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Editorial: We Are #FullOfThanks

Photo credit: Petra Spiola

Fulbright Austria ventured into unchartered territory last year by launching its first-ever annual call for support under the motto Thank Fulbright-Thanksgiving. Initially, there was a fair amount of skepticism about the whole undertaking—especially in Austria, where philanthropy and the culture of giving is not as pronounced as it is the United States. Looking back on the history of J. William Fulbright’s brilliant idea called the Fulbright Program, I regret to say that one of its few shortcomings has been that it has not managed one of its most important assets as well as it could have: its alumnae and alumni.

The immediate response to our first-ever call for support in October 2017 showed how Fulbright alumnae and alumni truly feel about the opportunities the Fulbright Program has created. The demonstration of their appreciation was touching. The very first contribution that we received through our online portal was €20, and it came from a recent US student grantee who was still working on her PhD. More contributions—from all generations and in all sizes—followed in the coming days. When I called an Austrian alumnus from 1952–53 who had made the first four-digit contribution to Fulbright Austria in order to thank him for his generosity, he told me that he had been waiting his whole life—65 years—to give something back.

Responses like these to our call for support last year were an indication of how appreciative the Fulbright community is for the experiences they have been fortunate enough to have as Fulbright alumnae and alumni. The fact that over 250 donors responded by giving in the course of the 2017–18 program year is a real testimony to the importance of the program. By donating, you can help ensure that a new generation of Fulbright grantees will be able to profit from the same kind of exceptional opportunities in the future that you benefited from in the past.

I also want to acknowledge how important the support of the Austrian Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research was in 2017. It provided Fulbright Austria with a grant of €150,000 to incentivize fundraising in Austria by matching donations 1:1. By October 1 of last year, more than €80,000 in donations had been received—and doubled with these matching funds. In addition, Fulbright Austria received contributions from US alumni—more than $20,000—via the transnational giving arrangement we have with the Institute of International Education (IIE) in New York City.

With these generous donations we created the Fulbright Opportunity Fund, which has made it possible to restore awards that had been suspended due to hard budgetary constraints following decades of flat funding. Fulbright Austria is now in a position not only to restore but also to valorize grants and grant-enhancing activities—especially for students—to offset inflationary pressures and the incessantly increasing costs of education on both sides of the Atlantic.

More importantly, Fulbright Austria wants to ensure that Fulbright awards are and remain accessible for all candidates, and I would like to share the special stories of Maria Sanchez and Kathrin Wenny with you as examples. Maria is a first-generation US citizen who is the first person in her family to receive a university education. She is a recent graduate of the University of California, Davis, with a BS in global disease biology. She is currently in Austria on a Community-Based Combined Grant that combines her service learning project—tutoring students from lower income immigrant families—with a teaching assistantship at an Austrian secondary school. Maria’s parents came from a rural village in Michoacán, Mexico, where they lived on less than a dollar a day, and she and her family initially had no access to formal health care in the US—which is one of the reasons why she is really interested in global health, helping underserved communities, and a career in medicine. Maria says, "To me, Fulbright means experiencing growing moments, constantly learning new things about a different culture, dismantling stereotypes, and inspiring others to do the same. It means increasing my ambition and actively pursuing things I only ever dreamed of before.”

The story of Kathrin Wenny, who is a Fulbright Austria foreign language teaching assistant at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign this year, is a story that crosses the Atlantic in the other direction. Kathrin grew up in Gmünd, a small village on the Czech border in the north of Austria, where she “spent most evenings reading books about foreign cultures and countries by the tiled stove, the heart of our wooden house, and dreamed of going abroad and traveling from one place to another.” Since her childhood, she also “knew that [she] wanted to become a teacher,” and Fulbright Austria has helped make that dream come true. The Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistantship Program makes it possible for grantees to spend an entire year living, teaching, and studying on an American college or university campus in far-away places like Illinois or Georgia or Oregon (and there is one at my alma mater, St. John’s University, in Collegeville, Minnesota, too). Kathrin really appreciates this opportunity: “I knew that I wanted to go even further as a language teacher, to become more skilled and encourage others in learning, and Fulbright Austria has provided me with this unique opportunity I will be forever grateful for.”

In closing, I want to acknowledge how appreciative Fulbright Austria is of your generosity and support, for every donation, large and small, from Austria and the United States. We have spent a lot of time and energy over the past few years trying to catch up in terms of reaching out to generations of grantees who have benefited from the program in the past seven decades. We want you to help tell the Fulbright story, and we need your support to sustain the program.

We featured our first major US donor from the States, Bruce Pauley, one of the leading historians of contemporary Austrian history and whose career started on his Fulbright in Graz (63–64), in our August 2018 newsletter article. In addition, this month’s newsletter features a portrait of and interview with Austrian Fulbright alumnus Helmut Sohmen. The spectacular career of this student from Linz, who became a legendary leader of the global shipping industry, began as a Fulbright grantee at Wesleyan University in 1961. And our first donor, who gave €20 is at the very beginning of her career, has now finished her PhD.

Thank you for helping us create life-changing opportunities for a new generation of Fulbright grantees like Maria and Kathrin, and thank you for showing your support in 2018!

Lonnie R. Johnson


PS: I will be reaching out to our American alums and friends as soon as the federal budget proposal for fiscal year 2020 comes out to keep you abreast of the status of funding for the Fulbright Program. Last year about this time, we issued a call for advocacy in light of the proposed cuts in the fiscal year 2019 budget proposal, and I want to bring you up to date. As you all know, there has been a lot of gridlock on federal spending this past year. However, I am pleased to report that House and Senate appropriations committees passed a so-called conference bill at the end of January that restored the funding for the core of the Fulbright Program to the levels of the previous year. It also added an additional $30 million to the Fulbright line item earmarked for Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Egypt to fund the program at a record level of $271.5 million. Unfortunately, this was not “new money” for Fulbright, but rather an accounting exercise that involved moving existing earmarks from the USAID Economic Support Fund to the Educational and Cultural Affairs budget. The record level of funding does not change the fact that funding for Fulbright is effectively down from its peak of $253.8 in 2010 and not being annually adjusted for inflation. Advocating for robust support for the Fulbright Program is an important ongoing task too!