Winning exchange: How the University of Houston keeps producing Fulbright scholars
Five years ago, Ben Rayder arrived at the University of Houston’s Office of Undergraduate Research and Major Awards and saw an opportunity. Out of just 13 applicants in the previous cycle, a half dozen of its students were chosen to be in the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. Could they get more?
“When I got here, I realized that there was a lot of untapped potential because we’re a Hispanic-Serving Institution and we’re located in a city that’s very international,” Rayder says of the international exchange program that allows elite students to do research work, study abroad and learn new cultures in 160 countries. “When we received 12 recipients our second year, I thought, that’s really good. But is that a flash in the pan?”
Not at all. This Tier 1 research institution has had more than a few gems since 2018, producing an astounding 46 Fulbright award winners, including 10 during the most recent selection period. Now, UH’s mission isn’t just to find a few more recipients but to truly build one of the top feeder systems in the country.
“We’ve built a program that’s pretty stable, and we can consistently average about 10 students per year,” said Rayder, a former Fulbrighter himself. “I want the University of Houston to be the Texas school that ultimately produces the most Fulbrights. I think that’s something that we can definitely attain. The University of Houston is aspiring to become a top 50 public university. For us to be one of the public universities in both the South and in Texas that produces the most Fulbrights makes a lot of sense.”
The Fulbright program has given more than 400,000 scholars nationwide the chance to attain lofty personal goals while enhancing diplomacy. The diverse and inclusive community has been instrumental in the nation’s relations and shared solutions across the world. The University of Houston and its Institute of Global Engagement meshes perfectly with the students it serves, but getting them to apply has not been easy.
“Our students are very modest, very humble,” Rayder says. “We have students from all different types of backgrounds who just don’t see going abroad as an important thing. They don’t always see themselves as competition for these types of opportunities when they hear the words ‘prestigious, merit-based and competitive.’ I tell them, ‘They’re looking for students like you. They want to send people to other countries who represent the breadth of diversity in the United States.’ We’re perfect for this. We now have several years’ worth of cohorts of recipients who look like them.”
That includes this year’s group of standouts. Among them is Amanda Pascali, a musician and 2020 grad who will be immersed in both translation of songs from Sicilian artist Rosa Balistreri as well as looking at gender equity and organized crime in Italy; Morgan Thomas, a recent grad who will be an English teaching assistant in Ghana; and Paul Vaughan, who had his initial request to have a Fulbright award in Ukraine denied because of the war but managed to turn that into an opportunity to study in Poland, where he will evaluate cybersecurity and technology in the region.
The power of recruitment and cohesion
Rayder credits the rise in UH’s award winners on “heavy recruiting” and the support of campus stakeholders, including its Provost’s office, led by Paula Myrick Short. The Major Awards team at UH has also leaned on deans and faculty, including former Fulbright recipients both on- and off-campus, to build interest. Many of them participate in being reviewers for the national selection committee. “We’ve been building institutional knowledge, and that’s been helpful because those folks not only encourage students to apply but they also know a lot about the application process,” he says. “They can help me advise students, even if it’s an informal way, on how to be competitive. We’re really trying to find the best opportunities for our students.”
Though getting the word out as a largely “working-class commuter school” can be challenging, Rayder says being director of the awards office puts him on the front lines of being able to identify potential candidates and guide them while connecting others to the merits of the program. That includes putting students in contact with former applicants and recipients, including those overseas. UH also utilizes social media to do “takeovers,” which allows potential applicants the chance to see how people operate daily on a Fulbright grant.
“I have a pretty good sense of the undergrads who are out there and working with them to think about how they can take their projects to the next level,” he says. “And how they could be working with faculty to tap into their networks to find people that are part of a larger research community. My job really is to go out and talk to these different units that have a lot in common and for whom these grants would be appropriate.”
The key for any institution, he adds, is establishing allies that can help spread the word on Fulbrights and other award possibilities. “At a large public university, I can’t work with 46,000 people individually. I have to rely on others to get my message out there. I’ve been really fortunate to have a couple of close faculty and staff who have been really helpful in terms of supporting me and getting my message across, and then also advising students.”
With such a large pool of recent recipients, Houston has been able to capitalize on the momentum of its successful work over the past few years. But it didn’t start out that way. For others with small numbers of Fulbright recipients or that want to build up their cohort, Rayder says it is OK to start small.
“Really celebrate successes, even if it’s one or two people in the beginning,” he says. “Get it to higher administrators and to departments to say, ‘This is one of your students who did this.’ Students take notice of that, and word of mouth begins and creates a snowball effect. In the beginning, I used to borrow some images from the Fulbright website in our marketing materials. But now I have my own students and alumni who are in the program sending me their photos. We’ve put our own stamp on it.”