projects that are of a high need where they’re looking for somebody to come as early as May of this year. And certainly, some institutions that are ahead of the game are already looking for folks to join them perhaps at the end of this year or the spring of next year. So the lead time and being matched to a project will definitely be quite variable, but you do have your own autonomy in the process. It doesn’t work in the sense that you would get on the Roster, and then we’ll just notify you at some point, “Oh, you need to go to this country to do this project.” You absolutely will have autonomy in the process to look at the available timelines and determine what really is realistic for you as a member of the Roster.
How do host institutions select their Fulbright Specialist from the Fulbright Specialist Roster?
As I mentioned earlier, once somebody is on the Roster and they have access to that ongoing list of projects, at that point, individuals on the Roster can self-select into being considered for a particular project. If you see a project you’re interested in, you would submit yourself for consideration to that project by submitting an up to 300-word statement of interest elaborating on why you believe you’d be a fit for the project. It’s very much like a short cover letter! Then, you have the opportunity to upload a resume or CV that you might want to update; for example, based on the project description at hand. So you’ll have a lot of context there to create those materials, things like, When is the project taking place? What are the key objectives and activities? Any specific skills the host institution is looking for? It’s ultimately that pool of individuals that self-selects into raising your hand and saying, “I’m interested in this project” that’s going to be reviewed by the host institution.
It’s not typically the case that the host institution is looking at the Roster and making selections directly from the Roster, but rather, they’ll review that pool of individuals that has submitted statements of interest for their project. Now generally, World Learning conducts a review of the individuals that are interested and just make sure the applicants meet the baseline criteria that the host has established for the project. But at that point, all the qualified candidates are going to be sent to the institution directly for their review and selection. We ask that institutions rank those candidates. Then, once they select a top choice candidate, we will put the top choice candidate and the institution in contact so they can discuss the project further and make sure it’s a good fit for both parties.
That’s typically how it works. There may be some very select cases where the institution would wish to speak with multiple candidates if they’re having some difficulty making it a decision, but typically, they’ll just speak with their top choice candidate after reviewing all the written materials that have been submitted by those who are interested.
What are the tasks and responsibilities of a Fulbright Specialist?
It’s always hard to pick out one example that really represents the immense diversity of activities that are supported through the Fulbright Specialist Program. When we think about the types of things that Specialists are doing, the emphasis again, as I talked about earlier, is really on sharing knowledge and skills with the host institution and building their capacity. So the types of things that Specialists do often fall into the category of education training or capacity building: things like delivering seminars or trainings, consulting on faculty or workforce development, developing training or academic curriculum materials that the institution will use after you depart, giving lectures, needs assessments, and/or engaging in strategic planning. Those tend to be quite common themes we see historically across the program. Oftentimes you might be engaged in not just one of those activities, but a combination of them to, again, leverage your short visit to the best extent possible.
One example of this is we had a recent Specialist who just came back from her exchange at the end of last year. Her name is Ashley Gabb. She’s the Director of Supplier Inclusion and Diversity at the Estée Lauder Companies, and she served as a Fulbright Specialist at ISCOM, which is the Higher Institute for Communications and Advertising in France. Ashley spent two weeks at the ISCOM campuses in France, and one of her key activities was teaching a short course for first year communications students specifically about authentically telling the story of diversity and inclusion in corporate communications — which obviously is something she has a lot of experience with, and she used Estée Lauder as a case study for that short course.
Now, as I mentioned, oftentimes you’re doing a few different activities. So she also spent time giving lectures and workshops on more discrete topics, whether that was diversity, equity, and inclusion in corporate communications or even just career pathways in communications. She also spent some time consulting with faculty and the international program staff at each campus on how they can better think about corporate partnerships in order to further internationalize their curriculum and the opportunities they’re providing students at their institution.
