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It’s Not Too Late to Get a Fulbright! How To Win a Fellowship Abroad

 Bartosz Hadyniak/Getty Images
Bartosz Hadyniak/Getty Images,

by Frank Pietrucha

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At age 40, Kimberly Burge is hardly the image most people have of a Fulbright scholar—a starry-eyed college grad off to study abroad. Burge had just earned her masters of fine arts in writing and was hungry for a new challenge. After years of working in nonprofit communications and going to graduate school part-time, she wanted a life changing experience and the opportunity to create content in her own voice. A Fulbright research grant to South Africa made her dreams possible.

Every Saturday in a black township outside Cape Town, Kimberly led a creative writing club for teenage girls. In a community where schools offer few opportunities for artistic pursuits, this forum gave the girls a chance to not only create, but to hear their own voices. As the girls wrote about their lives, Kimberly wrote about her post-apartheid girls. This experience changed Kimberly’s life and helped her discover her own literary voice. In 2015, she published her first book, The Born Frees: Writing with the Girls of Gugulethu.

A mid-career break—or even early retirement—can be your opportunity to re-connect with the world. The Fulbright Program, run by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, offers 8,000 teaching and research grants each year in 160 countries. Fulbright grant benefits vary from program to program, usually covering travel and some living costs, though not a paycheck.

Maybe you think of the Fulbright Program as strictly open to academics. Many people do. But today Fulbright and other organizations are increasingly looking for people with experience. And why wouldn’t they? Professionals knowledgeable in art, law, accounting, finance, agriculture, engineering and teaching have lots to offer the world.

And here’s the magic of Fulbright: you’ll learn as much as you teach. A Fulbright program will “transform your world views” says Marianne Craven, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State. For adventuring artists, researchers, and a broad range of accomplished professionals, a few weeks, months or years abroad can re-ignite your innermost passions.

More 40+ applicants are seeing their age and experience as benefit, rather than a hindrance when applying to programs abroad.

More 40+ applicants are seeing their age and experience as benefit, rather than a hindrance when applying to programs abroad. Fulbright Scholar Lauren Pitts, 48, thought she was too old to apply to the prestigious program, but reconsidered. “I really thought competing with younger adults for this opportunity would perhaps limit the possibility of being selected. But this process made me realize that if chosen, the experience would create a platform for me to positively influence the lives of vulnerable youth and their families in Barbados.” Today, Pitts, who worked with adolescent girls in Barbados, is the executive director of the Zeal Foundation, which aims to revitalize inner city neighborhoods.

Opportunities abroad may abound, but finding the perfect match can be a challenge. “It takes research and persistence,” warns Craven. Fulbright offers many different types of programs for applicants looking for an overseas stint as short as two weeks or as long as a full academic year.  Burge says she spent hours reviewing options before putting in her application. A good place to start is the “Programs by Country” page. Aspiring applicants should also check out the Fulbright homepage.

Eager to explore opportunities with Fulbright? Here are some tips:

1. Recruit Your Alma Mater Many colleges and universities have counselors on staff to advise students, and sometimes alumni, on fellowships and grants. While “at-large applicants” can navigate the process on their own, an academic affiliation can help you explore opportunities more effectively and bolster your application. 

2. Pick Your Destination With Care Developing nations like India and China are richer in possibilities for program applicants than popular tourist places like France or Italy. Britain is considered one of the most difficult countries to get a Fulbright.

3. Brush Up Your Spanish Language skills are a consideration for longer programs. It may be difficult to get a grant in China if you don’t speak Chinese. 

4. Do Your Due Diligence For research program applications, seek out in-country affiliations on your own and demonstrate the infrastructure is in place to carry out your program.

5. Emphasize the Afterglow Tell Fulbright how your experience overseas is likely to impact your life when you return to the U.S. Can it advance your research or career? Burge shared her experiences in a book.

6. Don’t Despair Burge’s first Fulbright application was rejected. On her second try, she made her intents clearer and better explained why she was the best person to carry out a program in her chosen country.

7. Cast a Wide Net Fulbright is not the only game in town for overseas grants and opportunities. The trend to accept people with experience is growing among many of the institutions that promote cross-cultural exchanges and volunteering. Check out the Peace Corps and professionally based groups like Engineers without Borders, International Senior Lawyers and Financial Services Corps.