Editor’s note: This is the first part of a three-part series of reflections from Dr. Tom Deans on his work as a Fulbright U.S. Scholar in Uganda Christian University where he is working to solidify a first-year writing program. 

Another Way to Connect Across Borders: Consider a Fulbright

Sharing program profiles. Connecting to vital resources. Giving voice to tutors. All are vital to engendering a global sense of solidarity around writing center work, and all happen online through this blog. But sometimes—and perhaps especially after more than a year of lockdowns and social distancing—we crave in-person interaction too.

Here I want to recommend one way for writing center folks to promote sustained, in-person work across borders: pursue a Fulbright award.

For August 2021 to February 2022 I’m serving as a Fulbright U.S. Scholar to Uganda on a teaching and research award. My host is Uganda Christian University (UCU), which hopes to create a new writing center, and my plan to be part of that process was a centerpiece of my Fulbright application. While in Uganda for these six months, I am also teaching 2 courses, conducting a research project on undergraduate STEM writers, and offering some faculty development workshops through Makerere University’s Center for Teaching and Learning Support.

I’ll do future posts on how the writing center process at UCU is going, but in the meantime, I want to offer a broad overview of what the Fulbright program affords both students and faculty.

Fulbrights for Students

For the last 15 years, my engagement with Fulbright has been as a recommender. I have long encouraged undergraduate writing tutors interested in teaching abroad to apply for the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Program (ETA), which is part of the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and administered by the Institute of International Education. The vision for Fulbright programs is to “foster mutual understanding between the United States and partner nations, share knowledge across communities, and improve lives around the world.”

At my home university, there is an office that assists students in pursuing national scholarships, and I leave most of the application coaching in the capable hands of our Fulbright Program Adviser (FPA) [check to see if there’s a similar unit or point person on your campus who assists Fulbright hopefuls]. Our student applicants often build their personal statements around tutoring experiences, and my letters of recommendation emphasize how much writing center work prepares them for cross-cultural teaching. Tutors from our writing center have earned their way to yearlong posts in India, Colombia, Mexico, and Azerbaijan.

There are student opportunities other than the ETA. In fact, I just finished writing a recommendation for a senior applying for a Study/Research Award to support her prospective graduate study in Scotland (in literature, though, not writing studies or writing centers, because so few graduate programs outside the U.S. offer those as possibilities).

Students from outside the U.S. can explore the Fulbright Foreign Student Program, which enables graduate students, young professionals and artists to study and conduct research in the United States. This program operates in more than 160 countries and is administered by binational Fulbright Commissions/Foundations or U.S. Embassies. All Foreign Student Program applications are processed by these offices, and program eligibility and selection procedures vary widely by country.

At the UConn Writing Center I have occasionally hired a PhD students from outside the U.S. who started their graduate programs in sociology or economics or biology as Fulbright Foreign Students and, after exhausting that funding, applied for graduate assistantships in our center. Such graduate students bring a wealth of experience, but most are not contemplating careers in writing programs, and perhaps the time has come to be more intentional about making writing studies the initial and sustained focus of more Fulbright student awards. With the growth of writing centers globally, the moment seems ripe for writing center folks across a range of universities to start discussing research projects and cultural exchanges that could be enriched and supported by student Fulbrighters.

Fulbrights for US Faculty and Center Directors

The Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program is related to but distinct from the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. For most this section I’ll focus on Fulbright opportunities available to U.S. citizens because that’s the angle I am living now, but toward the end I’ll pivot to opportunities for citizens of other nations.

The Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program awards more than 800 fellowships annually to scholars at all career levels who take up teaching, research, and professional projects in more than 135 countries.

Fulbright Scholar awards can run 3 to 10 months and they cover travel, housing, living expenses—even school tuition for children because Fulbright wants the program to be accessible to those with partners and dependents. Fulbrighters also get a monthly stipend pegged to the cost of living in the host country. Because I am employed at a public university governed by certain state ethics rules, I had to remit that stipend to my university (though not the travel and living expenses) so that it could fund temporary instructors for the courses I usually teach and so I could continue to draw my regular salary and benefits while on leave (different universities will handle such leaves and grant finances differently, and it’s up to grantees to sort that out with their home institutions).

The Fulbright Specialist Program or English Language Specialist Program are other options for those with TESOL experience who are seeking shorter-term exchanges (10 days to 3 months).

A Fulbright comes with the imprimatur of the U.S. Department of State and with extensive advising and orientation from the Institute of International Education. You also join a ready community of fellow grantees and alumni. You don’t go it alone.

Years ago, when I first contemplated applying for a Fulbright, the application system architecture allowed identifying your discipline as literature, education, linguistics, Teaching English as Foreign Language (TEFL), and the like, but there were no menu options for rhetoric, composition, or writing—nevermind writing centers or writing across the curriculum. I knew of a few rhetoric/composition folks who still had gotten Fulbrights but found the omission of writing or rhetoric among the specialization defaults somewhat disheartening.

In recent years, things have changed for the better. While U.S. faculty members still won’t find writing studies or its cousins in the “Select a Discipline” drop-down menu on the page for searching current grants, you can now select “Writing” as your discipline and/or specialization when completing the application. And that’s what I did. This presents a much more inviting pathway into the application, and promises more suitable peer review of application materials, for creative writers, writing center directors, and teacher-scholars in rhetoric and composition.