Ashley is actually still in collaboration with her host organization. Even after she came back to the U.S., she participated virtually as a keynote speaker at a conference ISCOM was holding earlier this spring. She’s now in talks with her HR department at Estée Lauder to think about how her employer can further collaborate with ISCOM, whether through their advisory board or by providing internship opportunities for students.
So you can see from this example, I think, how these exchanges directly give opportunities to the participant to get more insight into their field in another country, collaborate with colleagues internationally, and establish their professional credibility and expertise abroad. They also have the potential to give benefits back to the participant’s employer, as well as obviously the host institution.
How has the Fulbright Specialist Program adapted to or changed after the pandemic?
To give you a little bit of background on how the pandemic impacted not only the Fulbright Specialist Program, but the larger Fulbright Program: at the beginning of March 2020, which is a time I’m sure we all remember vividly, all Fulbright Program exchanges were temporarily put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. All Fulbright Specialist Program exchanges were temporarily paused through the end of 2020.
Then, early in 2021, as things began to shift with the pandemic, essentially the program began to restart, but on a country-by-country basis. As I’m sure everybody can imagine and has seen in the news, different countries have continued to battle with the pandemic in a variety of ways, and a one-size-fits-all approach of completely restarting the program regardless of country context was not, we felt, really appropriate for the program.
At this point, all exchanges are taking place in person. There might be some virtual components that people might need to engage in because of realities on the ground; for example, if quarantine is required in the country, you might be engaging in some activities virtually while you’re in quarantine. Or for public health reasons, the guidance at your institution or within the country may be that you want to do larger activities, like lectures that you might normally be doing in person, virtually. But at this point, all exchanges are requiring travel to the host country in order to really get that face-to-face engagement with your host institution during what is really meant to be a short and impactful exchange.
So I think throughout 2021, we’ve certainly seen the number of countries that have been able to get Fulbright Specialist Program exchanges up-and-running has continued to increase positively. At some points in time, that has had to be rolled back for certain countries depending on developments like new variants. But the nice thing about the Fulbright Specialist Program is that because it is short-term, we often have the option to try and re-schedule a project for a time that works for both parties if there are cases where traveling abroad as planned is no longer feasible because of rising case numbers, shutdowns, or entry restrictions.
What kind of financial support or payment does the Fulbright Specialist Program provide?
The program really is structured to take care of all the expenses that you might incur in order to participate. This is a U.S. taxpayer-funded program, and we want to make sure it’s available to folks regardless of whether they personally might have other financial resources that they could use. So the Department of State and host institutions typically collaborate to fully fund the experience for the Specialist. The Department of State provides your round trip economy class international airfare, a $100 transit allowance, a daily honorarium of $200, any required visa fees, and enrollment in a limited health benefits plan. Host institutions traditionally provide your lodging, meals, and in-country transportation.
Can I bring my spouse or dependents on my Fulbright Specialist exchange?
Given that this is a short-term exchange only up to six weeks, the program itself does not provide any specific funding or administrative support for dependents or spouses, but we certainly have a contingent of Specialists who have decided that they would like to still bring a spouse and/or dependents using out-of-pocket costs. In those cases, especially if there are minor dependents involved, World Learning would assist that individual to seek approval from the host institution and local Fulbright Commission or U.S. Embassy. However, Fulbright Commissions and U.S. Embassies do reserve the right to limit or prohibit Fulbright Specialists from traveling to a country with accompanying individuals – these policies may be in place due to security protocols or other considerations, such as logistical complications of traveling with dependents in a country due to COVID.
How does the Fulbright Specialist Program navigate safety and security concerns in host countries?
This is a global program and certainly, there are, I think in many cases, inherent risks that we think about when we consider traveling to other countries, and things can change and evolve at any minute as I think we’ve all seen with how the pandemic has unfolded. In terms of security risks, we typically would not have a Fulbright Specialist travel to a country at the time when there’s an extreme security risk across the whole country or any type of serious threat to stability in that country.
