A veritable who’s who of American and foreign diplomats, public servants, educators, scientists, musicians and artists came together Nov. 30 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Fulbright Program, one of the world’s most widely recognized and prestigious scholarships.
The 90-minute event, broadcast live from Washington’s Kennedy Center, reached thousands of viewers around the world, including many of the 160 countries where the Fulbright Program operates. Funded by US taxpayers—with additional support from corporations, foundations and partner nations—Fulbright is the US government’s flagship international academic exchange program, providing around 8,000 grants annually.
“As a diplomat, I love this program because it helps create the space for people to learn from each other and connect across cultural divides, which makes global cooperation possible,” said the evening’s first speaker, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “Members of the Fulbright community are changemakers. They care deeply about the problems facing our world today, from stopping COVID-19 to countering threats to democracy. And through Fulbright, they help strengthen our world, from classrooms, villages, universities and cities across the globe.”
The program is named after Sen. J. William Fulbright, who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1959 to 1974. In 1945—at the tail end of World War II—the young Democrat from Arkansas proposed a bill that would “bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship.”
A year later, President Harry S Truman signed the bill into law. Since then, more than 400,000 students, scholars, teachers, artists and professionals of all backgrounds have participated in the program. The long list of Fulbright scholars includes 40 heads of state, 61 Nobel Prize laureates, 75 MacArthur Foundation fellows, 89 Pulitzer Prize winners and 16 US Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients.
“A lot has happened since 1946: 13 presidential administrations, the invention of the internet, a global pandemic,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota). “And through it all, Fulbright’s commitment to fostering mutual understanding between the United States and the rest of the world has not wavered.”
Thomas Pickering served as US ambassador to El Salvador, India, Israel, Jordan, Nigeria, Russia and the United Nations. In 1997, President Bill Clinton appointed him undersecretary for political affairs, the third-highest post at the State Department.
“I received the award of a research scholar under the Fulbright Program in 1954,” Pickering said. “As I pursued a career as a foreign service officer and applying what I did learn—particularly at the Fulbright in Australia—I think I was able to make a significant contribution over a number of years to American foreign policy.”
Yoko Kamikawa, a 1988 Fulbright student from Japan, is now serving for the third time as Japan’s minister of justice. After earning a degree in international relations from Tokyo University, she came to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship to earn a master’s in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She went on to serve as minister for gender equality and social affairs in the cabinets of two Japanese presidents, Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda.
“Being able to experience such precious opportunities through the Fulbright Program inspired me to become a politician,” Kamikawa said. “After completing the Fulbright Program, I became a member of parliament in Japan, and since then I have led competitive political campaigns for nearly 20 years. As a Fulbright scholar, I was able to learn first-hand what it takes for societies to achieve multi-cultural co-existence.”
Other Fulbrighters who went on to notable careers in diplomacy include Spanish Foreign Minister Javier Solana (1966 alumni, University of Virginia), US journalist Na Eng (1999 alumni, Zimbabwe) and noted US economist Austan Goolsbee (2007 alumni, London School of Economics).
“The goal of a public servant is to serve the public and to serve the greater good. My experience with the Fulbright Program personally opened multiple doors and they set the stage for when I was working in a public service role,” said Goolsbee, who chaired President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers before returning to the University of Chicago to teach economics. “The moment that I served in the government was a pretty awful moment for the economy. I felt like absolutely, if there’s ever going to be a moment to try to serve the public, itd be during that crisis. I tried to always give the president the honest truth, wherever it was needed.”
Nadia Ramírez Domínguez, a US diplomat now serving as vice-consul in Argentina, realized the power of public diplomacy when she volunteered to teach English to North Korean defectors while serving as a Fulbright English teaching assistant in South Korea—drawing on her own experience emigrating from Colombia.
“We received a grant from the embassy in Seoul to do more programs with North Korean defectors and connect them to mentors. I saw the difference that something like that can make in people’s lives, and I was inspired to join the foreign service,” she said. “The Fulbright Program and its mission of mutual understanding applies to my current role because, in a way, that’s what I do every day, and it’s what enables me to understand other people, but for other people to also understand us.”
An unique perspective came from Hammad Hammad, a gay Palestinian-American diplomat raised in the West Bank city of Ramallah who won a 2008 Fulbright scholarship to study in the Netherlands.
“That experience prepared me to pursue a career in public service and diplomacy—one within which I continue to work across borders,” said Hammad. “After my Fulbright, I joined the US Foreign Service and became an American diplomat, which empowered me to advocate for the rights of political prisoners in Venezuela, support the establishment of a Libyan unity government, and strengthen ties with our southern neighbor, Mexico.”
Hammad now serves as US alternate permanent representative to the UN agencies in Rome, where among other things he works to combat food insecurity around the world.
“Fulbright alumni are inspirational leaders in their communities, influential leaders of their nations, and diverse leaders of the world. Among them are a global network of diplomats, ambassadors, government officials and heads of state,” he said. “Enriched by their Fulbright experience, alumni serve diverse global communities with the firm conviction that every life has value, and that every crossroad or obstacle is an opportunity for mutual understanding—a chance to move forward, stronger together.”
The event wasn’t all about speeches and politics, however. Those in attendance and watching remotely were treated to a musical performance by Australian trumpeter Sam Nester, and “Bach in Motion,” choreographed by Alito Alessi, founder and artistic director of DanceAbility International.
Lee Satterfield, assistant US secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, closed the evening with a tribute to the Kennedy Center, “a hub for wonder, creativity, transformation and possibility—fittingly, all elements that Fulbrighters bring to the world.”