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