Alums on international fellowships return early to the U.S.

Joey Fox

David Han ’19 was on an English teaching assistantship in Russia before being forced to return home due to the coronavirus. (Photo courtesy of David Han.)

As colleges and universities around the country were forced to close or move to remote learning due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, international fellowships and scholarships have similarly paused their programs and encouraged students to return home. Nearly 50 College alums, all of whom graduated within the last ten years, were abroad with international programs which have since been cancelled.

Among the cancelled programs was the Fulbright Program, an international fellowship which distributes grants for research, study and teaching. 12 College alums received the fellowship for the 2020-2021 academic year. All Fulbright recipients were encouraged by the U.S. Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs “to make arrangements to return to the United States as soon as possible,” according to an undated message posted on the Bureau’s website. “An email has been sent to program participants which provides detailed information about arranging travel, financial considerations, and things to consider while preparing for your return to the United States.”

For many Fulbright recipients, the expectation that they return home was an abrupt change from what had until recently been a relatively unaffected experience abroad. David Han ’19, who had been on a teaching assistantship in Russia, said that “the alarm bells for COVID-19 were silent and got very loud very fast.”

“At first, we … weren’t entirely sure if/how this was going to affect us,” Han said. “We received a letter from the the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State ‘strongly advising’ us to leave our host country and return home, but we weren’t able to decode the ‘diplomatese.’ I realized soon enough that it means, ‘If you don’t get out now, it’ll only get harder and harder, until it’s impossible to.’”

Rachel Cucinella ’19, who was on a teaching assistantship in South Korea, was forced to make decisions earlier than Han due to South Korea’s early outbreak of COVID-19. But she, too, found that Fulbright’s guidance changed very suddenly.

“Fulbright’s response very much went from zero to a hundred overnight,” Cucinella said. “I received my first email from them on February 28,and they were requiring a decision as to whether we were staying or going within 24 hours, though they said there would be more waves of departures if we wanted to wait.… I chose to come home mostly because I was worried that should I delay, it would be harder to get back into the USA or that I would be forcibly quarantined away from my family when I got home, which I wanted to avoid.”

David Folsom ’17, who was on a teaching assistantship in Madrid, Spain — another country facing a significant COVID-19 outbreak — said that his program was shut down three days after local schools were closed. “We weren’t being forced to leave,” he said. “We were guaranteed that we would still be paid if we stayed, but they were urging us pretty strongly to go, and they said that if we got trapped after flights started to be canceled that they couldn’t help us.”

Oscar Hurtado ’17, who had been in Mexico on an academic internship, said that his program presented him with the same difficult choice: leave or stay. “The decision to leave was not an easy or simple one,” he said. “I didn’t particularly feel safer coming back to the U.S., rather I decided that logistically it made the most sense to be with family and avoid the risk of any border closures or flight cancellations.”

Oscar Hurtado ’17 said that he was sad to leave Mexico City “right as soon as I felt I was on an upward trajectory.” (Photo courtesy of Oscar Hurtado.)

The Fulbright Programs in each country are administered separately, leading to different experiences among the alums in getting home. Cucinella said that her program helped her in “purchasing plane tickets, coordinating travel, and answering questions about logistics such as our pay, whether we could return to Korea, whether we would be able to leave at a later time.” She added, “Overall they were helpful, but it was very messy.”

Folsom, however, said that he was offered far less assistance, and he was expected to make return arrangements independently. “They gave us money at the beginning of the year for round-trip travel, and everyone was flying back according to their own schedules,” he said, although he noted that the program may reimburse him for the flight.

The Fulbright Program is allowing all recipients to keep the full amount of grant money, regardless of how close the recipient was to completing their work. However, according to several alums, the program has not aided recipients with housing and accommodations upon return to the United States.

Molly Bodurtha ’17, who was on an economic development research grant in Cambodia, said that the program “did not ensure we had housing or a plan. The Fulbright program was, in the short term, simply concerned that we left the country as soon as possible.”

“Many grantees did not and do not have health insurance in the U.S., nor family or friends with whom they could stay indefinitely,” Bodurtha continued. “These people were returning to the States in the middle of a health crisis with no safety net.”

Molly Bodurtha ’17 had her “amazing and eye-opening experience” in Cambodia cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Molly Bodurtha.)

Marit Bjornlund ’18, who had been on an academic internship with Mexican financial tech company ‘albo,’ concurred that the transition was potentially perilous. “As is true for many people sent home from college, etc., grantees returned to the U.S. to a range of housing and family situations and are unexpectedly unemployed and without independent housing in the worst job market of our adult lives,” she said. “It’s been a tough awakening for me and I know it’s even harder for some of my Fulbright friends. I don’t blame Fulbright for this at all – it’s just a terrible situation.”

Although they are not able to remain abroad, some alums on Fulbright have been able to continue their work remotely. Bjornlund said that she has been able to continue working for albo despite her departure. “It doesn’t matter too much that I am in the States, as everyone at the company is working remotely,” she said. “Working at albo keeps me occupied and learning during the quarantine and keeps me connected to at least one of my communities in Mexico.”

Folsom has similarly been able to continue his teaching over a Zoom-like app. “I did this for the week before I left anyway, and Fulbright encouraged us to continue working with our host institutions if we could,” he said. “However, I think most Fulbrighters are no longer working with their schools — I don’t really see how they could.”

Alums on international programs other than Fulbright, which included the Rhodes Scholarship, the Schwarzman Scholarship and many others, have also been forced to return to the U.S.

