The Quest | The Free Press of Reed College

Reedies: The Fulbright Program Awaits You!

By Thomas Burns ‘98

I am often struck by how well-suited Reedies are for the US Fulbright Program, and surprised more students and alumni don’t apply. A Fulbright Scholarship is an opportunity to design a nine-month overseas project or course of study that you are passionate about in the country of your choice. Fulbright provides you a stipend, a safety net, in-country resources, access to the incredible Fulbright community, and a remarkable amount of freedom to shape your work as you see fit. There are also Fulbright programs to teach English and serve as music ambassadors overseas. A Fulbright is one of the most ideal ways to live abroad.

Despite their prestigious reputation, Fulbright Scholarships are more accessible than most people realize. Here are some of the most popular misconceptions about the program:

Myth #1: Fulbright Scholarships are only available to graduating seniors. 

The only academic eligibility requirement for the US Fulbright Student Program is that you already have a Bachelor’s degree at the start of your grant. You do not have to be enrolled in school when you apply. I applied for a Fulbright six years after I finished graduate school, which was ten years after I finished Reed. The more you know about what you want, the stronger your application will be.

Myth #2: You have to have a 4.0 GPA to qualify for a Fulbright Scholarship.

A strong GPA certainly helps your application, but grades aren’t the only factor Fulbright uses to weigh your candidacy. Of greater value, I would argue, is a demonstrated commitment to your field, the feasibility of the project your propose given your background, how well your project supports Fulbright’s mission to promote cross-cultural exchange, and how well it fits into the larger narrative of your career. It’s also tremendously important that your proposal is well researched and well written, and this takes far more time than most people realize (I spent 12 months on my application). I’ve seen poor writing and insufficient preparation sink applications from well-qualified candidates with great ideas.

Myth #3: Fulbright Scholarships are only for academic study.

Some Fulbrighters use their grant to pursue graduate study, but most pursue either an English-teaching assignment or independent research. Fulbright “research” doesn’t necessarily mean spending nine-months buried in an archive or laboratory. I used my Fulbright to produce a collection of large-scale exhibition photographs in Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia while teaching cinematography and film production to university students in the region. I know a Fulbrighter who trained as an EMT in college and used his grant to develop the first-ever Emergency First Aid Response System in South African townships. A social worker I know used a Fulbright to study perceptions of sexuality among Finnish women. Fulbright provides an opportunity to take your ideas out into the world and apply them in a practical, international context.

Myth #4: You must be fluent in a foreign language to apply for a Fulbright.

Language proficiency is certainly a factor in the selection process, but fluency is not a hard requirement. The most important thing for Fulbright is that your language skills are sufficient to successfully undertake the project you are proposing. If you want to study the evolution of the Russian slang in Moscow, for example, you should have a fairly advanced grasp of Russian. If, on the other hand, you want to conduct research with an English-speaking mathematician in Amsterdam, it may be less critical that you speak Dutch. Regardless of how well you speak the language, demonstrating a commitment to its study lets Fulbright know that you are serious about your project and about serving as a cultural ambassador.

If you’re not qualified for the Fulbright project you want to propose, get qualified. With enough time and dedication you can develop relationships with experts in your field, sharpen your language skills, organize an internship at a relevant organization, or even visit the country to get the lay of the land and make connections. Leaving sufficient time to strengthen your credentials is the main reason you should start the application process early. You can’t learn to speak Chinese in a month, but if you are passionate about a project you want to undertake in Beijing, a year’s worth of intensive Mandarin study would move you a lot closer to that goal.

Thomas Burns, ’98, serves as a Fulbright application mentor for Stanford University students

and is a Board Member of the Greater Los Angeles Chapter of the Fulbright Alumni Association. Students and alumni interested in the Fulbright Program should speak with Jo Cannon, Reed’s fellowships coordinator, for more details. In addition, Thomas has offered to mentor five recent Reed graduates and help them with their applications. If you are a current senior and would like to apply for next year, learn more at

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