“I still have highlighter marks on my bed sheets,” Elena Farrar ’10 says, describing the preparation it took to land a Fulbright Fellowship. “I would doze off reading articles to learn more about the country I was applying to and reviewing my essays late into the night. It’s a lot of work, but you just have to be ready for it.”
For Farrar, who was working full time for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) as she applied for a Fulbright, success meant shifting her priorities. She stopped going out as much and found herself constantly on call with both her employer and her Fulbright adviser. Still, she says, the effort was well worth it.
“If you’re not able to simply go and volunteer in some country for free, the Fulbright is the absolute best opportunity,” Farrar says. “You’re taking your own research proposal and you’re just dropped into a country and you have to find your way. No one is obligated to help you, but because of the Fulbright reputation they really do take you on, and they understand that you’re serious and that you really want to contribute to something meaningful with your research or your teaching.”
Smith students have a long record of success at winning prestigious fellowships. This year alone, Smith produced an Andover Teaching Fellow, an École Normale Supérieure Fellow and the first Rhodes Scholar from the U.S. in Smith’s history, as well as a broad array of other grant and fellowship recipients. And, of this year’s 27 Fulbright finalists, to date, 15 have been named Fulbright Fellows.
The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government, designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.
At Smith, the support program for Fulbright candidates shines especially bright, having earned its reputation as one of the best in the nation with the highest success rate—or ratio of winners to applicants—in the past nine years among top-producing institutions, including the Ivy League universities and comparable elite colleges.
During the application process, Donald Andrew, fellowships adviser in the Office of the Class Deans, and Smith faculty members work closely with candidates.
According to Andrew, proper organization is a key to successfully guiding students as they navigate the Fulbright process. “It’s a very intensive program,” he says. “There is a lot of work involved, and each application is about 30 pages long.
“We have streamlined systems in place, so that we can be more efficient and have more time to devote to working closely with the students—to get to know them, to help them develop their projects and skills, and to understand where is the best country for them to apply.”
For Farrar, that country turned out to be Malawi, where she is studying the factors that hinder transition rates for students from grammar school to high school. Among the questions she is pursuing answers for is whether furthering a child’s education is perceived as impractical. For instance, are some children kept out of school because they’re needed as laborers on family farms, or do parents simply assume further schooling will be too expensive?
“Sixty-five percent of the country lives on less than $1 a day,” Farrar says. “Even paying $80 a semester is almost inconceivable for many people. Involving parents and community members is critical to raising the quality of education here.”
Fulbright Fellow Katy Swartz ’13 works as a Fulbright English teaching assistant in Sofia, Bulgaria. She teaches English to high school students at 134th SOU “Dimcho Debelyanov” School, also known as the Hebrew School, a public school funded by various international Jewish organizations to increase awareness of Jewish cultures and customs within an open-enrollment school.
“It is a very interesting experience,” Swartz says, “because I have been able to use my major at Smith—Jewish studies—to learn directly about the Jewish community in this Eastern European country. I have also been involved in various co-curricular activities related to the school, such as college counseling and tutoring students.”
Echoing Farrar, Swartz characterizes the Fulbright application process as “very overwhelming, but worth every minute.” For her, winning a Fulbright has meant a shift in life goals. “My future career plans have changed as a result of this experience,” she says, “and I now hope to go into international relations or perhaps work at the State Department.”
Both Swartz and Farrar credit Smith’s Fulbright program with ensuring their success and have begun their fellowships inspired to achieve even more.
“In discussing the process with Fulbrighters outside the Smith community,” Farrar says, “it’s very clear Smith’s internal application process is exceptional. Once accepted as a candidate, Smith’s Fulbright Fast Track provides coaching, support, its own set of deadlines and clear instructions for completing a series of steps that culminate in the absolute best application possible. I have a hard copy of the final version of my application here in Malawi to serve as a reminder not only all of the hard work it took to get me here, but of the great expectations that go along with winning.”