2019-2020 Fulbright Grantee Letter of Appeal to the Fulbright Program

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2019-2020 Fulbright Grantee Letter of Appeal

From: The Undersigned Fulbright 2019-2020 Grantees and Supporters

To: The Office of Academic Exchange Programs

Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs

U.S. Department of State

2201 C St, NW

Washington, D.C., 20520, USA

May 5th, 2020

Re: Request to revise the U.S. Fulbright 2019-2020 Policy and Response to Covid-19 Pandemic

Thousands of U.S. citizens received Fulbright grants to support a year teaching and researching abroad in 2019-20. For some, this meant teaching English to eager students. For others, it meant either enrolling in Master's programs abroad or conducting research and fieldwork towards their postgraduate degrees and professional aspirations. Many grantees were established professionals: professors and public school teachers, scientists, writers and artists who were sharing and expanding their knowledge through collaboration with the international community. The work and aspirations of these grantees and their host country partners came to a halt on March 19th, 2020, when the Fulbright Program called for the global suspension of its programs. Although the response to this unprecedented global pandemic varied by country, overall the Fulbright-ECA response was disorganized and insufficient, halting the important work of many and depriving a significant number of grantees of financial and medical support. The State Department’s resolution to suspend the Fulbright Program and bring grantees home has left us--individuals, students, grantees, and U.S. citizens--in a vulnerable position and without necessary assistance, upon which we are dependent. 

We formally request that the State Department and the Fulbright Program revise its current policy towards grantees, honor their contracts, and fulfill these contractual obligations in a time of urgent need. In order to best assess the needs of grantees, organizers of the Fulbright Crisis group released a survey and received 396 responses from Fulbrighters hosted in 146 different countries. The results are stark in demonstrating the severe health and financial consequences faced by many grantees. Only 18% of respondents are satisfied with the information and aid received from the Fulbright Program. Compared to similar government programs, such as the Peace Corps--whose evacuees received quarantine housing, per diems upon return, and their full 2-year stipend--Fulbright’s response has been disheartening for many grantees who worked for years to obtain a prestigious Fulbright grant. 

The result of the survey is clear: The Fulbright Program’s commitment to making the “health and well-being of all exchange participants the highest priority,” as stated in Fulbright’s Instagram post ( https://bit.ly/38YEXpe ) has fallen short. A rushed and uncoordinated evacuation order, in which 50% of respondents were told evacuation was voluntary but the pressure to leave was so significant it appeared mandatory, put many Fulbrighters in situations that affected their physical and mental health and safety. Although 55% of respondents felt safer remaining in their host country, only 17% of respondents were able to remain in their host country. Only 6% of respondents felt safe returning to the U.S., while the vast majority feared contracting the virus over the course of long international travel and layovers, as well as for the health of their families upon return. In addition to the higher cost of living in the U.S. than in many host countries, grantees who responded to our survey have been forced to pay an average of $1,703 in unexpected financial costs for necessities such as broken leases, quarantine housing, health insurance, dependent costs, and more. The majority of grantees do not have any income in addition to their Fulbright stipends--per the requirements in our contracts. Only 20% of respondents have additional income or are eligible for unemployment insurance. Furthermore, 33% of surveyed grantees indicate they are either unsure or do not have enough money to cover basic needs. Yet, only half of the returned grantees to the U.S. have been reimbursed for extra costs associated with airfare tickets. Moreover, the medical coverage provided by Fulbright, ASPE, terminated along with the program, regardless of where the grantee is located today. Although Fulbright recommended maintaining full health insurance in addition to ASPE coverage, the high cost of U.S. health insurance premiums means that many grantees returned to the US without coverage. In fact, 13% of respondents state that they are not currently insured, while many others struggled to obtain health insurance after returning to the U.S.

