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Nine members of Penn's Class of 2020 were awarded Fulbright grants for the 2020-2021 academic year.

Credit: Kylie Cooper

In March, 2020 College graduate Ton Nguyen was offered a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in Indonesia. By April, her program was canceled.

Nine members of the Class of 2020 were awarded Fulbright grants for the 2020-2021 academic year. Beyond excitement and validation, the award served as a much-welcomed crutch for Class of 2020 Fulbright recipients to lean on as they faced an abrupt end to senior year and a crumbling job market.

Now, the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships is encouraging all winners to reapply for the 2021-2022 cycle as potential protection against program cancellations due to the pandemic. 

The Fulbright Program is a highly competitive international educational exchange program run by the United States government. Program recipients are granted funds to travel up to 12 months abroad, usually for individual research or for the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Program. Fulbright ETAs, like Nguyen, are placed in classrooms around the world to help teach English alongside local teachers and to serve as cultural ambassadors for the United States. Grant periods vary depending on the country and program to which they applied.

While most programs have not been called off, the majority of grants are postponed until January 2021 at the earliest, leaving these students in undefined territory as they navigate between college graduation and the next steps of their lives.

Soon after the grant offer, feelings of assurance turned to anxiety for ETA in Laos recipient and 2020 College and Wharton graduate Aiden Reiter. When he found out he won a grant, his reaction was: “Oh God, what’s going to happen to Fulbright also?” Reiter received notice of his grant on March 13, just days after the University announced that the rest of the semester would be held virtually

“In a way, I felt like I was kind of getting double screwed,” Reitner said, as he realized the pandemic may rattle not only his senior year but also his gap year plans. 

ETA in South Korea recipient and 2020 College graduate Faith Cho also acknowledged some downsides to winning the Fulbright amidst COVID-19. 

“It’s kind of like a bittersweet victory, I guess, getting a Fulbright during this time because we’re so unsure,” Cho said. “A lot of it is waiting and trying to think of backup plans.”

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program announced on April 21 that no research or ETA awards will begin before January 2021 for the 2020-2021 Fulbrighters. The postponement is meant to “give selected candidates, host institutions, and program partners worldwide as much information as possible in order to plan for the coming academic year," the Fulbright U.S. Student Program wrote in an email to all program finalists in light of the evolving COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was definitely disappointed,” ETA in Spain recipient and 2020 College graduate Natalia Lindsey said. “We got that news not that long after we got our acceptances, so I was kind of riding a high.”

For ETA in Brazil recipient and 2020 College graduate Arryona Santos, she is hesitant to accept her grant regardless of the start date, which is still February 2021 as originally planned.

“I’m about 95% sure that even if the program were to happen that I wouldn’t go,” Santos said. “I’m afraid to go and then be sent home and just completely miss out on opportunities.” 

As Brazil is currently a virus hotspot, Santos said she doubts that the country will be at the travel advisory level three or below required by Fulbright for her program to continue. Santos said that she plans to reapply in the future, as CURF suggested. 

Credit: Chase Sutton

One Penn recipient has had little support from Fulbright Brazil, but said CURF has been very supportive.

“As a sort of insurance policy, you may wish to consider submitting another application just in case, so that you can be in the running for a grant in the next cycle if that becomes necessary,” Associate Director for Fellowships Lauren Orr wrote in an email sent to all Penn affiliated 2020-2021 Fulbright awardees on May 22. 

Since all programs will not begin until January 2021 at the earliest, many programs may still have uncertain futures in October 2020, which is the Fulbright national application deadline for the 2021-2022 grant year. As Fulbright policies do not currently allow for grant deferrals, reapplying would serve as a “way to keep options open,” Orr wrote.

ETA in Russia recipient and 2020 College graduate Serena Hajjar said she is "95-100%" confident that she will go on her program if it begins in January 2021, a delay from her former September 2020 start date. 

She acknowledges that the grant may get canceled, but has yet to decide if she will reapply. “You can only postpone something so much until it kind of loses its flavor,” Hajjar said.

Overall, the Fulbright recipients have mixed reviews on Fulbright’s communication, as there are varying contact points for country-specific information.

“The experience has been as positive as I could have hoped for given what’s going on,” Lindsey said. “They’ve been pretty good about communicating with us, especially the commission in Spain.”

For Santos, the communication with Fulbright Brazil has been minimal. 

“I don’t feel like Fulbright Brazil is being very supportive in these times, whereas CURF definitely is,” she said.

Many of her peers echoed her sentiment about CURF being a positive source for them amid all the ups and downs of an exciting award and uncertain future. 

“This is not something they would have been able to prepare for because it took everyone by surprise, but they’ve been really, really good at being realistic, while also being optimistic and supportive,” ETA in Spain recipient and 2020 College graduate Henry Hoffman said.

As global health and safety risks continue to persist around the world, these Fulbright recipients are grateful for the opportunity and will understand if the programs are cancelled. 

“At the end of the day, I’m far more concerned with the health and safety of people in the US, my family, and the people of Laos,” Reiter said.

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