The Fulbright Foreign Student Programme is one of the many scholarships Bangladeshi students aspire to get in their pursuit to study in the United States.
However, most candidates often get confused because they either do not have enough information about the programme or have too much of it.
On this note, this article attempts to dispel any misinformation regarding the Fulbright Programme. The Business Standard also consulted with two recent Fulbright awardees to seek guidance on behalf of the potential candidates.
What is the Fulbright Programme
The Fulbright Programme is one of the many fully-funded scholarships provided by the US Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA).
[Other scholarships include the Global Undergraduate scholarship, the Study of United States Institute (SUSI) scholarship etc.]
The programme was originally introduced after the second world war by former US senator J William Fulbright as a diplomatic instrument to bolster ties between the US and other countries. Initially, the goal was to introduce Western ideals to some of the best and brightest minds coming to the US from different parts of the world, and also allowing US students to learn more about their culture and history.
The programme currently operates in more than 55 countries. Apart from the Fulbright Foreign Student Programme, the US State Department also offers scholarships under the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Programme, Fulbright Teaching Excellence and Achievement Programme, Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence Programme, etc.
The Fulbright Foreign Student Programme is offered to young professionals and academics belonging to a wide range of fields ranging from education, health and medical sciences, biological and physical sciences, social sciences and humanities, business, economics, urban planning, environmental studies, public administration and so on.
If selected, Bangladeshi students can pursue a Master's degree (PhD programme has been discontinued) in the US. The Fulbright Programme then negotiates with universities – ideally, those preferred by the students – to get them fully funded scholarships.
What does it take to get a Fulbright scholarship?
As far as the US Embassy is concerned, a candidate should ideally be a professional with considerable experience in academia – whether as a lecturer at a university or an entry-level researcher at a research organisation, think tank or NGO.
"The Fulbright programme is seldom awarded to a fresher even with an extraordinary academic portfolio. The programme usually looks for professionals with at least two years of experience in academia," said Tazrian Shahid.
Tazrian Shainam Shahid is a former awardee from Fulbright's cohort 2020-21. She currently works at the University of Liberal Arts as a lecturer. Tazrian had around ten years of experience working and teaching before she applied for the programme.
Yasin Shafi is from the same cohort as Tazrian. He completed his Master's in Public Policy from the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) under the Fulbright Programme.
Yasin agreed with Tazrian's assessment that accumulating sufficient work experience was key to getting into the Fulbright Programme. But other aspects can work to your advantage as well.
For instance, Yasin also had a stellar CGPA as an undergraduate student in Development Studies at the University of Dhaka. When asked about the importance of CGPA, Yasin said, "CGPA is as important as it is for any grad school admission – I think. I don't want to recommend a ballpark figure. The range of CGPA will vary depending on the school, discipline, and programme. Grad school applications are usually assessed holistically."
"A good CGPA will be a strong signal, but work experience, strong essays and letters of recommendation are also very important. They all need to tell a coherent story in favour of the applicant," he added.
Tazrian also believed that prioritising only one aspect is unlikely to land you a Fulbright scholarship.
"There were people who had better GMAT scores or had better profiles per se than I did. But I realised during the interview process that they were looking for the entire package: someone with reasonable academic excellence, sufficient work experience and the ability to reflect the visions of the programme," she said.
Although not always essential, GRE or GMAT scores or other language proficiency tests like IELTS, TOEFL, etc, can supplement your profile.
"There is an anti-standardised test movement in the States. But many schools still ask for GRE/GMAT scores or some other language proficiency test scores. So, it might be wise to take these tests anyway. It also signals your intent to go abroad for higher studies and might help you get selected for the programme," said Yasin.
Interestingly, if you get shortlisted for the Fulbright Programme, you can attend these tests again at their expense to boost your chances of getting into higher-ranked universities.
Apart from CGPA, letters of recommendation and work experience, Tazrian also urged potential candidates to focus on two things: a strong, honest and personalised statement of purpose and a confident interview.
"Make sure that your statement of purpose is not generic and it reflects your passion for what you want to study, why you want to do it and how getting the scholarship would help achieve your goals," said Tazrian.
Once the initial application process is completed, the Fulbright selection committee calls the shortlisted applicants for an interview. Tazrian believed it was important to project confidence in these interviews.
"Like everyone else, I had no idea whether I would get selected for the programmes. But when I went for the interview, I projected that I was confident about getting the scholarship and told the interviewers what I would do once I got it," said Tazrian.
Both awardees recommended candidates to be patient as the entire selection process for the Fulbright Scholarship can be quite taxing as well as time-consuming.
"I applied for the scholarship in early 2019. I had to wait for roughly a year to find out that I had been selected," said Yasin.
"While the wait can often be nerve-wracking, do not try to directly get in touch with the universities on your own. If you have questions, politely ask (email) the admission committee in charge of the scholarship," he added.
How difficult is it to get the scholarship?
Quite difficult, to be honest.
"While other programmes can offer fully-funded scholarships to more than twenty students (Chevening), Fulbright in our cohort awarded the scholarship to only six students. So it goes without saying that Fulbright is more competitive than other programmes," said Yasin.
Given Fulbright Programme's original purpose as a diplomatic instrument, the difficulty arises from Bangladesh's relative geopolitical importance to the US compared to its regional neighbours like India and Pakistan.
Moreover, Bangladesh does not have a Fulbright Commission like India or Pakistan. In many countries, the governments also contribute to the programme which can boost the number of awardees from their country. The GoB does not contribute to the Fulbright Programme.
It is also worth mentioning that because of the same geopolitical factors, Bangladeshi students might have to experience some discrimination in terms of the benefits received compared to Fulbrighters from other more 'important' countries.
Is it worth going through all the trouble?
It depends on your priorities.
If you are only looking for a Master's degree and do not want to settle down in the States, a Fulbright scholarship might just get you on your way. But if you are looking to settle abroad or looking for a PhD programme, there may be better alternatives.
"In terms of benefits, the Fulbright Network as a platform, can get you in touch with Fulbrighters from different parts of the world, as well as Fulbrighters from the previous cohorts. Most of them have already or will likely hold important positions in the future. For example, many of the Fulbrighters have gone on to win the Nobel Prize, Pulitzer prize, etc," said Yasin.
More importantly, the Fulbright programme, at the end of the day, is a fully-funded scholarship programme and students, belonging to middle-class or upper-middle-class families, can greatly benefit from it.
"I am grateful to Fulbright for allowing me to study at the University of Michigan. Without Fulbright, I would probably not be able to go there," added Yasin.
But the Fulbright programme also requires applicants to return home for at least two years after completing their Master's degree, barring any special waivers for work of PhD. That means, if your goal is to settle down and acquire permanent residency status in the States, Fulbright might not be for you.
In the case of a PhD programme, most US grad schools would make you go through the coursework again, barring some waiver that you did during your Master's degree. Essentially, you may have to do two master's before even qualifying for the PhD programme.
This is why Yasin recommended PhD aspirants push for the F1 visa and get directly admitted into a grad school, assuming they feel confident enough to do so.