After graduating college with a degree in economics and psychology, I did what everyone else I knew who graduated was doing: I moved to New York City and worked 80 hours a week as an investment banker. I liked it, but it became obvious that I was much more interested in building my own business than buying and selling pieces of other peoples’ businesses. I began looking for a platform that would enable me to learn how businesses are built before taking the plunge. One night, I bumped into a friend I hadn’t seen in a while:
“Where have you been?” I said.
“Studying resource mobilization in Argentina.” he replied.
“That’s awesome!” I responded. “How did you pull that off?”
And that’s the first time I ever heard about the Fulbright U.S. Student Program – a magical program that enables passionate people to pour themselves into pursuing their dreams while promoting goodwill abroad. Most people think that you need to be a 4.0 student to get a Fulbright grant. Not true. You don’t even have to be a current student (!), but you do need to at least have your bachelor’s degree or equivalent. Through your application, you just need to be passionate enough about your cause and becoming an American cultural ambassador to convince the U.S. Government that you are worth funding, and will make good use of your time abroad. I can only share my Fulbright experience, but here’s my advice to potential applicants.
1) Pick a topic of great interest to both the U.S. and host governments.
1. Grant writing 101: you are asking these governments for a lot of money. Pick something that they care about.
2. I chose “The Effect of Globalization on the Italian Textile and Fashion Industries.” Italy’s family textile businesses have been decimated by low-cost, Asian imports. The Italian government wants to know how to make those businesses more competitive. Guess who else is worried about low-cost, Asian imports? You got it, Uncle Sam. Fulbright funds hundreds of projects every year that are politically and culturally expedient, so there are many options to choose from.
2) Pick a relevant and timely topic.
1. It’s better work on something new and exciting than to pick a topic that’s been beaten to death.
2. Globalization was about as hot as it gets in 2006. A woman in my Fulbright class studied the Slow Food Movement. The Italian Fulbright Commission was basically asking for her autograph.
3) Pick a topic that is personally relevant.
1. You need to convince the selection committees that you are PASSIONATE about whatever it is you propose to study, be it textiles or sea snails. Since the Fulbright Program does not require an end-of-grant report in order for you to receive funding, the committees need to know that you are going to follow through on your work and that you’ll be an excellent cultural ambassador.
2. I wrote about seeing Italian textiles manufactured by a family business first hand during my undergrad study abroad in Siena. I also demonstrated my commitment to the garment industry by interning at Dolce & Gabbana.
4) Pick a topic that leverages your unique skills.
1. Are the skills you have particularly relevant to the project on which you propose to work? They should be.
2. I studied industrial and competitive dynamics 80 hours a week for two years straight on Wall Street.
5) Bring skills that aren’t available in the host country.
1. This is similar to my previous point except that not only should you be qualified for the job at hand, few in your proposed host country should be able to do what you do.
2. Italy doesn’t have a crazy excessive work culture, so there are very few people there who have spent 80 hours a week trying to understand why some companies succeed and others fail.
6) Bring back unique skills that will benefit the U.S.
1. Uncle Sam is usually footing at least half the bill for you trip, so make sure he is getting something out of the deal (in addition to all of the good will you are going to spread!).
2. As mentioned in my first point, I brought back a better understanding of how small and medium sized businesses can compete with low cost foreign businesses. I’m currently putting the results of my Fulbright research into practice by starting my own business.
7) Secure as many solid affiliations as possible.
1. Nine months is NOT a lot of time to produce anything meaningful, especially when you have willingly immersed yourself in a culture and language you may know little about and in which you may not function “efficiently” in the first place. The Fulbright Program wants to know that you are going to hit the ground running. To do so, you are going to need some support and infrastructure in the form of an affiliation.
2. Most people have some connections from their current university or with professors from their study abroad experiences. I didn’t have either, so I just cold emailed over 75 business school professors all over Italy. I included examples of my work and offered to work on their projects for free. I ended up with my own office (and wonderful secretary) in the best business school in the country.
8) Use every possible question, no matter how small, to convey the value you will bring. Every word counts.
1. This is obvious.
2. I think I wrote the equivalent of entire paragraphs in a few single line spaces in my application.
9) Read everything on the website and talk to past grantees.
1. You can learn a lot by looking at who received grants and what they did. Talking to past grantees will give you an idea of what to expect. You may also listen and watch former grantees talk about their experiences.
2. I definitely got help from my buddy who was a Fulbrighter. Stick it out.
3. Make sure to check in with your campus Fulbright Program Adviser, if applicable. It’s never too early to start learning about your school’s Fulbright application process and deadlines.
4. The application process can be boring and tedious and easy to blow off. Don’t blow it off. It’s worth it. You’ll thank me later. I promise.
Photo: Brett Martin, 2007-2008, Italy, taking a break from the office to check out the sailing at La Spezia.
Brett Martin was a Fulbrighter at the Universitá Bocconi in Milan. His Fulbright research on organizational bottlenecks was recently published in the Harvard Business Review. He is currently building a better way to find new restaurants at www.thedataowl.com.