It is often said that, next to the Marshall Plan, it was the Fulbright Program of grants for international educational exchange for scholars, educators, graduate students and professionals that generated the most goodwill for the United States around the world.
Today the program operates in 144 countries, and there are more than 200,000 Fulbright alumni, many of them in leadership positions.
“Toward the end of his life, my husband told me that he had no idea that his international educational exchange program would become so successful, and that it was probably the most important thing he accomplished in his lifetime,” said Harriet Fulbright, the widow of the former Arkansas Sen. William J. Fulbright, in a recent interview.
She noted that shortly after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Sen. Fulbright held Senate hearings, taking testimony from a wide range of experts, searching for answers on how to prevent World War III.
The senator spent, she said, months studying and discussing the issue. He also took into account his experiences as a Rhodes Scholar in Great Britain that so enriched his life and expanded his mind.
“Bill came to the conclusion that if he could get future potential leaders to live and study in a country with a different culture, they would be far more willing to solve international differences through dialogue instead of armed conflict,” she said.
The idea needed funding, and Sen. Fulbright knew that in the aftermath of World War II Congress would be reluctant to spend money on education in a foreign country. Having a creative mind and sharp political instinct, he found a solution. Into a pending bill that regulated the disposal of surplus military goods the U. S. left behind all around the world, he inserted a paragraph. It directed that credits for those goods must be limited to funding international educational exchange.
“It is how the Fulbright Program began in the late 1940s. By the time the credits ran out, it was clear that the international educational exchange was a valuable program, and it became an annual appropriation under the Fulbright-Hayes Act of 1961,” Mrs. Fulbright said.
During the recent meeting of the Advisory Board of the Reves Center for International Studies at the College of William and Mary, Harriet Fulbright, who serves as the chair of the board, shared some ideas that may be useful in advancing the mission of the Reves Center, namely the internationalization of the curriculum at the college and the enrichment of the study abroad programs.
As the president of the J. William & Harriet Fulbright Center, a nonprofit with the aim of promoting world peace and resolving conflicts through international collaborations and educational programs, she is well positioned to form an opinion on what is the most effective way to support the ideal of international education.
She often quotes Sen. Fulbright, who was convinced that we must use our minds, nourished by an education with a strong international component, to find the most effective alternative to conflict.
To realize that goal, the Fulbright Center put particular emphasis on classroom teachers. It has designed an exchange program that would send high school teachers from the U. S. to Latin America and possibly other countries for month-long educational immersion into differing cultures.
The Fulbright Center’s newest project involves utilizing the “Global Peace Index,” which is designed to “highlight clearly the elements of peace and to shed some light on the relationship between peace, economics and business.” It is a highly sophisticated statistical model, a press release by the Fulbright Center states, pointing out that at the beginning of the 21st century peace has become pivotal to the survival of society as we know it.
The report notes that the major challenges facing humanity today are global climate change, lack of fresh water, ever-decreasing biodiversity and over-population. Solutions will require cooperation on a global scale.
“Peace is the essential prerequisite, because without peace we will be unable to achieve the level of cooperation, inclusiveness and social equity necessary to solve these challenges”
The Fulbright Center has now become the vehicle with the mission of upholding the legacy of Senator Fulbright. In the words of his wife: “The ultimate goal is encouraging world peace through education.”
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.