With Spring Break just around the corner, many UT students are planning trips all over the country instead of focusing in the classroom.
This week, the Office of National Scholarships and Fellowships (ONSF) is offering information sessions, a faculty panel and a presentation about a more formative trip that goes far beyond spring break's beaches and actually extends the classroom: the Fulbright Scholarship.
The nationally competitive scholarship receives between 10,000 and 12,000 applicants each year, each hoping to earn 10 months of financial support to study abroad after graduating college. The 25 percent of applicants who receive the prestigious scholarships go on to complete personal research projects or teach English as a second language in countries all over the world.
“The main emphasis of the Fulbright is cultural exchange,” Michael Handelsman, director of the ONSF, said. “All Fulbrighters are basically ambassadors for the United States. They’re committed to learning about the host culture, and in that process, are sharing their own cultural traditions and values.”
Five members of the UT community earned Fulbright Scholarships in 2011-2012, leaving for the likes of Mexico City and Paris. Handelsman hopes that “Fulbright Week at UT” sparks more of the same success.
Today, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. in Baker Center Room 118, and Tuesday, from 12:30 to 1 p.m. in the Baker Center’s Toyota Auditorium, information sessions will be offered to all students and faculty interested in applying.
Nichole Fazio-Veigel, the ONSF assistant director, said that the sessions will provide both a general overview and some specific tips. The session will also offer guidance on negotiating the program’s "hefty" website.
Dr. Handelsman, a 6-time Fulbright scholar himself, has plenty of history with the Fulbright program. After spending time in Brazil and Ecuador as both a student and a faculty member, Handelsman called the rich experience "transformative."
“The opportunity to be engaged in another culture, not as just an observer but as one who can become part of a community … the whole relationships shifts from thinking about that other culture to thinking with them,” he said. “Something has happened to you that you’re going to think a bit differently, your priorities change a little bit. … That’s why people go, you’re not doing tourism.”
On Wednesday, Handelsman and Fazio-Veigel will equip students and faculty with information on recommendation letters, one of the most important facets of the application.
Handelsman described students who scramble at the last-minute for recommendations from teachers they hardly know as unsuccessful at best.
“Too often I think students think that a letter of reference means some faculty member simply saying, ‘I know you, you’re a great student, I recommend you.’ That is not going to convince any panel of anything,” he said.
Instead, both Handelsman and Fazio-Veigel stressed the importance of building relationships. Fazio-Veigel said that the sessions and panel are open to all students, especially noting that freshmen and sophomores should attend, while Handelsman pointed out that a relationship is a two-way street.
“It’s a question of a team effort," he said. "My role on the panel is going to be couch it in those terms, so that a faculty member … will be working closely with the student … so that there’s a mutual exchange.”
Joining Handelsman on the panel will be Jeff Becker, professor of microbiology, and Tom Burman, professor of history.
The week will wrap up with a visit from Sabeen Altaf on Friday, the senior program officer of Whitaker International. A subset of the Fulbright Institute, the Whitaker program focuses on students studying science, technology, engineering or medicine (STEM).
“Traditionally the students in the sciences and technology have not done much study abroad because they are really in kind of a locked curriculum,” Handelsman said. “Because it’s a professional program, there isn’t a lot of flexibility to do study abroad and things like that. This Whitaker project is trying to create … a flexibility so that we can accommodate these engineers and biochemists so they’ll begin to think more broadly.”
Although he acknowledged that the STEM students often assume study abroad opportunities are not for them, he thinks that Altaf’s visit will give students pause. The whole week is intended to make all students stop and think about life after college.
“What we’re trying to do in the ONSF is to make sure that this becomes a campus culture,” Handelsman said. "So it’s not just people in certain disciplines, it’s not just certain professors who are enthusiastic, but it’s a community that really takes ownerships of what the ONSF is trying to promote.”