I was excited and grateful to be awarded the Fulbright-Schuman grant to the European Union back in 2013, which gave me an opportunity to immerse myself in two European countries for a nine-month period. That fall, I boarded a plane to Brussels to work as a researcher in Liège, Belgium for several months and then relocate to Rotterdam in the Netherlands for the second portion of my grant. My goal was to study the European Union’s public and private pension systems with the intention of eventually sharing my research findings back in the United States. (If you’re interested in more details about my research and experiences, please see my earlier post here.)
One thing that is so special about the Fulbright Program is that it’s not just an academic/teaching opportunity, but also a chance to be immersed in both the community of the host country as well as the broader, global Fulbright community. Since returning to the United States, I’m thankful that my connection to my mentors and friends in Europe have continued along with connection to the Fulbright community more broadly.
While I was in Rotterdam, I worked with two wonderful professors, Dr. Laurens Swinkels and Dr. Fieke van der Lecq, to study the diversity of Dutch pension fund board governance. We continued working on this research even after I returned home and we published our paper just last year. Both professors have also been fantastic life mentors. Separately and just a few months ago, I was surprised to receive a request to be an ad hoc peer reviewer for a paper submission for an international pension journal, with the subject matter being Dutch pensions. After a few back-and-forth emails, I realized that the request actually came from my professor and mentor from Liège!
I’ve met some of the most incredible individuals through Fulbright. Given the “choose-your-own-adventure” nature of the grant proposals, grantees come from all different backgrounds with very different life ambitions. Friends expanded my thinking through their diverse range of passions: from preserving ancient languages, to studying infectious diseases, to researching Flemish art history, to analyzing the intersection of mindfulness meditation and technology, to pursuing broad environmental sustainability efforts.
The Fulbright Program allowed me to meet wonderful people across Europe who (sometimes literally) gave me a home within a community that was foreign to me: Maria, my Romanian sister and my inspiration for looking deeper into behavioral economics; Marie and Bertrand, my official Fulbright mentors who not only looked out for me but also for my friends across the Fulbright Belgium community, who came to visit Liège for the annual Nocturne des Coteaux de la Citadelle; Xavier, Katia, Mehdi, Arjeta, Thomas, and the economics research crew who provided a multilingual community for me in Liège; Aaron, who introduced me to Belgian chocolates and Liégeois accents; Gosse and Jairo, who guided me through the Dutch academic research world; Martin, who trusted a stranger with a home in Rotterdam; and Ilana, who not only hosted me in the Netherlands, but also helped me to add a personal touch to my research. I can’t thank you all enough.
Earlier this year, I was very fortunate to be chosen as a Fulbright Alumni Ambassador. It’s been amazing to see all the programming that Fulbright provides to foreign grantees in the United States. Just a few months ago, Fulbright hosted a group of approximately 130 international grantees for a Fulbright Enrichment Seminar in Houston to discuss innovation and entrepreneurship, culminating in a volunteer stint at a food bank and a visit to the NASA Space Center. I was grateful to participate as a volunteer. The Fulbright Foreign Students shared their stories and life goals, from wanting to return home to their country, to improving their countries’ political systems, to developing enterprises that would assist their local communities. While we were walking through the food bank, my new friend Omer shared that he was making a mental note to share his enrichment seminar experiences and the best practices he’d learned back in Sudan. It was great to witness cross-cultural exchange happening instantly, seeing the tangible influence the seminar discussions were having on the grantees.
I now work as a researcher, consultant, and actuary within a benefits consulting company’s research team, focusing on devising new benefits and strategies to help our employer clients meet their employees’ specific financial needs. My long-term goal is to help individuals improve their financial prospects, and to raise the level of financial inclusion here in the United States first, and then internationally. My work and dreams are heavily inspired by my time as a Fulbrighter.
The main takeaway that I would offer to anyone considering applying to Fulbright, though the application is definitely competitive, is please don’t abstain from applying – even if you don’t think your background or your grades are appropriate.
What is your vision of what you want to create in the world, and how can a Fulbright grant be important in making that vision happen? How are you the right person to carry out that vision, and, what do you thoughtfully propose to do to make it happen?
A few more tips:
- On picking the host country – find the best fit: Your host country should first be somewhere you’re passionately interested in studying, but you might also read through the country summaries of what an ideal candidate looks like in each country, and see if you might qualify for one you didn’t expect. Different host countries have different requirements. Some of them emphasize more academic experience or more stringent language requirements.
- On finding affiliations – know your target: Some people recommend cold-emailing as many people as possible in your field of study, or, reaching out to the “best” people in the field—both make sense. What I’ve found, though, is if you can select one body of research that genuinely inspires you and reach out to author about that project, this approach often makes for a better and easier match. I ended up reaching out to just a small handful of people, mostly through “cold emails,” and fortunately found two gracious professors who were willing to mentor me through that process. (If you’d like further tips about how to write an introductory email, I’m happy to help – I think this might be one of the toughest parts of the application.)
The Fulbright Program was life-changing; I hope this article has been helpful to you as you consider your next steps. Please feel free to contact me, especially if you’re an At-Large applicant!
Have questions for Lin about her Fulbright experiences in the European Union and as a Fulbright Alumni Ambassador? You can reach her at L.Shi.firstname.lastname@example.org.