We urge the Department of State, Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, Fulbright Program, and Fulbright Commissions to address the following points:  

First, we request that our contracts be honored in their entirety and that we receive our stipends and grants in full, regardless of the starting date or the internal agreements between Fulbright Commissions and host-countries’ partners. As Fulbright grantees, who signed contracts with the Fulbright Program, we are reliant on the stipend to cover our living costs. We are thankful to the local Fulbright Commissions who have secured the payment of stipends in full, but many grantees are struggling to meet their living costs, especially given their forced return to the U.S. and incomplete grant payments. Grantee stipends range widely across countries, from under $500 a month to $3,000 a month or more, and we request the Fulbright Program acknowledge this reality for those attempting to make their stipend--which was considered appropriate for their host country placements--cover costs in the U.S., where the cost of living is higher than the cost of living in most host countries. At least 22% of grantees are ineligible for unemployment, and many are struggling to find jobs during this economic recession. Those whose grants had not yet begun--scholars, researchers, and ETAs alike--had already quit jobs and made financial commitments that are now no longer covered by Fulbright. In recognizing the needs of individual grantees and the serious health and safety consequences they face as a result of this mandatory evacuation, we advocate for all Fulbright grantees, regardless of the starting date, to receive their full stipend.  

Second, we request that Fulbright grantees be given a choice to return to their host countries in the future, through either an expedited application process, option for grant deferral or renewal, or non-competitive status in upcoming award cycles. We all remember the great excitement we felt approximately one year ago when we received our notification of award letters, after months of essay writing and revising, recommendation letter hunting, and eager anticipation. We then spent a minimum of five months, for some longer, making preparations for the year ahead. We should not be required to go through that process again in order to obtain a grant which we have already earned. Our survey demonstrates that 77% of respondents do not have the necessary resources to complete their projects, after breaking promises with host institutions and local partners. 10% of them were relying on this research year to either enter graduate school or to complete fieldwork in order to earn their PhDs. We are eager to continue upholding the mission of the Fulbright Program, and for those of us whose intercultural exchanges were cut short by this pandemic, it is imperative that we are granted the possibility to return to our host countries and finish the important work we were undertaking. This request is not only fair to grantees but is also critically important for host countries and institutions that benefit significantly from this intercultural exchange.

Third, we ask that emergency assistance be provided for those grantees who need it most, in order to assist with health care, housing, and other unexpected costs associated with the transition to life in the U.S. Though we are grateful for the $1,000 allowance we have been granted recently, our survey reveals that this amount is insufficient for many. Ineligible for unemployment, without health insurance, unable to find jobs, and without secure housing, many grantees are in need of additional assistance that Fulbright can offer. FFSB 436 on Temporary Program Suspension allows for a “possible U.S. resettlement allowance,” so we ask that a comprehensive and consistent emergency fund be available to Fulbright grantees and that it can be accessed until the end of this year’s original grant cycle. It reflects poorly upon Fulbright that 15% of surveyed grantees are living with friends or renting a room in hotels while 60% of respondents had no option but to go back to their parents. Shockingly, 98% of respondents have not been offered any housing alternative by the Program. Additionally, in order to make this emergency assistance most effective, we request that the Fulbright Program provide additional guidance and policy recommendations in order for grantees to be eligible for unemployment insurance, for which at least 22% of grantee respondents are currently ineligible, in addition to notifications of job opportunities and networking events.

The FFSB Section 436, Temporary Country Program Suspension, indicates: “The Board urges flexibility in providing assistance to individual grantees, including an early return to the host country if feasible, short-term continuation of stipends beyond departure date from host country, temporary relocation, possible U.S. resettlement allowance, or reassignment.” Thus, we urge the Department of State and the Fulbright Program to uphold its commitment to us, grantees, specifically in regard to stipend payments, return to the host country or project continuation, and emergency assistance as outlined above.

As grantees, we strongly believe in the mission of the Fulbright Program and will continue to be its greatest advocates. We intend to utilize our network to further the mission of the Fulbright Program, including advocating for the Program’s continued funding in future cycles to our representatives in Congress. In a separate letter, we will also propose recommendations the Program could make to better support future grantees. We hope that in turn the Program will advocate for and support grantees in a time of need.

We the undersigned hereby compose one unified statement in solidarity with those Fulbrighters in greatest need. We ask the Department of State, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the Fulbright Commission, U.S. senators and representatives, and the U.S. Congress to address our concerns.


2019-2020 Fulbright Grantees and Supporters