Dr. Shelby Lewis

A member of the governing board of the U.S. State Department’s Fulbright program from Atlanta says the $400 million in study abroad scholarships given out in fiscal 2010 is widely recognized as money well spent.

But she is concerned that the current climate in Washington might lead to reductions in international education budgets, and inhibit the development of programs for sub-Saharan countries.

Shelby Lewis, professor emeritus from Clark Atlanta University and vice chair of the J.W.Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, told GlobalAtlanta in a wide ranging interview at her home in Cascade Heights that government cutbacks brought on by the slow economy might negatively impact the program’s funding.

“We are hoping that Fulbright will not be subjected to deep budget cuts for fiscal 2012,” Dr. Lewis said. “There is a good case to be made that it is in the national interest of the United States to continue this exchange program at a level that is responsive to the need for international teaching, research, degree training and cultural enhancement opportunities for future American and international leaders.

She added that in addition to the program’s educational and diplomatic benefits, the U.S. also benefits financially by attracting international students who, she said, contributed about $21.3 billion to the U.S. economy last year.

Fulbright scholarships make up part of the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs budget allocated by the U.S. Congress. Other sources of funding, however, also exist.

Countries participating in exchanges with the U.S. contribute to the Fulbright budget, but the costs are not always evenly split. The remainder of the program’s funds comes from corporate and individual donations.

President Obama’s proposed 2012 budget, which was introduced in February, requested $252.7 million for the program, down slightly from $253.8 million in 2011.

Congress has yet to finalize next year’s budget and the possibility exists, Dr. Lewis said, that the Fulbright program might be targeted for reductions along with budgets across the entire government spectrum.

Fulbright’s expenditures fluctuate from year-to-year based on the exact number of awards granted, but there are usually about 8,000 awards given annually.

Dr. Lewis also said that she would like to see the program more actively engaged with African countries individually, noting that there are no Fulbright Commissions in any sub-Saharan country.

Even using the generic term “Africa” for the more than 50 countries on the continent contributes to policy and funding decisions for the entire continent rather than specific countries, she added.

“This regional approach often results in budgets that are stretched far too thinly to spur the kind of change needed to promote and sustain national development, democratization and peace,” she said. “We are not getting to a critical mass of people in each country, the benefits and gains are too scattered to really make a sustainable difference.”

And she recommended Angola, Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Senegal, Uganda and Zambia for greater engagement.

The program has expanded steadily since U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas introduced legislation in 1945 to use proceeds from sales of surplus war material to fund international education.

President Truman signed the bill into law the next year and in 1948 the first Fulbright-funded scholarships sent 47 U.S. students to China, Myanmar and the Philippines, and brought 36 international students here. Since then the program has expanded to 155 countries and funded 310,000 students studying abroad.

About 50 countries have Bi-National Fulbright Commissions to counsel and provide financial support to potential applicants. U.S. embassies handle applications from countries in which there is not such body.

Dr. Lewis described Mr. Fulbright’s vision for the exchanges as enhancing official relations between the U.S. and other governments.

“He and a number of others maintained that Fulbright participants are cultural ambassadors,” she said. “It’s a people-to-people type of diplomacy.”

Students, teachers and professionals can apply for scholarships in virtually any field from agriculture to visual and performance arts, business, education, the humanities, law, mathematics, public policy and the sciences.

Dr. Lewis added that the program has emphasized language education in recent years, sending Americans abroad to teach English and bringing foreign students and educators to the U.S.

She became involved with the program when she received a Fulbright Senior Lecturer Award to teach political science at the National University of Lesotho in 1982, which she described as her happiest overseas assignment since she was accompanied by her husand, also a Fulbright scholar, and her two sons and daughter.

Fulbright participants sometimes end up in official foreign policy positions. Dr. Lewis noted that a number of ambassadors to the U.S are Fulbright alumni as well as six current or former ambassadors to the United Nations.

Other past participants include 359 current and former heads of international government, 52 Nobel Prize winners, 78 Pulitzer Prize winners and 46 members of the current Congress.

Dr. Lewis earned her doctorate in political science from the University of New Orleans and served on the board of the Council for International Exchange of Scholars which implements Fulbright’s scholar and graduate student programs.

She was vice president of international development at the United Negro College Fund/SP and Mr. Obama appointed her to the Fulbright board in November 2010.

For more on the Fulbright program, go to http://fulbright.state.gov

GlobalAtlanta would like to learn about the experiences of current or former Fulbright scholars in the Atlanta area who are encouraged to contact us by email or to call the office at 404-377-7710.