Becoming A Fulbrighter

By Robert R. Mercer
Fulbright Scholar 2007-2008

August 2007, Fullerton, Packing Out


Why did you want to be a Fulbright Scholar?

What is a Fulbright Scholar?

I’ll answer the last question in January. I suspect it is much more than teaching a class in a foreign university or learning how to negotiate the rent in another language. Every experience abroad has been much more complicated than first appearances.

For example, being a sailor in Southeast Asia during Vietnam gave me a view of the world so different than that I had when Rose Mary and I returned to Japan in 2004. In 1969, I learned about the underside of any city I was in. At the same time, as a kid who tended to avoid the "Wanchai" experience and made local friends, I only skated on the surface of complex societies such as Japan's. I always got the “Geijin exception” when I committed a faux pax.

In 2004, we fell through the surface into an academic system in which violations of kata were rewarded with silent censure—and we never knew what rule had been violated. It was deliberately “difficult.”

So, even in the same country, the sailor, the college student, the tourist and the ex-pat worker all have completely different views of the place.

As we pack for Ukraine, we have impressions based upon our 2005 Prague experience. Welcoming people, complete social freedom. But in Prague, we owned our own classroom and gave our own grades. Even the apartments were filled with foreigners like ourselves, so we never really experienced the daily grind of living.

In Luts’k, we’ll most likely be the only foreigners on our campus and in our apartment building. As the guide books warn the tourist about many places, “It’s nice, but is isn’t Prague.”

So…, why did I want to be a Fulbright Scholar. Frankly, today, I’d do most anything to live in Europe. In the space of three months in Prague, I went from a lifetime of Rumsfeldian dismissal of “old Europe” to total addiction. So, as soon as we stepped off the E-Ticket ride of study abroad in Prague, Rose Mary and I asked each other, “How do we get to do that again?”

Why a Fulbright?

It appeared easy, so I applied.

Now, as I have learned there is a website devoted to people who did not get Fulbrights, it obviously is a more selective process than I thought. But, in my case, it fell into my lap.


While in Prague, an email came from Fullerton College—not Cypress—that the Czech Republic Fulbright Committee wanted to meet with a study abroad instructor and students. I jumped on it. I had no idea if it was important or not, but it sounded very interesting.

I took Mina Yamazaki and Carrie Wright with me on a very long tram and bus ride across Prague to meet Jacob Tesar at Fulbright offices. We were prepared to present about study abroad. Instead, he wanted to know how to establish a relationship with the California Community Colleges to create a student exchange program.

After returning to Cypress figuring out there'd be no foreign exchange program on our campus, I emailed Jacob to ask, “How do you get a Fulbright?”

Jacob said to go to the Fulbright Web Site and look at the proposals from universities around the world who want Fulbrighters. Proposals range from requests for lecturers in high academic theory to city planners to de-bug Soviet systems. Students who have just received their bachelor degrees, and graduate research students can apply, too.

I looked first at Latin America, but one has to be fluent in Spanish for anything south of the border. Fernando, a fellow teacher who certifies Spanish fluency for the Fulbright Program, disagrees with this policy, saying he believes a major part of the Fulbright experience should be to permit intermediate speakers to develop lecturing skills in Spanish.

You can search the Fulbright site by country, region, language, skill set, etc. I searched central and eastern Europe and China. I sorted the proposals as to whether I had the potential to fill the need. In the end, Luts’k jumped clearly to the top. “They should have just put my name on it,” was my thought.

I also gamed the system. By now, I really wanted a Fulbright, so I also weighed an area as to how many other people might apply for it. I had never seen “Ski Ukraine” on any travel poster.

The paperwork for a Fulbright is huge. I spent the summer of 2006 researching and typing. The final product filled two, 2-inch notebooks. That information was condensed into the 20-page application and proposal package that was sent to the committee electronically at the end of July.

For anyone applying, use the electronic form as it can be worked on, saved, and returned to later as you build your application.

