J. William Fulbright believed in the desirable American Dream. He believed in the premise that all individuals are created equal, therefore all of them deserve a chance for pursuing education on a higher level regardless of their social or financial status. He founded an international scholarship with an ambitious goal: to increase mutual understanding and to support friendly and peaceful relations between the people of the USA and the people of other countries. The Fulbright Program sponsors American and foreign participants for exchanges in all areas of endeavour, including the sciences, business, academe, public service, government and the arts, and it operates in more than 155 countries, including Hungary.
The Fulbright Program awards about 8,000 grants annually. Roughly 1,600 American students, 4,000 foreign students, 1,200 American scholars, and 900 visiting scholars receive awards, in addition to several hundred teachers and professionals. Overall 310,000 “Fulbrighters” have participated in this international exchange since its foundation in 1946.
The US Department of State manages the overall program: setting priorities, allocating resources and funding the programme’s day-to-day administration with the help of non-governmental organisations. In each country the US Embassy works with the partner governments to provide in-country oversight to the Fulbright Program. In some countries the two governments established independent binational Fulbright Commissions to carry out the program.
The presidentially appointed scholarship board establishes policies and procedures and selects participants for the program. Most of the funding comes from the US government while many foreign governments contribute substantially too. Higher education institutions both in the US and abroad play an important role in sharing costs and serving as centres of academic and professional development for Fulbrighters.
Private organizations and individual donors provide additional funding and in-kind support. Through this co-operation among governments, academia, the private sector and civil society, the Fulbright Programme increases international understanding and responds to critical global issues. Fulbrighters all over the world are engaged in projects with environmental issues such as food security, public health, education and other challenges that require innovation and creativity that transcends borders.
Hungary joined the Fulbright Program in 1978 and the Fulbright Commission was established in January 1992. The Hungarian-American Fulbright Commission for Educational Exchange has been registered in Hungary as a non-profit public interest educational foundation. The commission organises the exchange of Hungarian and American graduate students, scholars, researchers, lecturers and artists.
It aims to enhance the Hungarian-American mutual understanding and bilateral relations and its mission is to offer qualified Hungarian and American citizens the opportunity to exchange significant knowledge and educational experience in the sciences and arts, especially in fields relevant to the two countries. Participants thereby contribute to a deeper understanding of American-Hungarian relations and broaden the means by which the two societies can further their understanding of each other’s cultures.
The executive director of Fulbright Hungary certainly incorporates these values. Károly Jókay was born in Chicago, Illinois, to Hungarian parents. Following the example of many other immigrant families, he grew up in a Hungarian community and strengthened his national identity by attending a Saturday Hungarian school and scout events. He could not even speak English in the beginning of his studies but later on he majored in economics and did his PhD in political science.
As for obvious reasons he was always interested in the fate and politics of Eastern Europe – as they called it back then – his first job allowed him to travel to Hungary professionally and eventually to move there in 1994. He started teaching public policy at the Central European University in Budapest, which led him to a closer understanding of the educational sector and ultimately to his position at Fulbright Hungary. He took on the role of executive director from Huba Brückner in November, 2012.
“Because of my upbringing I always considered myself a Hungarian in America and because of my American education I sometimes feel like an American in Hungary,” Jókay says. As a director who is equipped with a particular insight to the inner lives of both of these nations, he is able to support the mission of Fulbright “which is to foster educational, cultural and scientific exchange between the two countries”.
Winning a Fulbright scholarship is a great honour because it is extremely competitive for both Hungarians and Americans. One of the many tasks of the Fulbright team and of the director is to give every applicant a fair consideration. This includes a lengthy evaluation process; one year passes between the application and attending the institution. The many steps include a peer review by two former Fulbrighters – usually one American and one Hungarian –, a personal interview and an approval by two separate boards of each Hungarian applicant.
Jókay considers conducting interviews as one of the most interesting parts of his job due to the diversity of applicants. These applicants could be senior professors or graduate students who are interested in studying at the MA level in the USA. For example the recent 17 Hungarian grantees represent 15 fields of study. However, the actual decision-making is viewed as the most difficult part of the director’s job. “Having to select from among too many well-qualified candidates is exceptionally hard since we receive five times as many applications as we have slots,” he says.
Regarding American applicants, the Fulbright Hungary team receives a shortlist from their partners in the US and they try to match the American scholars with the Hungarian host institutions. According to Jókay about half of the American Fulbrighters who come to Hungary have some kind of family connection or previous experience with the country. Others are interested in unique institutions such as the Liszt Academy or the Kodály method or Hungary’s world-renowned science talents and artists.
The correspondence between the two countries does not end with the Fulbrighters’ return to the home country. “Our American alumni are very supportive and many of them visit us each summer,” Jókay says. “They also bring their students and sometimes continue working with their Hungarian hosts. For example America Week at the University Pannonia was started by American and Hungarian Fulbrighters.”
The tasks of the director do not end with choosing the suitable candidates. One of the most important parts of his duties is to raise money from various stakeholders. This includes negotiating with host institutes in the US and in Hungary to plead for more benefits for the grantees as well as constant liaison with public and private donors. Attending many conferences and college fairs and maintaining an outreach to the general and specialised press serve to recruit more applicants and to promote the program.
However, the activity of the director is not restricted to the office. Jókay regards taking the American grantees on excursions – which they call the Brown Bags – as the “most fun” part of his job. He makes sure to equip them with a taste of “Hungarianness” by going to museums, on city tours and attending wine tastings. They also visit grantees at their places of work throughout Hungary.
Besides selecting and hosting grantees, Fulbright Hungary also provides a testing centre where it is possible to take SAT or TOEFL and other computer or paper-based tests. The Education USA advising centre helps students – including high school students – in writing their college essays, preparing CVs and practising interviews. This is open to all students, not just potential Fulbrighters.
Jókay is optimistic regarding the prospects of the foundation: “My staff and I will work very hard to ensure these opportunities for Hungarian and American applicants far into the future. It is a real pleasure to work with so many bright and interesting people.”
So, what does it mean to belong to this extraordinary group? Fulbrighters are current and future leaders who are ready to share their knowledge and culture, who are open to new ideas and who are committed to international engagement. Fulbright alumni have gone on to become Nobel Prize winners, heads of state, ambassadors, leaders in scientific research and innovation, educators, artists, business professionals and civic leaders.
Above all, Fulbrighters exemplify the power of international academic exchange: to transform lives, to reach geographic and cultural boundaries and promote a more peaceful and prosperous world. Becoming a Fulbrighter is an American dream that is open to everyone.
See more at: www.cies.org or www.fulbright.hu