The COVID-19 pandemic has created unexpected challenges—and opportunities—when advocating for the Fulbright Program on Capitol Hill. The challenges are obvious. To protect our members and advocates, we had to cancel our March 26 Advocacy Day. Congressional offices closed to visitors. The State Department had to suspend the Program itself, sending Fulbrighters home prematurely. And, of course, the pandemic has raised barriers to travel and doubts about the future of exchanges.
On the face of it, that’s a pretty bleak landscape.
We quickly learned that there are always opportunities in crisis, especially if you have spent the time—as this community has for over 40 years—to build strong, bipartisan relationships.
First, we learned that congressional offices are operating just like a lot of other offices. Staff are working remotely, glad to take phone calls rather than visitors. So we have had calls with many offices, with a special focus on senators on the Appropriations Committee, including:
Second, we found that staff members and their bosses continue to be strongly supportive of the Fulbright Program. In fact, we had decided before the pandemic to ask for added funding for the Program with a total ask of $300 million, to begin rectifying years of flat funding. Members of Congress, from both parties and both chambers, were very open to considering such a spending boost, despite many other pressing priorities caused by the pandemic.
And third, they shared our concern about the suspension of the Program and its future. We reassured them that the State Department had facilitated the return of all Americans who wanted to come home, that all Fulbrighters would receive their full grants, and that returning Fulbrighters would receive an additional $1000 relocation fund. We explained that many Fulbrighters chose to continue their work, especially those in the U.S.
We also explained to them that the pandemic has required agile planning for the coming year, as conditions continually change. The current plan calls for a delay in the start of many grants, with confidence that the Program will resume more fully in 2021. They understood and supported the argument that an interruption in funding was not acceptable to our community nor a viable policy option, particularly as that would cede exchange leadership to other countries, including China. Every office assured us of their full support for stronger funding in the next fiscal year.
These assurances guarantee nothing, so we will remain active and vigilant in the coming months. I urge you to contact your chapter to explore how you can get involved, especially this summer. You can also email email@example.com and explore our advocacy website.
Executive Director, Fulbright Association