I had to obtain letters of recommendation. One letter had to come from my dean. Marilyn was pleased to help. Of course, she then retired this spring, meaning the new dean, Joyce, has to deal with my absence.

The other two letters I decided should come from universities, not community colleges in order to show my work at Cypress had gained state and national notice. A professor from Cal State Fullerton, who works closely with community colleges, wrote a generous letter. A University of Missouri professor of convergence, my specialty, wrote the other letter. He was also a former community college instructor with whom I had worked in California. As the name of my proposal was, “Convergence Journalism: A process of Innovation,” I believe his letter was most effective.

You need one more letter—an invitation from the university to which you are applying. So, you send a draft of your proposal to the contact person in that university. In my case, Larissa Nizhegorodtseva, Luts’k Liberal Arts University international coordinator, invited me immediately. I had asked for Spring, 2008, however she had already issued an invitation to another professor for that semester, so she invited me for the fall. In the end, the committee did not select the other professor.

Of course, at the same time I submitted my Fulbright application in Aug. 2006, I was writing a parallel request on my campus for a sabbatical. Asking for a leave to take a Fulbright for which you don't know you will even qualify left me perplexed at first. I solved it by asking Tulsa Community College to invite me to study their distance ed program—if I didn't go to Ukraine. You can say I took Bev Bailey's name in vain, and I still owe her at least a workshop.

I received the Sabbatical in January, and the Fulbright approval was final in June, when I passed the physical. Whew!

February 2008, Unpacking

"What is a Fulbright Scholar?"


It is someone who is academically and emotionally connected to a people and place. It is a person who sees the whole world as one place.

In five months, one becomes part of a place. While the sailor, student and ex-pat may only see one part of a nation, the Fulbrighter seems to move in several strata at once.

We knew students. We partied with business people. We attended charity auctions and concerts with politicians. We did cocktails at the embassy. We know more about good restaurants than any of the citizens of Lutsk. We told our Ukrainian friends about the catacombs and tombs under their own castle.

NPR calls you for backgrounding on a Ukraine story.

This pas week, I wrote five letters of recommendation for exceptional journalism students. One letter recommended a Ukrainian student to a German-Argentianian Publisher who runs a Russian-language newspaper in Kiev for a Norwegian media company. Your email is truly international. You Skype several times a week with Ukraine and Poland.

Just as we complained in the oil patch, no one ever found petroleum in a nice place, so developing democracies are rarely listed as vacation spots. We made a list of what we liked and did not like. What we liked filled a page. What we hated came to a total of three items. But you were frustrated by these three items every… blessed…day.

However, indeed, "Skiing Ukraine" is becoming very popular, now that Poland entered the European Union in January and has become expensive.

It turned out there were a total of six Americans in our city of 200,000. James, Ohio, taught with me in the university. Angela, Orange County, CA, taught in a high school and ran "Windows on America" at the library. Steve, Ohio, taught at a high school and, on weekends, all of us helped coach his girls' softball team (James now runs it). Ryan, Wisconsin UP, and I organized a photography workshop at his high school.

At the party celebrating Steve's and Ryan's completion of their Peace Corps project, a replacement volunteer asked, "Fulbrighter? What's the difference between a Fulbrighter and a Peace Corps volunteer?"

"We get hot showers," I replied. In a world of centralized services (and centralized failures), we could afford our own hot water heater. (In fact, a Fulbright Grant funds the travel or your entire family for up to a year.)

Rose Mary and I still, daily ask ourselves, "And just how can we do that again."

We can't. You get just one Fulbright Scholar Award. In two years, I am permitted to apply for the Senior Fulbright Scholar Award. It is for six weeks. Often it is used to revisit your project.

The applications are being posted right now. Community College instructors are currently valued for having very practical things to teach in developing democracies. The time is right for you to become a Fulbrighter, too.

Apply. That's how you get to be a Fulbrighter.

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