Fulbright’s impact: National leaders honor 75 years with moving tributes

A long history of excellence from international program receives proper celebration at Kennedy Center.
By: | December 2, 2021

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, quoting Edward R. Murrow, said on the 75th anniversary ceremony of the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, “The real art in this business is not so much moving information or guidance or policy 5 or 10,000 miles; the real art is to move in the last 3 feet in face-to-face conversation. That’s still true today, even if those 3 feet have become 6 feet or more social-distanced.”

Fulbright, a gateway of exchange between the United States and 160 countries, has empowered more than 400,000 scholars to achieve extraordinary personal goals while strengthening diplomacy. This unique community, diverse and inclusive at its core, has been a linchpin in the nation’s relations, collaborations and shared solutions across the world.

On Tuesday night, the international program and its many standout citizens from the arts, business, education, scientific and political communities were lauded and honored by national leaders at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Among them, several Senators and Representatives and Fulbrighters offered tributes on the impacts of their work. “It’s simply an extraordinary group of people who reflect all facets of our global diversity,” Blinken said. “Many would never have crossed paths if it weren’t for Fulbright. As a diplomat, I love this program because it helps create the space for people to learn from each other and connect across cultural divides, which makes global cooperation possible.”

Personal stories of Fulbright’s impact

One of the speakers influenced heavily by her inclusion in the Fulbright Program was Renee Fleming, one of the world’s most renowned sopranos and an adviser to the Kennedy Center.

Renee Fleming

“My year in Frankfurt, Germany, transformed me,” she said. “Fulbright changed me as a person, from a shy girl from upstate New York who barely traveled anywhere. I crossed an ocean for a year of study in a foreign country. On the plane from fear, I cried so much the woman next to me asked, ‘Do you really want to do this?’ And between sobs, I answered, ‘Yes, of course.’ And decades later, I was awarded Germany’s highest honor, the Federal Cross of Merit.”

The power of the program is immense, as 8,000 individuals annually receive awards to become difference-makers, either in the U.S. or abroad. Fulbright has produced more than 60 Nobel Prize recipients, 89 Pulitzer Prize winners and 440 leaders of states and government. Beyond the accolades, the exchange of ideas, cooperation and culture is transformational.

“More important are the advancements they represent—a world better understood and made more sustainable through scientific discovery; minds broadened through artistic expression; societies informed through courageous journalism; economies strengthened through enlightened policies, and peace preserved through skillful diplomacy,” said Jonathan Rabb, Fulbright scholar to Germany and founder and CEO of Watch The Yard, a digital platform for Black college culture.

Dr. Ruth Simmons

Dr. Ruth Simmons, esteemed president at Prairie View A&M University and the first African-American to lead Brown University, shared what Fulbright did her for as a young student, rising from a family of sharecroppers in the throes of segregation to attend Dillard University, get an invitation to study abroad and become a pioneer in higher education.

“During my year in France, my knowledge of French language and culture grew, and my acceptance by others became an expectation that I had never before experienced,” she said. “From long conversations about art, politics and culture to camping trips around Europe, I was no longer singled out as someone to shun—I was just another ami. I can’t tell you what that did for my self-confidence and my thinking about what my country needed.

“I wanted to be a committed participant, sharing ideas, contesting misconceptions, opening doors for others and to see what is possible when mutual regard replaces denigration and distrust. My Fulbright experience led me to return to the United States, complete my Ph.D. and begin an academic career where I could influence students to embrace learning about difference. The impact of leaving the narrow world that imprisoned my mind and my spirit was decisive in my life. Fulbright facilitated my ability to learn who I might be in a broader, post-segregated world. Learning about my youth, my students have often asked me why I am not angry. I’m not angry because I see the possibilities. Fulbright made me lift my eyes to the horizon and enabled me to embrace what might be possible if only I reached out.”

Political leaders also weighed in on the impacts of the program:

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN): “A lot has happened since [1946]—13 presidential administrations, the invention of the internet, a global pandemic. And through it all, Fulbright’s commitment to fostering mutual understanding between the U.S. and the rest of the world has not wavered.”

Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK): “All of us who have had the privilege to be a Fulbright Scholar know what a wonderful personal experience it is to study abroad, make friends and future colleagues, and pursue important work. But it’s an important diplomatic tool for our country, as well. Relationships built between Fulbright scholars and members of their host countries are extraordinarily important in shaping the future of this country overseas. And frankly, important in shaping the image of the United States around the world.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT): “One of the greatest strengths of our nation is how we encourage and support the exchange of ideas and knowledge, not just here at home, but with friends, allies, and even adversaries abroad. Programs like Fulbright not only make those exchanges possible, but they promote the kind of international dialogue the increasingly polarized world so desperately needs.”

Douglas Emhoff, Second Gentleman of the United States: “Individuals can be empowered to do extraordinary things. And through international exchanges, we can build the foundation for this concept which is as valid today as it was 75 years ago. Fulbright alumni are making an incredible difference. They are working to promote greater equity, justice, and human rights. They show that working together across borders and cultures is the right way to solve problems and build a better future.”