The Changing Landscape of Academic Exchange

Adam Gerstenfeld

Courtesy of Flickr, Creative Commons

Photo Source: John via Flickr Creative Commons.

In the 68 years since its inception, Fulbright has sent more than 325,400 students, scholars, researchers, journalists, artists, and other professionals around the globe to pursue their passions, exemplifying the United States’ warm embrace toward public diplomacy. According to the annual Open Doors Report, a collaboration between the State Department and the Institute of International Education, “680,000 international students enrolled in U.S. higher education contributed nearly $20 billion to the U.S. economy in 2009/10.” Academic exchanges are more than just a pricy elbow rubbing – it is a fundamental unit of American diplomacy, with real-world, tangible benefits. According to NAFSA: Association of International Educators, international students inject 24 billion dollars to the US economy each year, and the Fulbright Program is one of the largest contributors to this number.

It is more important now, than ever before in history to put added emphasis on the quality of international exchanges, as globalization sews the corners of our world tighter every day. We need to be culturally competent to succeed in business, education, government, and a host of other fields.

When examining Fulbright’s welcome presence around the world, and within academic circles, the numbers speak for themselves. 18 Fulbrighters have served as heads of state, 10 have been elected to the U.S. Congress and 43 have received a Nobel Prize. Countless others have gone on to follow exciting projects in their own right, which have changed and challenged everything from the fields of archaeology to zoology.

Now the biggest challenge facing Fulbright is how to measure its successes. Currently there is no quantitative evidence that the program is working as well as it can be. This is not to say there is no proof of its benefits, just that there is no central database that shows exactly how each country was effected, and to what degree. Perhaps this is because we hold the merit of the program in the intangible assets acquired by Fulbright recipients, such as the relationships cultivated amongst international peers, and the breadth of cultural understanding and discussion.

With most educational programs, it seems only natural to look back on the success and failures, and decide how to enhance the program’s quality. Fulbright has never had a chance to undergo this reflexive period. Of course, it is extremely difficult to find the precise tools in which to measure the Fulbright program. Not only does Fulbright work within 155 countries, each maintaining its own completely independent set of regulations, but the purposes of the trips vary widely. Some Fulbrighters travel to aid in teaching English for a year, while others are scholars committed to field research. The skills, time commitments and locations have such a wide span, it would leave any statistician overwhelmed. However, small efforts have since been made to try and break down what exactly is working with the Fulbright model. This year, Fulbright officials were tasked with sorting through the surveys given to Fulbrighters, ex post facto, giving their office a glimpse of how these individuals perceived their own experiences. Results showed 96% of English Teaching Assistants in 2012 believed they had made “some” or “a large amount of” impact in their classrooms. While this information is useful in measuring trends for the Americans, it does not give an unbiased perception of the real work going on inside the classroom.

In 2011, the International Institute of Education released a survey titled “Evaluating and Measuring the Impact of Citizen Diplomacy” which looked at different methods with which administrators could analyze trends in academic exchange. They also provide suggestions for future data collection, writing “Many in the field—both from the program side and among evaluation experts—recommend some sort of standardization in the evaluation methodology of such programs, such as the use of external instruments like the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) or the Beliefs, Events, and Values Inventory (BEVI).” SRI International was hired by the State Department in the late 1990s and early 200s to conduct Fulbright alumni surveys to see how well citizen diplomacy was doing its job. They discovered the real power of Fulbright didn’t rely completely on the scholar’s relationships with his immediate colleagues, but rather on the indirect multiplier effect. By simply becoming ensconced in the community, the Fulbrighter was able to affect an entire community with his or her work by leaving behind the ideas of their project. According to the 2002 Outcome Assessment of the U.S. Fulbright Scholar Program, researchers uncovered two primary trends in their results, “[1] the capacity of the Fulbright experience to increase Americans’ knowledge of and engagement with the world, and [2] the power of personal relationships to increase mutual understanding.” This is a great first step to discovering whether foreign individuals who interact with Fulbrighters express a more positive and more nuanced perspective of America’s culture and politics.

It is entirely possible to observe measurable results in citizen diplomacy. One way to do so is to look at the economic impact of participants, as the Center for Social Development did when conducting their research. The CSD used information from the 2005 Current Population Survey volunteer supplement, as well as an estimation for the “hourly wage” of volunteers to dictate what they perceived as the economic output from international community service. According to the report, “Total US volunteer hours abroad in 2005 are estimated at 161.8 million. When multiplied by an hourly wage of a skilled volunteer at $18.04, the total value of US volunteer hours abroad was $2.92 billion.” There are limits to this survey (such as whether the $18.04 can justly refer to both skilled and unskilled labor) but nevertheless, it serves a good benchmark for future quantifiable testing of academic exchanges.

In avoiding the practice of statistical review, Fulbright’s data collection problem also begets another issue: inflexibility over time. We are already starting to see some side effects from Fulbright’s curriculum rigidity. Under the Obama administration, the role of academic exchanges is changing rapidly, as shown by new startups like YALI (Young African Leaders Initiative) and Y-SEALI (Young South-East Asian Leaders Initiative). These programs aren’t so much designed for academic discussion as they are leadership training summits. It’s a very different focus, and one that marks a direct departure from the Fulbright model. Instead of bilateral scholarly tradeoffs, it has put a spotlight on priming young adults under American tutelage for future careers. However, American students don’t get anything in return – at least under these kinds of programs. Of course, these pursuits are admirable but they detract focus away from tried-and-true diplomacy like Fulbright, which this year faced almost 30 million dollars in 2015 budget cuts proposed by President Obama’s administration. The unpopular proposal was grounded in Congress, but it definitely showed a new financial trajectory away from current academic exchange models. The White House clearly believed that Fulbright did not need 13% of its budget, motivating alumni and politicians alike to take up arms.

“The symbolic value of the Fulbright Program cannot be overestimated,” declares savefulbright.org, a site dedicated to raising awareness about the dangers of slashing Fulbright funding. “It costs little but unequivocally emphasizes the common values and interests the United States shares with its friends and allies and to which the United States appeals when seeking their collaboration and support.”

The aforementioned Outcome Assessment of the U.S. Fulbright Scholar Program also shows that Americans are gaining a lot of worldly experience out of the Fulbrights scholarships. Many of them are coming back saying that their minds had been considerably expanded, and they believed they had a real impact on the country they were working in. Yet more importantly, the scholars were also receiving something in return for the work they were committed to, by immersing themselves in communities that may have been completely foreign just months before.

America does a great job tracking its students and scholars when they are abroad for a year, but once they leave there is no organization or agency that stays behind to look at the results. We need an objective party to serve a lengthy period of time in one country so they can measure the effects long-term, well after the American has left.

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