Lizzy Hibbard ’19, who was one of many alums on the Herchel Smith Fellowship at the University of Cambridge, said that she was able to come home right before spring break was scheduled to begin and has not been back since. “I left most of my belongings back in my Cambridge dorm, so I’ll need to go back to the U.K. at some point,” she said. “I’m not sure exactly when that will be — I’m resigned to the fact I basically lost my entire final term at Cambridge.”

Hibbard stressed, however, that many of her peers are in worse situations academically. “I’m at least lucky that I can do my dissertation remotely (although, of course, it is difficult to produce at the same level given the anxiety around the pandemic),” she said. “I have friends whose dissertations are almost impossible to write off-campus.”

Ari Ball-Burack ’19, who was also on the Herchel Smith Fellowship, said that the program was relatively late in shutting down, and he left of his own volition. “The UK had a pretty delayed response, so the university was still open at this point,” he said. “We decided that I should come home as my home county implemented a shelter-in-place order, so on Sunday, March 15 I bought a plane ticket for Tuesday the 17th … The university officially closed on Wednesday the 18th, and most grad students like me were ‘strongly encouraged’ to leave our housing at that point.” 

Gabriel Silva Collins ’19, whose Florence Chandler Fellowship would have involved travel to five different cities around the world — including one in Wuhan, China, the original epicenter of the pandemic — faced significantly more dramatic circumstances. Like Ball-Burack, Collins chose to return to the United States before his program was officially cancelled. “At some point, I was sent an email telling me that I would be able to return to the United States without breaking the agreement of my fellowship,” Collins said, “BUT if I so wished I could continue with my project.” 

Collins’ departure from Ethiopia, his final stop on the fellowship before cancellation, was complicated by local hostility and problems with his passport. “News reports of non-Ethiopians getting attacked, spit on, and harassed in Ethiopia were confirmed by some other travelers I met who experienced those things in person,” he said. “Walking in the street, Ethiopians often referred to me as ‘corona.’ I spent as much time as possible in my hostel room, trying to avoid both catching the disease and being blamed for its spread.” After a prolonged and unsuccessful fight to get his passport renewed in time, Collins ultimately was able to return home safely using an old passport. 

Although the alums on international programs no longer attend the College, Director of Fellowships Katya King said that her office has nevertheless been in touch to offer advice and assistance. “The message from us has been, essentially, that we see them as adults who can make their own decisions, but that we recommend that they follow the guidelines of the U.S. State Department and Centers for Disease Control, as well as any local guidelines and directives,” she said.

King added that a small number of alums have chosen to stay abroad. “Some alums are part of a structured program that gives them no choice but to return home,” she said, “but there is a small cohort of alumni in the UK who have chosen to stay there.”

While the pandemic hit this year’s fellowships and scholarships the hardest, its effects may continue into next year, when a new group of alumni is set to travel abroad. King said, however, that few programs have altered their plans so far.

“Most fellowship programs (such as Fulbright) and international universities (such as Cambridge and Oxford) to which we are sending students and alums, have not canceled any of their programming for 2020-2021, thus setting the expectation that things will run [as] usual,” she said. “We are advising students accordingly, though, admittedly, not without some trepidation. We are watching closely as the situation develops.”

Most programs, including the Fulbright Program, have not publicly released the names of 2020-2021 recipients. But some, including the Watson Fellowship, have already been announced.

Watson recipient Jack Romans ’20, whose children’s theatre fellowship will involve travel to Indonesia, the Netherlands and South Africa, said that his plans remain unchanged so far. “Because the Watson Fellowship is designed to remain flexible and cater the needs of each project, preparing to have my plans change at a moment’s notice has always been a part of the process,” he said.

“However, the global impact of COVID-19 has certainly exacerbated the need to be flexible, and the Watson Foundation has taken great steps to accommodate that,” Romans added. “They have extended the acceptance process to 1 month, … doubling the amount of time we have to decide. They’re also allowing students to delay their start time or even defer by a whole year if that will allow them to have a safe and enriching year.”

Romans also expressed concern about the stability of the arts during the pandemic, especially the performing arts. “A number of my contacts abroad have prepared to adjust their schedules,” he said. “All of them have emphasized a sustained interest in having me visit and assist.”

Another student who recently received word of their acceptance to the Fulbright Program in Bulgaria for the upcoming year has similarly encountered uncertainty about the program’s future. While the program has not altered its plans so far, the admitted student still expressed concern that they would have to apply for other jobs as back-ups should the program fall through. The student asked to remain anonymous due to future employment concerns.

The Fulbright Program advised the student in an email that it “will continue to monitor the COVID-19 outbreak closely, and IIE [Institute of International Education] or the Fulbright Commission in your host country will keep you updated if there are any changes that may impact your upcoming grant.” 

Gaia DeNisi ’20, a semi-finalist for Fulbright’s Malaysia program, said that her application process was disrupted by the pandemic when Skype interviews, a component of the second round of admissions, were delayed due to the closure of Malaysia’s office. DeNisi had already completed this portion of the process, but other applicants had not.  

“[The program] assured us that they would still be selecting the participants for next year regardless,” DeNisi said, “and that if they weren’t able to reopen their offices in time then they’ll just make the selections based on our initial applications without the interviews.” 

DeNisi added that she was also planning out potential alternatives for next year. “Before COVID I had applied to this fellowship and to teaching jobs. I was also considering peace corps as an alternative plan,” she said. “Under the current circumstances, none of these sounds particularly promising but neither are any of them firmly off the table. I anticipate that in the next few weeks I’ll start looking into applications for teaching and publishing jobs.” 

For students who are planning to apply for programs which would run in 2021-2022, King stressed that the application process will continue as normal. She said, however, “It is likely that COVID-19 will leave some effects on funding levels and application numbers.”

This story was updated on April 5, 2020 with additional alum and student accounts.