The Fulbright Experience

The United States Educational Foundation in Pakistan hosted a pre-departure orientation for the largest Fulbright cohort to date in Islamabad earlier this month. I was a part of this two day event which amongst other things prepared us mentally, more than anything else, for the journey we are about to embark on. As I look back on this year long process of applications, endless paper work, interviews, the tedious HEC attestations, the anxious wait and then some, it is reassuring to say the least I wasn’t alone.

For those of you who do not know what the Fulbright Scholarship is exactly, it would be safe to say it is the academic equivalent of winning the lottery. The grant covers the tuition fee, living stipend, book allowance, health insurance and travel for full-time Masters and PhD students going to America. It’s a pretty sweet deal. I wanted to give my take on the whole process with all its mini triumphs and countless intricacies. The ones who’ve already been through it in the past year and years before, might be able to relate, while for the prospective applicants, it could serve as a precursor of what is to follow.

If my memory serves right, I started filling out the application in January 2012. Yes, that long ago! But that is only because I had missed the deadline the previous year and was leaving nothing to chance. As I labored through each page, constantly nagged my recommenders and cribbed over the inefficient bureaucracy in Pakistan, I don’t think I ever lost sight of what all of this was for.

One of the advantages of not knowing anyone who had applied with me was the self-imposed reassurance that I was right on track.  On the downside though, I felt pretty left out. After the mid-May deadline, it wasn’t until half way through August when people started hearing back from the USEFP. For me, it was much later than that. I remember cutting short our vacation and frantically rushing my mom back to Lahore from Doha, just so I could be there to take the all-important phone call. After weeks of jumpy phone calls attending and practically gluing myself to the phone, I got the long-awaited interview call.

I had a ten day notice in advance of the interview which allowed me to prepare well, or perhaps over prepare. I sat down with a former Fulbright scholar and someone who’s been on the interview panel a few years ago and went over the possible questions I’d get asked. The interview itself wasn’t as nerve-wracking as I had imagined.  I walk into a roomful of pleasant, smiling people who seem extremely happy to see me for some reason. I thought it was too good to be true, or maybe there was an angle. In between the questions about the scope of sports journalism in Pakistan and cookies being offered, I was able to explain my 180 degree turn from a math background to a Masters in journalism. At the time, I was pretty pleased with how it all went down but later on I would annoyingly replay each question in my head over and over, thinking I should’ve answered it in a different way.

This continued till I finally got the email from my program officer, informing me that I had got the scholarship. My first reaction? What’s a principle candidate? And then there were those conditions which made me feel like I was still a long way from safely calling myself a Fulbright Scholar. You would think that receiving the award letter and the congratulatory email would be sufficient to put one at peace once and for all, but that was anything but the case for me.  Another thing about the Fulbright is the wait. After officially being bestowed with this honor, it isn’t until another ten months that you actually depart for the States. There are two ways to deal with this: you can either crib and complain over the long wait or just bask in the glory for the next whole year. I chose the latter.

Now, I don’t know if this was the same for others but after getting the scholarship I felt I was entitled to any Ivy League in America. In comparison, I had a considerably modest approach when picking out my university preferences in the initial application. So, while the rest of the grantees in the Facebook group shared their elaborate submission plans I was given the ultimatum that, provided my Boston University deferral from last year was confirmed, the Institute of International Education (IIE) will not apply anywhere else on my behalf. Way to burst my Ivy bubble, I thought to myself. Anyways, after shaking off my greed I gladly welcomed my final placement at BU. After all, I had wanted to go there for over a year now and the program was tailor-made for me.

The following months pertained to fulfilling the medical requirements, finding out our living stipends (which by the way I’m very content with), registering for courses and finding housing. The most integral part of this entire process undoubtedly has to be the visa and you would think getting the Fulbright automatically will take care of that. You can never be too sure though, or maybe that’s just the cynic in me talking. But judging from the oozing positivity of the interviewer at the U.S Embassy, who put more emphasis on how I pronounced Boston than why I was going there, I have nothing to worry about. I think.

So, with a little more than a month left before most of us depart and still no sign of the notorious “DS 2019”, everyone had their own concerns at the recent PDO. For some these pertained to their dependants accompanying them to the U.S, for others these were more program and area specific. But regardless of the field and what part of America we are headed, our entire Fulbright experience so far has been, more or less, the same and, more importantly, a rewarding one in every sense of the word!

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