There are also some cases where people might be traveling to a country and there are some security risks regionally in that country, but because they’re not traveling to that particular region for their project, those exchanges have been allowed to go ahead. We work really closely with the Fulbright Commission/U.S. Embassy in each country to really holistically evaluate what is a security risk in that country and whether or not we will permit grantees to travel there because, obviously, the health, safety, and security of our Fulbright Specialist grantees is always top of mind.
If there are situations where somebody is traveling to a country and there are generally security concerns to be aware of, there may be cases where the Commission or the U.S. Embassy has determined that it’s safe for the person to go ahead and travel, but that they need some additional assistance to understand the security concerns more broadly in that country. So there are some cases where we may require that a Fulbright Specialist attend a security briefing at the U.S. embassy as soon as they arrive in the country.
Can I be a Fulbright Specialist if I’m retired?
Absolutely. During that three-year period when someone is on the Fulbright Specialist Roster, a lot can happen. People change jobs, people retire, or if you’re retired at the time that you apply, that does not negatively impact your eligibility to serve as a Specialist.
I would just say for folks who are already retired and are thinking about applying to the program, one thing definitely to be mindful of is some of the evaluation criteria as part of the application. One component of this is not only your potential to directly benefit an institution over abroad, but hearkening back to that Fulbright Program mission I talked about earlier, how this experience is going to impact others in your community and others in the U.S. Fulbrighters are really agents of change in their communities. And the peer reviewers looking at your application will want to understand how you envision this program would benefit others beyond yourself through shaping your own worldview or leading to further collaborations.
So sometimes I do find that for folks who are already retired, it’s a little bit less straightforward. You might have to think a little bit more about how you want to articulate that in your application, whereas if you’re still employed directly by an institution, it might be a little bit more straightforward to say, for example, I’m already working within the framework of this institution and it’s going to help with my work in this way and this way and this way.
Do I need international experience to be a Fulbright Specialist?
International experience is definitely not a requirement for admission to the Fulbright Specialist Roster. You can absolutely be a competitive candidate without prior international experience. In fact, we encourage folks who maybe haven’t had those opportunities, but who want to expand their work abroad and develop collaborations with others overseas, to apply.
For those that don’t have prior experience in an international setting, I’d recommend describing the strategies that you would employ in order to be successful while serving as a Fulbright Specialist, keeping in mind, again, that this is a global program. You can describe not only the strategies you would employ, but perhaps reflect on experiences for cross-cultural exchange and communication that you’ve had even here in the United States, whether that might be something virtual that you’ve participated in, working with colleagues who are not from the United States, volunteering with international populations. I think there’s a wealth of opportunities for cross-cultural engagement without ever leaving the borders of the U.S. that you can absolutely leverage to provide examples as you talk about different strategies that you might use if you were to become a Fulbright Specialist.
Do I need foreign language skills to be a Fulbright Specialist?
The vast majority of Fulbright Specialist Program exchanges do not require capabilities in another language besides English. Ultimately, this is really determined by the host institution. We ask them to provide some details about any expectations regarding language skills in their proposal to host a Specialist. So there are a small number of institutions where we do tend to see there are requests for at least some fluency, oftentimes as in Latin America requesting or requiring fluency in Spanish. Because I think the nature of some of those host institutions, they’ve determined that they really need that to have a successful project, but the vast majority of institutions make the determination that they don’t really need additional language capacity beyond English or they’ve elected to procure a translator to assist with activities that would really benefit from additional language fluency.
How can I learn more about the Fulbright Specialist Program?
We’ve recently introduced a new way to connect with our staff. Of course, you can always call and email us at any time using the contact information available at fulbrightspecialist.worldlearning.org, but if you go to the Event section of our website, we actually have a way that you can schedule a 20-minute consultation directly with me. We can talk specifically about your questions. If you have concerns about the program, if there are elements that you’re trying to understand better, that can be a great way to connect one on one with me or another member of our staff and really get that support that you need for your application.
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