U.S. International Exchange Fellowships: Tips And Insights From Humphrey Fellow Özlem Durmuş

Mar 12, 2013
Özlem Durmuş, 2010-11 Humphrey Fellow from Turkey

President Jimmy Carter announced the establishment of the Humphrey Fellowship Program in 1978, to honor the public service career of the late Senator and Vice President, Hubert H. Humphrey (1911-1978). The Humphrey Program brings young, mid-career professionals from designated countries to the United States for a year of non-degree graduate-level study, leadership development, and professional collaboration with U.S. counterparts. Humphrey Fellows are selected based on their potential for leadership and their commitment to public service in either the public or the private sector. A year after Carter’s declaration, 27 Humphrey Fellows from 24 countries arrived in the U.S. to study at 11 U.S. universities and institutions. Since that year, more than 4,600 Fellows from 157 countries have participated in the program.

Özlem Durmuş, an Industry and Technology expert in Turkey, had the extraordinary opportunity to come to the U.S. as a Humphrey Fellow in 2010-11, and spend a year at Cornell University in upstate New York. Intrigued by this unique Fulbright program, we asked if she could share her insights about the experience and her tips for the application process.

1. What inspired you to apply for the Humphrey Fellowship and spend a year at Cornell University?

I was curious about my field and about the world. Before applying for the Humphrey Fellowship, I had a B.S. in Environmental Engineering, a M.Sc. in Environmental Sciences and five years of work experience as an expert in the public sector. But still, I wasn’t satisfied with what I knew and didn’t want to settle for the status quo. Coming from the developing part of the world, I wanted to explore how things are different at the other side, the developed part. I wanted to experience the state of the art. But I had no idea about how far I could go, until I discovered the Humphrey Fellowship Program. The offerings of the program were very tempting: the opportunity to have one year of graduate level academic study in an American university and professional work experience in the US. So I decided to take the challenge and applied for it.

Around 13-14 universities have arrangements with the Institute of International Education (IIE) and provide placements for Humphrey Fellows. Each one hosts fellows in a different field. The year I applied, Cornell University in Ithaca, New York was hosting fellows studying environment and natural resources and that’s how I found myself at Cornell. At the beginning of each semester, during the add/drop period for courses, I found that choosing among the more than 4,000 courses that Cornell offered was like being in a candy shop, a gourmet one! During my studies at Cornell, I was impressed by its open door policy and the open-minded academic community of this Ivy League institution. Although I was not a big fan of Ithaca’s long, snowy winters, with time, Ithaca captured me by its diverse, friendly people and beautiful setting.

After I finished my academic studies at Cornell, I earned a short term consultancy position at the World Bank and moved to Washington DC, where I experienced an international perspective and a different level of professionalism, before I completed my Humphrey Program and returned to Turkey. Though challenging in many ways, being a Humphrey Fellow was the best thing I ever did for my professional development!

2. What was your most eye-opening experience during your Humphrey Fellowship?

I think the most eye-opening experience I had through the Humphrey Fellowship was stepping outside from my world and standing apart from the familiar for a year. It created such a strong alienation effect that change was inevitable. Obviously, I was not expecting such a drastic change. At the beginning, I focused on learning new things by seeking more knowledge. But the gap between what I knew of environmental management so far and what I saw in the US was so broad that I couldn’t just simply learn and build upon my previous knowledge. I had to un-learn my old perceptions and assumptions and develop a new lens to be able to interpret and re-learn new things. I don’t know what exactly forced me to stop learning and start un-learning and re-learning. It was not simply because everything looked different from a distance, and it was more complicated than simply being out of the routine. I don’t know the exact mechanism but whatever it was, it challenged my mindset, both forcing and stimulating me to find a new way of thinking. Once I had that awareness, I could now be more critical, ask more questions and be more curious.

I think all Humphrey Fellows have different and unique experiences of their own. Given the freedom to design their own plan, Fellows from all over the world get exactly what they need from the program. Some need more knowledge, some need more experience and some need more freedom. I asked for freedom to un-learn and re-learn, and I got what I wanted.

3. What tips would you give others applying for the Humphrey Fellowship?

Before you begin, you need to know it is a long, five step selection process. The first step is the national screening process, carried out by the Fulbright Commission in collaboration with the American Embassy. They evaluate written applications, interview selected applicants, select the applicants to be nominated and forward the nominations to IIE, which is based in Washington, DC. So, it is important to put all your focus and energy into the first step, your written application and your interview.

