Fulbright, or How I Moved Abroad

Studying abroad left a big impression on me. I loved the challenge of communicating in a different language, being able to explore a new city on my own without cell phone service (this is before I knew about downloading Google maps to use offline), and learning about different cultures and ways of life. However, studying abroad only gives you one perspective about living abroad. As my last year of university approached, I knew I wanted to go back abroad and work, but I wasn’t sure how to make it happen. My opportunity ultimately came from the Fulbright Program. I started this blog when I was preparing to move to Turkey, but I never wrote about the program that made it all possible!

The official Fulbright logo

So, what is Fulbright?

The Fulbright Program is a cultural exchange program run by the Department of State. Established in 1946 by Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright, the program aims to foster cultural diplomacy between the U.S. and other countries. The idea is that the U.S. can improve relations with other countries through the efforts of everyday citizens. There are different areas of the program, with opportunities for students, scholars, professionals, and more to work, study, or conduct research abroad. I applied to the U.S. Student Program, which is for university students who want to do research and/or study at a foreign university or be an English Teaching Assistant (“ETA”). I chose the second option.

The biggest question I got: why did I choose Turkey?

I actually didn’t go into the application process knowing I would choose Turkey. I didn’t know much about the country besides what I studied in high school. (A friend and I represented Turkey in a Model United Nations conference. We were in the Economic and Social Council, and the topic was “relieving the burden of refugees on host countries.” This was before the Syrian Civil War, so it’s interesting to think about in retrospect.)

I really wanted to return to France, but most European countries are extremely competitive and require high levels of fluency. I didn’t think I would have a good chance of winning. (Side note: if you want to teach English in France, you’ll have better luck applying through the French government’s TAPIF program). After doing some research, I ultimately chose Turkey for a few reasons:

  1. I wanted to go somewhere different, but not too different. I think a lot of Americans in particular like Europe because we’re familiar with it. Most of the population is of European descent. We learned European history in school. Countries like France, Germany, and the United Kingdom are some of our closest allies. On the other hand, I had never been to Asia, and I didn’t know how well I would do in China, Indonesia, Malaysia, or somewhere totally different from the U.S. In 2015, I had the idea that Turkey was somewhere in the middle because there’s that cliché saying that Turkey is “where the West meets the East.” Different, but not too different.
  2. Pure strategy: I wanted to win the award. When I applied, the statistics for France showed over 100 applicants for 10 or fewer spots. I had less than a 10% chance of winning. It’s probably the same now. Conversely, about one-third of applicants to Turkey were accepted for the 2014-2015 school year. When I arrived in Ankara in August 2015, there were 105 ETAs—35 more than the previous year before.
  3. The language requirements were non-existent. Any Latin American country was out because you will be expected to already speak a decent level of Spanish or Portuguese. If Turkey required people who knew the language, they would have barely any applicants. You just needed to express interest in learning while there.
  4. I would be able to work with university students. If you or someone you know is interested in applying for a Fulbright ETA, keep this in mind: every country is different regarding what age group you will teach. I’m not particularly child-friendly, and there weren’t many countries that only had university students. While I chose the age group, I couldn’t choose which university, which was assigned by the Turkish Fulbright Commission.
orientation group pic YBU
Lunch with the other Fulbrighters placed at my university and our school representatives, Ceyda and Mumin

What was the process like?

The application process takes a while, and it’s better to start thinking about applying sooner than later. I filled out an application, submitted three letters of recommendation, and wrote two essays—a personal statement and statement of grant purpose.

The personal statement is about you as the applicant, and what experiences in your life brought you to applying for a Fulbright. The statement of grant purpose is more to elaborate on experiences and skills that would enable you to do the job well.

The official deadline is in October, but my university set an internal deadline in early September to review final essay drafts and conduct on-campus interviews to bolster students’ applications. I never expected to win, but when I did, they wrote a nice article!

What are the pros and cons?

Moving abroad is expensive and stressful, and it would have been even more so if I went without the program. The administrators handled our visas, lodging, and food for the first two weeks, introductory Turkish lessons, and seminars and materials on what to expect. I appreciated having other people take care of the process, even though it was quickly passed to me after the two-week orientation.

The main negative was that the salary was much lower than what I could have made as a private English teacher or at another university, and we weren’t allowed to teach on the side. Most people in Ankara don’t speak English, but I met countless Turks who wanted to learn and were willing to pay a good amount of money.

How do I feel about Fulbright overall?

I love it! I’m so glad I was chosen, and I made some very close friends during my time in Turkey. I also met international students in grad school who were here in the U.S. on Fulbright, so the Fulbright family is a true international community.

I encourage anyone who’s interested to apply for a Fulbright, if your situation permits it. Fulbright operates in most countries as long as the U.S. government maintains decent diplomatic relations and there are no overarching security risks, so you can go just about anywhere. There’s also other programs besides Fulbright, like the Boren Fellowship/Scholarship and the Critical Language Scholarship, that I hope to cover in the future.

Any other Fulbrighters or Fulbright-hopefuls out there? If you or anyone you know wants to learn more about Fulbright, the process, or my experiences, please leave a comment or reach out!

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