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Fulbright Scholars teach and learn abroad

Chathapuram RamanathanSocial worker Chathapuram Ramanathan, who has a private practice in Michigan, lights the traditional Indian Lamp at the inauguration ceremony for the National Conference on Social Work at the Roshini Milaya School of Social Work in India. Ramanathan recently spent six months in India as a Fulbright-Nehru visiting lecturer.

Many social workers have been selected to represent the U.S. in the prestigious Fulbright Scholar Program, which promotes mutual understanding and goodwill among foreign nations.

The Fulbright Program is the international educational exchange sponsored by the U.S. government. In operation since 1946, nearly 310,000 people have been awarded the opportunity to study, teach, conduct research, exchange ideas and contribute to finding solutions to shared international concerns.

For Jessica Ritter, associate professor in the Department of Social Work at Pacifica University in Oregon, the opportunity to be a Fulbright Scholar seemed out of reach at first.

“I applied thinking there was no way I would be accepted since I am a relatively new scholar, but I decided to throw my hat out there anyway,” Ritter said. “I figured the worst that could happen is that I would get turned down and would have to apply again later.”

Instead, she learned her proposal — to gain insight into Sweden’s social welfare system and social work profession and to conduct research — had been accepted.

“It felt very surreal to come to terms with the fact that I would be leaving my job as a professor for one semester and living in Sweden for four months,” she said.

Jessica RitterJessica Ritter, associate professor in the Department of Social Work at Pacifica University in Oregon, toured Old Town Stockholm, Sweden, during her Fulbright assignment in 2011.

Ritter said she learned there is nothing that can compare to living in a country to gain a better understanding of its culture. She said she was “completely dazzled” by what she discovered.

“The high taxes they are famous for provide their citizens with a level of health and security that would be difficult for most Americans to grasp,” Ritter explained. “The benefits citizens receive include universal health care; free education from pre-school through college; a monthly child allowance until the child turns 16; a minimum of five weeks of paid vacation per year; incredibly generous paid leave after the birth of a child; and generous sick leave policies.”

She said she found the Fulbright Program very well run and with ample stipends.

In her case, the scholarship provided for her travel expenses and ensured that she had enough funds to live comfortably during her stay.

“I felt very supported by this program, and once you get a Fulbright, you are part of this small club for life,” she said.

Her advice for social workers thinking of applying for a Fulbright scholarship is simple.

“Just do it,” she said. “There is no better learning experience than living abroad. It is one of the few programs in the world that has the ability to bring professionals from different countries together to form relationships and learn from each other.”

“I think it is especially important for social work academics and practitioners to learn about social work practice from different perspectives,” she added. “It is a wonderful honor and the experience of a lifetime.”

Not all Fulbright scholarships require long-term assignments.

Richard EdwardsRichard Edwards, interim president of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, spent three weeks in Israel in 2008 as a Fulbright Senior Specialist.

For Richard Edwards, interim president of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, his 2008 experience as a Fulbright Senior Specialist lasted three weeks at Ben Gurion University in Israel.

The assignment allowed him the opportunity to give presentations and collaborate with students and staff at the Spritzer School of Social Work at the university.

He said the Fulbright program is important to preserve because it provides the resources that support ongoing collaborations.

“Fulbright gives you opportunities to (exchange) but also to learn in an in-depth way about what is going on in other countries and to look at a society that is undergoing changes and how people deal with such things as diversity and emerging social problems,” Edwards said.

The program is unique in that it allows time to develop meaningful relationships, he said.

“It’s much more than what a tour or a short visit can produce,” Edwards said. “It’s an excellent two-way street. I learned more from it than what anyone learned from me.”

His advice for social workers interested in becoming Fulbright scholars is to foster contacts at foreign universities that may be interested in hosting a visit.

“If you have the skill set they are looking for, it can help in getting approved,” he said.

Edwards noted that the collaborations do not end when the Fulbright assignment comes to a close. For example, while in Israel, he and the school’s staff began plans for a conference on disaster response. It took place a year later, and from that effort a document containing the presentations was produced for others to use.

“The ideal experience is you develop ongoing relationships that lead into future efforts,” he said.

“I gained an in-depth experience about the issues confronting Israel – especially as it relates to disaster response and diversity issues,” Edwards added. “I have gone back since and I have hosted colleagues from Israel here.”

MSW students in India perform a skitMSW students in India perform a skit, addressing the evolution of social work globally and in India, during a National Conference on Social Work. Social worker Chathapuram Ramanathan, top row, second from right, was a participant in the conference as part of his assignment to India as a Fulbright-Nehru visiting lecturer.

To be a Fulbright scholar it helps to have a passion for promoting cross-cultural understanding. That is what inspired social worker Chathapuram Ramanathan when he applied and was chosen to be a Fulbright-Nehru visiting lecturer in India for six months.

