“Why did you go on a Fulbright?” I think those of us who have had the honor of participating in the Fulbright Program – educators, students, professionals, internationals – have been asked this question. The motivation for going through the time-consuming process of applying for a Fulbright differs. Not only does it take time to apply, it often requires asking for favors: “Can you be a reference for me?” It is also a very speculative process. Applying for a Fulbright requires a Plan B – if I don’t get it, then I will…
I recently had a former student share with me her good news. Her email flashed in caps: “I GOT THE FULBRIGHT!” Yes, she was shouting. She had recently started her professional career, and has a master’s degree. But wanted to continue her research in a specific field and felt having the chance to research through a Fulbright grant was the best avenue for her.
The gnawing need to answer a burning question is one reason many of us pursue a coveted Fulbright grant. For others, it might be to develop competency in a new area or have a global opportunity that then can be parleyed back into the classroom. In my own case, I was teaching in a community college and had had little international experience. I came to realize that my students were increasingly international and felt that teaching in the Fulbright program could “up my game.” I was happy teaching, and really didn’t think about it in terms of how it might pivot me to a new career. But it did.
My Fulbright experience opened my eyes and mind in new ways. I came to recognize that I might be able to support education in other ways, especially community colleges overall, and ended up at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., where I focused on working with community colleges nationwide.
Motivation is an evolving thing. We can believe we are pursuing something for one reason, but during and even after an experience realize that other purposes are present. A Fulbright experience can pivot us toward a specific goal or new opportunity we had not considered before.
Getting a job might not come up in the conversation about “why you went on a Fulbright.” We might be uncomfortable suggesting that getting a Fulbright might have been about occupational self-interest. But the reality is that for many of us the outcome, intended or not, was career change. For a younger student Fulbrighter, coming back from the experience brings with it more questions than answers. There is no official “what do you next” program for Fulbrighters. My son is in the Peace Corps and will be ending his service later this year, and for volunteers there is a COS – Close of Service – conference that provides some of those answers. Probably, Fulbrighters would benefit from something like that also.
For senior Fulbrighters, coming back to your current institution or work environment can provide opportunities, and challenges. How do you best apply your experience? And if you can’t, is it time to think about other prospects?
Recently, the Fulbright Association launched a Career Center. I think this is a great step in acknowledging the reality: many returning Fulbrighters are now or will soon be looking for a career change. The question then becomes: How can a returning Fulbrighter make the most of their experience to pursue a career? What can you do during your experience that will best position you when you return? And what strategies can you use upon your return?
Using this forum, I am hoping to write about approaches and strategies that returning Fulbrighters can use to leverage their experiences for new professional opportunities. My intent is that newly minted Fulbrighters will be thoughtful and strategic about their careers, while always mindful of the important opportunity that they have been provided to improve global understanding and advance peace.
—David J. Smith
David J. Smith (Fulbright Scholar, Estonia 2003-2004) is a career coach and the author of Peace Jobs: A Student’s Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (Information Age Publishing 2016). He is on the career advisory board of the Peace and Collaborative Development Network. David writes regularly on career issues at www.davidjsmithconsulting.com.