Against All Odds

by Diane J. Guido

For some, the experience of higher education ignites a passion for learning, exchanging ideas, and engaging in meaningful research that reaches beyond graduation and beyond borders. Recognizing the best and the brightest among them, the Fulbright Scholarship program identifies those with the most to offer and the most to gain in an international exchange that promotes mutual understanding among the people of the United States and other countries. But intense competition and a daunting application procedure deter many candidates from even considering the possibility, knowing the rate of rejected proposals sets the odds against them.

In the course of more than a decade serving as the Fulbright Program advisor at APU, I have worked with 182 outstanding students and alumni courageous enough to take that step, and had the privilege of seeing 27 of them earn these life-changing awards. Those selected receive a fully funded scholarship to live abroad for an academic year, either teaching English or undertaking a self-designed research and study program. Sponsored by the U.S. government, this prestigious international educational exchange program empowers recipients as informal cultural ambassadors for our nation who develop lasting relationships with counterparts abroad.

Thousands compete for this esteemed opportunity every year, but the faint of heart need not apply. The 7–10-month national selection process requires courage, countless hours to write and rewrite essays, a competitive spirit that overcomes tough odds, and an adventurous disposition that envisions and articulates the potential of a Fulbright Scholarship. Most successful applicants invest several months gathering letters of recommendation, transcripts, and language evaluations, then tailoring their vision to match Fulbright program expectations and polishing their essays to stand out among the sea of other hopefuls.

In my role, I help applicants—undergraduates, graduate students, and alumni—produce their best possible application as we pour over atlases and brainstorm scenarios. Our 2013–14 Fulbright recipients’ plans represent just a small sampling of the possibilities: studying deaf theater in Italy, conducting theological research in Germany, teaching English in Brazil, Korea, or Turkey. We also explore the deeper motive for the time abroad and how that experience might shape their future educational and employment choices. Sophisticated applications eloquently address not only the applicants’ skill to carry out the project, but also why the project itself matters, how they will contribute to their newfound community abroad, and how they will share knowledge and insights upon return to the U.S.

I assist the candidates by reading multiple versions of the two required essays. This is the stage where students become powerful and persuasive writers fueled by a concise vision. Those eager for additional feedback and refinement can attend application workshops where faculty members suggest edits and prompt revisions. I also help students prepare for their on-campus interview, where an internal faculty committee evaluates the application prior to the national deadline in October.

One of the most intriguing facets of this competition is its unpredictability. The published odds and APU’s track record tell only part of the story. Sometimes funding goes to long shots, and there is no such thing as a “shoe-in.” For example, an international relations major who had never been out of the country inspired the evaluators with her stirring essay. She was selected and has now completed a master’s degree abroad. Another example is the senior who related recollections of her grandfather’s wartime experiences to memories of a childhood friend to articulate her long-standing interest in the people and nation of South Korea. Her successful application allowed her to teach English there and witness firsthand what she had only viewed through others’ eyes. Applicants who can set themselves apart through life experiences, a well-designed research project, or a stellar academic record stand the best chance at success.

Whether or not they receive a Fulbright grant, applicants gain essential grant writing, editing, and interviewing skills that will serve them well long after this experience. For many, involvement in the process spurs an excitement about their proposed plan that leads them to carry out the project even without Fulbright funding. Others become so determined that they reapply in the next cycle. This year, two of APU’s five recipients were second-time applicants who seized the opportunity to fine-tune their proposals and present a stronger case.

My enthusiasm for assisting these applicants stems from my personal experience as a Fulbright recipient. An award to Germany in 1989–90 not only allowed me to undertake my dissertation research and engage in academic life overseas, but it also afforded me a front-row seat to the remarkable political and social events of that time, including the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginnings of German reunification. It left an indelible mark on me and gave me a passion to facilitate similar experiences for others. Evidence shows that Azusa Pacific University provides students and alumni with the kind of top-notch educational foundation that enables them to succeed in the renowned Fulbright Scholarship competition and become global citizens prepared to serve the Kingdom in ways that maximize their gifts.

Originally published in the Winter '13 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.