It’s important to note that you will not find ready-made grants for writing center work in the catalog of awards. Even searching for “writing” will yield more false positives than relevant hits. You will, instead, need to explore the “All Disciplines” awards and commit some real time to browsing award descriptions.

You could start with the countries that intrigue you most or search by any of the categories that the catalog affords. You could also browse the preferred areas of interest listed for each country, keeping an eye out for specializations proximate to writing studies.

But even if you find nothing explicitly or even proximate to writing or writing programs in an award description, that doesn’t mean you need to give up on that country. For instance, there was nothing in the “All Disciplines” award description for Uganda that encouraged applicants who specialize in writing, but I still landed here.

Aaron Mushengyezi, Vice Chancellor of UCU, with Tom Deans. They share an affiliation with the University of Connecticut, where Deans is a professor and Mushengyezi earned his PhD in English.

Aaron Mushengyezi, Vice Chancellor of UCU, with Tom Deans. They share an affiliation with the University of Connecticut, where Deans is a professor and Mushengyezi earned his PhD in English.

Happenstance can play a role, as it did for me. A few years ago a small delegation of faculty from Makerere University visited UConn to learn more about our Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, the unit in which our writing center is housed. As they toured our writing center, I inquired about the state of writing centers at Makerere and in East Africa more generally. I had a casual knowledge MENAWCA, a passing familiarity with South African peer writing centers (excuse me, “centres”), but knew nothing about what was happening with writing pedagogy in between.

We exchanged cards and they moved on to touring other units. But a connection had been made and a conversation started.

For most Fulbright Scholar awards, a letter of invitation is recommended or required, and that can leave applicants who don’t already have established relationships with a potential host institution feeling at a loss. Some applicants start by browsing university websites for key people at potential host universities, then make email inquiries absent any personal or professional connections. I tried that a couple of years ago when first exploring prospects at a Finnish university but received no replies. Kind of discouraging, but also kind of predictable.

It’s generally better to build toward a letter of invitation by working your personal and professional networks, by stretching those networks through friends of friends, and by leveraging the alumni network at your university (one my key sponsors at UCU did his graduate degree at UConn, albeit before I joined the faculty). Sometimes Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program regional advisors can also help by sharing contacts or brokering introductions. You can also, of course, make connections through this blog and other writing center affiliations.

Deans with Martin Kajubi and Yvonne Birungi, writing instructors at UCU who are participating in planning sessions for a writing centre.

Deans with Martin Kajubi and Yvonne Birungi, writing instructors at UCU who are participating in planning sessions for a writing centre.

After getting the cold shoulder from Finland, I started thinking about the warm encounter I had with the Ugandan scholars. I initiated a follow-up exchange with them, one of whom had since moved from Makerere to the Vice Chancellorship at UCU. I sought out additional advice from the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program regional advisors, who offer regular webinars on the application process and even personal office hour appointments. I checked in with past Fulbright scholars at UConn to get their counsel. I surveyed what the application required. I drafted materials and ran a version of the all-important project narrative by the Fulbright Program Adviser (FPA) on my campus, who alerted me into some shortcomings in my draft.

This process takes real time—all told, for me, nearly two years of exploring grant options (which change each year!), considering the timing for my family members (I have a spouse and 2 children), attending webinars and information sessions, cultivating contacts, negotiating the letter of invitation, securing recommenders, and revising application materials.

As has always been the case with writing centers, we may have to work a bit harder to make ourselves legible in systems that default to traditional disciplines and conventional models of teaching and learning. But that hasn’t stopped us before, right?

Fulbrights for Non-US Scholars and Center Directors

Recently I attended a reception hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Kampala to both welcome incoming American Fulbrighters and send off outgoing Ugandan Fulbrighters. The Ugandans I met included a political scientist heading to a university in Washington, DC, a scholar of women’s economic development heading to a university in Mississippi, and an immunologist heading to a university Alabama, among others. They were brimming with talent and enthusiasm.

Fulbright grants for scholars who are not American citizens can be keyed to research, teaching, guest lecturing, program consultation, curriculum development, or study abroad/exchange partnership development. It seems to me that writing center work can certainly align with several of those categories. Because I have no personal experience with these programs, I cannot do much more than point you to the various programs and options available and encourage you to follow up. Admission for some programs is administered through offices in U.S. and for others through the binational Fulbright Commission/Foundation or U.S. Embassy in your home country.

Looking to the future, one thing I can do, and should do, and commit to do—along, I hope, with increasing numbers of other U.S.-based writing center directors—is to widen the number of American host institutions participating in the Scholar-in-Residence program with a writing studies emphasis. That could, in time, lead to more landing places in the U.S. for writing center professionals from other nations.

The everyday work we do with students in writing centers around the world already embodies the Fulbright Program’s commitment to reciprocal intercultural exchange. If we can make that visible when applying for this these grants, we’ll be able to connect across borders all the more.

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Tom Dean headshotTom Deans is a professor of English and the director of the Writing Center at the University of Connecticut. For 2021-22 he is a Fulbright Scholar in Uganda. On this blog he will share occasional updates about his writing center efforts in East Africa.

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