“My career spans over three decades as a researcher, educator and author,” said Ramanathan, who runs a private practice in southeast Michigan. His Fulbright host institution was the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, or NIMHANS, in Bangalore, India.

During his stay from October 2011 to March, Ramanathan interacted with academics and practitioners who are in state- and federal-government funded organizations such as NIMHANS and Assam University, as well as private-secular organizations, such as Manipal University and Roshini Nilaya College — a Catholic institution — and other nongovernmental organizations.

He worked alongside social work faculty, including psychiatric social workers, psychiatrists and psychologists, and students from several different schools. Students sought his advice on research methods and relevant literature and opportunities for academic pursuits in the U.S.

His many presentations and collaborations included a workshop on the unmet psychosocial needs of the transgender community.

Ramanathan also collaborated with leaders from the Indian Society of Professional Social Workers. As part of their annual conference, he helped convene a symposium called “Partnering with Youth to Promote Peace.”

Ramanathan said he sees great opportunities for NASW and other social work professional organizations to collaborate with Indian social workers. There is so much social innovation taking place in India, for instance, disaster management, e-governance and corporate social responsibility, he said.

Among the lessons he took back to the U.S. was how social workers are assisting families dealing with the stress of dual-income parents raising children and taking care of elders in the same house.

“The economic boom in India is phenomenal, but family dynamics are changing drastically,” Ramanathan said.

Social workers there are taking creative measures, working with families to help cope with life stressors that accompany the rapid changes, when necessary, he said.

Ramanathan noticed the establishment of elder-care centers in many urban areas, which provide a social outlet for the elderly. These centers function during the workday and are staffed by professional social workers and volunteers.

Ramanathan said the Fulbright Program is noted for its prestige, but its primary goal is to launch long-lasting relationships that promote peace. It remains an important link for professional and educational institutions to exchange information that inspires goodwill, he said.

While many Fulbrighters feel privileged for the opportunity to serve in the program, some alumni are fortunate enough to be awarded additional scholarships.

Kathy WehrmannKathy Wehrmann, center, poses with staff at a child and maternal center in Cluj, Romania. Wehrmann was awarded two Fulbrights to continue her work in Romania.

Kathy Wehrmann, associate professor at Illinois State University School of Social Work, is one of them.

“As an academic with a background in child welfare, applying for Fulbright Senior Scholarship to Romania offered an opportunity to visit Romania to conduct follow-up research on progress the participants had made on their action plans and to visit them in their home communities,” Wehrmann said of her first Fulbright experience in 2001.

In 2006, she also received a Fulbright Senior Specialist scholarship that focused on a shorter-term project to teach social work supervision at Babes Bolyai University in Cluj, Romania.

Wehrmann said she continues to collaborate on work projects with the people she met on her assignments.

“In both cases it was helpful to have an in-country contact,” she said.

Wehrmann agreed that social workers should not hesitate in seeking a Fulbright experience, which was the creation of U.S. Sen. William Fulbright of Arkansas in 1946 as a means to promote universal understanding after World War II.

“It is a way to broaden perspective,” she said, “to make a contribution, to serve as a positive representative of the U.S. and to make lasting relationships that do truly contribute to William Fulbright’s vision for the program.”

Fulbright grant categories

  • The Fulbright Program encompasses a variety of exchange programs, including both individual and institutional grants. For further information, visit
  • The Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program sends about 1,100 American scholars and professionals per year to approximately 125 countries.
  • The Fulbright Specialist Program, a short-term complement to the core Fulbright Scholar Program, sends U.S. faculty and professionals to serve as expert consultants on curriculum, faculty development, institutional planning and related subjects at overseas academic institutions for a period of two to six weeks.
  • The Fulbright Visiting Scholar Program provides grants to approximately 800 foreign scholars from over 95 countries to lecture and/or conduct postdoctoral research at U.S. institutions for an academic semester to a full academic year.
  • The Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence (SIR) Program enables U.S. colleges and universities to host foreign academics to lecture on a wide range of subject fields for a semester or academic year.

10 things you may not know about the Fulbright program

  1. Applicants become Fulbrighters at all career stages.
  2. Every year more than 500 U.S. institutions are represented in the Fulbright Program.
  3. Professionals and artists can become Fulbrighters.
  4. Awards range from two weeks to 12 months.
  5. Foreign language fluency may not be a factor.
  6. Fulbrighters spend their time teaching, researching or both.
  7. A Fulbright grant will help internationalize your campus.
  8. Fulbright scholars are hosted by a range of institutions abroad.
  9. 9 A sabbatical may not be necessary to become a Fulbrighter.
  10. 10 Many Fulbrighters take their families abroad with them.

— Source: The Fulbright Program