Fulbright Fosters International Exchange of Ideas

The Fulbright program, established after World War II to promote the international exchange of scholars and ideas, has provided grants to thousands of students from around the world to pursue diverse fields of interest in non-native countries.

Last Thursday and Friday, UB's Office of International Education sponsored a roundtable discussion featuring alumni Fulbright Scholars as part of "International Education Week," a weeklong series of events promoting the importance of cultural and academic mingling in today's interdependent world.

"These events show how important international students are to the U.S. educational system. You learn so much about other cultures and about yourself," said Eric Comins, a UB international student advisor.

"We live in an interconnected world," said Ellen Dussourd, director of international student and scholar services. "Americans are seemingly isolated from the world. We need to make an effort to be globally informed."

Three former Fulbright scholars - UB alumnus Stephen Dunnet; Marybeth Boger, a UB doctorate student in social foundations; and UB law professor Judy Scales-Trentspoke - spoke on the nature of their academic experiences abroad, as well as the program's unique ability to provide participants with as close a chance for total cultural immersion as possible.

The program, designed to foster mutual understanding between nations through educational exchange, was envisioned by Sen. J. William Fulbright who viewed the program as a step toward building an alternative to armed conflict.

At first, the program only brought foreign researchers to the United States, but a one-to-one exchange was eventually established around 1952, and more than 234,000 students from around the globe have since traded places with U.S. students.

Dunnet traveled to Japan in 1984 to study the effect of U.S. business acumen on Japanese businessmen. Although he gleaned valuable information on his research topic from numerous interviews, which he said would not have been possible without the leveraging power of his Fulbright status, he learned just as much about the culture from his personal, extracurricular, experience.

"The $1,500 or so that I was given as a housing allowance will get you an apartment with about 10 square feet total in Tokyo," said Dunnet. "So I sold my car back in Buffalo. I figured I was only going to get this chance once, I might as well live right."

Dunnet, a linguist, also found his abilities with the Japanese language questioned, much to his surprise. "I tried to inform them that I was the very famous Dr. Dunnet and I didn't need a class in Japanese. They smiled politely, bowed, and put me in a class with a group of 20-year-olds. After a while I quit and took a private tutor."

Boger, who studied the status of racism in Germany in 1999, had an advantage in her studies. "Having lived there, I knew what to expect," said Boger. "But it was still hard to find a university to study at. Nonetheless, I eventually found one and got on with it."

Boger said she did not experience the level of culture shock that her peers did. "The city I studied in was a lot like Buffalo," she said. "A lot of immigrants had moved and settled in it. It was a post-industrial city and had a similar feel, so that helped quite a bit."

Conversely, Scales-Trent initially encountered difficulty adapting to the social environment while studying the role of female lawyers in Senegal.

"I had a house built by French settlers. It was beautiful, but nothing worked inside," she said. "The shower shot straight down, and the electric lights were just two wires tied to a bulb. It was the rainy season and the house leaked."

Eventually, the professor said she was able to settle in. "I loved the culture. I loved the way the women there dressed, I emulated that immediately. Soon enough I was teaching a class and enjoying myself.

"My students were incredible. ... Some of them came to my home once, which in Senegal is a sign of homage and respect. It says that you feel safe with this person. I could not have asked for a better experience."

All three agreed that the Fulbright scholarship changed their lives.

"It's opened so many doors for me," said Dunnet. "Even in Japan, I said I was a Fulbright professor, and suddenly people who had not allowed me access to their files and archives for my research suddenly allowed it. It was, and still is, a great thing."

The only requirements for potential Fulbright applicants are a bachelor's degree in any field and intermediate proficiency in the language of the country in which one intends to study. Fulbright scholars should not have spent more than six months in the prospective host country.

"Now more than ever, we need international exchange," said Dussourd. "The events on Sept. 11 demonstrated that we cannot withdraw from the world. It is important that we have an accurate understanding of these cultures."

For more information on Fulbrights, visit the program's Web site, http://www.iie.org/fulbright/.