For the application, you will be asked to write a few essays on topics like your achievements (awards, publications, projects, problems solved, anything counts!), your proposed program plan, opinions about your field, and your career plans. This is a fellowship for mid-career professionals, not for recent graduates, and it’s highly competitive! So the more you have accomplished early in your career, the stronger your application will be. Another thing you may want to communicate in your written application are your future plans when you return to your home country after the fellowship. It will be good to take some time to think about what your post-fellowship goals are and how the fellowship will help you meet these goals. You are expected to fully understand that the program is academic and professional. In both components, it helps to do some research beforehand, so that you can name a few classes, seminars, and projects you would like to take part in.

For the professional affiliation component, it will be good to list a few possible organizations you would like to be affiliated with and the reasons why you want to work with them and what you want to learn from them. Because these plans are not set in stone, they don’t need to be very detailed. You will have time to make your actual plans after you are selected. It is just helpful to let the selection committee know that you are prepared for the fellowship program and that you’ve done your homework. Another tip I would give is to mention your social and cultural expectations. Cultural exchange and social interaction is an essential part of the program. Discuss your willingness to give back to the local community through some volunteering during your Humphrey year. After all, life is not all about receiving, isn’t it?

When you complete your essays, make sure someone else reads them before you submit them. You can ask your friends or people you know who will give good advice. A very good friend of mine went through my essays over and over and made great suggestions. Ask for criticism and be sure your essays are clear, appropriate and goal-oriented.

The written application includes two recommendations, one academic and one professional.  Make sure you will get specific, goal-oriented recommendations rather than generic ones. My thesis supervisor and ex-professor from grad school was a Fulbright alumnus and she knew exactly what she was doing when she was writing my recommendation letter. If you’re asking for recommendations from people who are not familiar with the Humphrey Fellowship or the Fulbright Programs, make sure they get enough information beforehand.

Are you invited for the interview? Congrats! The interview was about 20 minutes. The interviewers will politely welcome you to the room ask you to briefly introduce yourself. Since they have already read your written applications form, it is important to be concise. In my case, there were four interviewers; some of them were Humphrey alumni, and some of them from the Fulbright Commission and the American Embassy. From what I remember, they asked me to make a brief evaluation of the environmental problems in Turkey and my opinions about them. The interview actually turned into a conversation amongst the interviewers, so don’t be surprised if they start to talk and disagree among themselves, it’s not a trick! Things like this can happen. To make a good impression, it’s best to let them finish their talk and not interrupt. The purpose of the interview is not to evaluate your knowledge or technical skills-they already do this when they review the written evaluations. The point here is to see your abilities and your own unique ideas – not to judge them, but to see how you communicate your ideas. They also asked me why I want the fellowship and what I am planning to do if I get it. Those questions are easy to predict, so be prepared for them.

I don’t know what exactly they are looking for in a candidate, but you can put yourself in their shoes and try to imagine what you would like see in a potential fellow. For example, if I was on the selection committee, I would like to see unique people with authentic ideas who love what they are doing and who are brave and strong enough to stand for their ideals. The key here is, you will be evaluated in terms of your potential and willingness to grow and develop. You need to demonstrate why you are a good investment.

If you are selected, congratulations and my best wishes to you! Fulbrighters are selected among the best and brightest. Welcome to the Humphrey Family!  Be well and make the most of your Humphrey year. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so enjoy it!

Özlem Durmuş earned her BS in Environmental Engineering at Dokuz Eylul University and a MSc in Environmental Sciences at Bogazici University in Istanbul, Turkey. She worked for the National Productivity Center of Turkey as a Productivity Expert. During her Humphrey Fellowship in the US, she studied Environment and Natural Resources at Cornell University and worked as a short term consultant for the World Bank. She is now an Industry and Technology Expert at the Turkish Ministry of Science, Industry and Technology in Ankara. She is fluent in English and Turkish.

To learn more about the Humphrey Fellowship, please contact the Public Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy or Binational Fulbright Commission in your country for information about application procedures and deadlines. Embassies and Commissions must submit their nominations to the Institute of International Education office in Washington, DC by October 1. The deadlines for applicants vary by country.

© Victoria Johnson 2013, all rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “U.S. International Exchange Fellowships: Tips And Insights From Humphrey Fellow Özlem Durmuş”

  1. I’m sorry, but unfortunately we are not able to translate the article into French. If you know someone who may be able to do that for you, you are welcome to share the article that way.

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