Fulbright Seeks Payoff From Teacher Exchanges

May 28, 1997 4 min read


One year as a Fulbright foreign-exchange teacher in Hungary left Roxanne Nawara so invigorated that she took a leave of absence and what amounted to a $15,000 pay cut to stay a second year.

She would have loved to stay on to teach English there a third year.

“Personally, two years was simply not enough,” the English teacher from Rosemount, Minn., explained recently. “I had 10 different classes. I loved that challenge of learning, just making English fun.”

Often overshadowed by its companion international programs for students and scholars in higher education, the Fulbright Teacher Exchange is a relatively small federal program that is striving to make a big difference.

Established by Congress in 1946 and named for its sponsor, the late J. William Fulbright, who served nearly 30 years as a U.S. Democratic senator from Arkansas, the program is the federal government’s premier international educational exchange effort. It is administered by the U.S. Information Agency under policy guidelines established by a presidentially appointed, 12-member Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.

More than 220,000 Fulbright grants have been awarded in the program’s history, with most going toward research and lecture posts in 140 countries for graduate students, college professors, and business professionals.

But almost 24,000 teachers and administrators from elementary and secondary schools worldwide also have taken part in up-to-yearlong international exchanges. Like all of the Fulbright grants, these one-for-one teacher exchanges are designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the U.S. and the people of other countries.

And, while budget cuts have reduced the program in recent years, interest remains high. Each year, the USIA’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs receives some 850 applications in the United States for its teacher exchanges. Only about 200 such grants are awarded.

“It’s a truly competitive program,” said Jochen Hoffman, the chief of the Fulbright Teacher Exchange. “The eligibility factors are such that we are looking not only for qualified teachers, but flexible teachers and good ambassadors for the United States.”

After the Culture Shock

The impact of teacher exchanges is described best as a ripple effect, moving outward from the Fulbright teachers themselves to their students, the local community, and beyond.

In 1995, Jack Malloy, a principal at a special education school in Millersville, Md., participated in a 12-week administrative exchange in Senegal. Fulbright administrators actually take part in two six-week reciprocal exchanges, with the visitors shadowing their hosts and assuming various administrative responsibilities. The format eases administrators’ fears of long-term separation from their schools, Mr. Malloy said.

“We did an awful lot of visiting friends, going places, involving [his Fulbright counterpart] in the families of faculty here. I had the same experience over in Senegal,” Mr. Malloy said.

Foreign teachers spending a year in the United States relate early problems with discipline and teaching methodology. But, despite these obstacles, they describe their stays in America as rewarding.

“In Finland, we’ve had for many years a national curriculum,” said Sinikka Laakio-Whybrow, who this year is teaching English as a second language at the Falls Church Transitional ESL Center in Falls Church, Va. “Here, yes, there are some curriculums, but there are no clear, definite guidelines.”

Teaching afternoon and evening classes, Ms. Laakio-Whybrow also has had to adjust to a schedule different from that of her family, who accompanied the teacher during her exchange. Since her arrival in the United States last summer, however, she and her family have found time to visit 23 states--and are planning a summer road trip to the West Coast.

Budget Cuts

The volume of teacher exchanges peaked in 1995, with 433 award recipients and 35 participating countries. But severe budget cuts to the Fulbright program the following year reduced the teacher exchange’s federal appropriation from $2.9 million in fiscal 1995 to $2 million in 1996. The budget remained fixed for the current budget year, but Mr. Hoffman expressed hopes of an increase by some $100,000 for 1998.

Because of the budget cuts, the 332 teachers--American and foreign--awarded Fulbrights for the 1996-97 school year marked a 23 percent falloff from previous years, and the number of participating countries has slipped to 25.

Harriet Mayor Fulbright, Sen. Fulbright’s widow, regrets the recent funding setbacks, but is adamant that the program remain in federal hands. “Funding is always an agonizing problem,” Mrs. Fulbright said in an interview, “especially when you combine shrinking resources with an expanding need.”

Mrs. Fulbright had served on the scholarship board since 1995, but stepped down this month to become the executive director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.