By Melanie Horton-Dirschberger, former Fulbright Association board member and Chair of Advocacy Advisory Committee
Last May, we reported that the Fulbright Program may finally get a spending increase, thanks in part to the Fulbright Association’s advocacy efforts. The House Appropriations Committee had endorsed a $10 million increase to the fiscal year 2022 funding level of $275 million, thanks to the strong leadership of Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), and Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY). The Senate Appropriations Committee followed their lead and went further, proposing a $15 million increase. We are grateful for the support of former Senator Pat Leahy (D-VT) who has always been a strong champion of the Fulbright Program, right through his last year in the Senate.
After several nail-biting months waiting for news, through the passage of continuing resolutions to fund the government at then-current levels while lawmakers worked toward a compromise, Congress passed the fiscal year 2023 Omnibus Appropriations Bill, signed by President Biden into law on December 29. The bill includes a $12.5 million increase for the Fulbright Program – bringing our fiscal year 2023 funding to $287.5 million – our first increase in 12 years! This achievement is the result of years of hard work and dedication of Fulbright Association staff, board members, commission directors, and volunteers, and gives us all a reason to celebrate. It is also just a starting point; after a dozen years of flat funding, we have a long way to go before we’re where we need to be.
As I reflect on six years as a board member for the Fulbright Association, the last two also spent as Chair of the Advocacy Committee, I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned along the way that I hope can inspire other members of the Fulbright community to become advocates.
If you’re new to advocacy, it can seem a bit daunting at first. What could our Congressional representatives possibly learn from us? The truth is, a lot! Members of Congress cannot be experts in each and every federally funded program, and meetings with passionate advocates are helpful to them for many reasons. First, we share important historical context and key stats they may be unaware of, helping them to become better versed in the details. Second, by sharing our Fulbright stories, we bring a human element to the program and demonstrate just why it’s so important to our country’s national security and to achieving international understanding. When building a budget lawmakers are tasked with weighing many competing priorities, so information and context provided by program experts (us!) is helpful to their decision-making process.
After going virtual for the last few years, the Fulbright Association is bringing back its in-person day of advocacy on Capitol Hill to continue our fight for increased funding. The event is scheduled for Thursday, April 20, the day after the Fulbright Prize ceremony, and is open to all members of the Association. If you can’t make it to D.C., there are other opportunities. Advocating at the local level in your Congressperson’s home office is equally important and effective. The Association will be coordinating with chapters to organize these meetings throughout February and March, so make sure you’re a member of your local chapter and reach out to chapter leadership for additional information and to let them know you’d like to be involved.
If you’ve ever thought about advocacy, this is your chance to share your story and make your voice heard. Remember – you are the expert, and we need your support! No prior experience is necessary, and volunteers will participate in a training session in preparation for their meetings with their advocacy teams.
Being an advocate for something we’re passionate about is exciting, but it’s also hard work and can be frustrating. Each year, hundreds of organizations compete for limited federal funding, and not all of them will get what they’re asking for. That’s why we continually review and refine our messaging and strategy. If we’re not rewarded with an increase, it doesn’t mean we give up; it means we regroup, pivot, and try again. This past year, the Association met with Fulbright champions in both the House and Senate to better understand the challenges as well as seek advice on what we should focus on and emphasize in our advocacy to best make our case for increased funding. We engaged Members of Congress not only in meetings but also by inviting them to our events so they could experience firsthand the impact of the Fulbright Program.
We all know what makes the Fulbright Program great. For over 75 years, the Fulbright Program has advanced mutual understanding between the U.S. and 160 countries around the world, and those of us who have served as grantees can think back to numerous examples of how we worked to help achieve just that. At this time of international conflict, our world needs more opportunities for international exchange. Let’s take a moment to celebrate this long-awaited and much-deserved win. And then get right back to work to make the Fulbright Program stronger than ever. There has never been a more exciting and crucial time to be involved.