Are Transatlantic Exchanges Still Relevant?

Reflecting on 30 Years of the Fulbright Schuman Program

In early February 1990, Dr. William Glade — then the Associate Director for Educational and Cultural Affairs at the United States Information Agency — arrived in Brussels. Over the course of two days, Dr. Glade met with representatives of the European Communities and with the Fulbright Commission in Brussels. The purpose of the visit was to formulate and announce the creation of an exchange program now known as the Fulbright Schuman Program, a scholarship that promotes academic exchange between the United States of American and the European Union.

Thirty years after this visit and after a decade of experience as the Executive Director of the Fulbright Commission in Brussels, I reflected on the origins and evolution of this program and on the continued relevance of transatlantic exchanges.

Increasing mutual
understanding:  A seventy-year-old mission

The Fulbright Program owes its name to Senator J. William Fulbright (1905-1995), a senator from Arkansas who in September 1945 introduced a bill in the U.S. Congress that called for the use of proceeds from the sales of surplus war property to fund the “promotion of international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture and science.” One year later, President Harry S. Truman signed the Fulbright Act into law. Today, Fulbright is the most widely recognized and prestigious international exchange program in the world.

While the Fulbright Program has existed in many European countries (including Belgium and Luxembourg) since the 1940s, its European roots date back to that February 1990 visit. Several months after Dr. Glade returned to Washington DC, representatives from the U.S. government and the European Communities joined American and European academics for a symposium on “EC/US Cooperation in Education” at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars where the details of the collaboration were discussed. Nearly a year later, during the 1991-1992 academic year, the first exchanges under the auspices of the new Fulbright Program between the United States of America and the European Union were realized. In this first year, one American was selected to conduct research on European Commission institutions and programs in Brussels. In exchange, four European Commission officials were awarded Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence grants to Tufts University, Ball State University, and George Mason University.

Today, the Fulbright Schuman Program, which is jointly financed by the U.S. Department of State and the Directorate-General for Education and Culture of the European Commission, awards an average of 15 scholarships per year for Americans to conduct research in EU Member States and for Europeans to conduct research in the United States. A total of 429 grantees have participated in the program since 1990. Its alumni, scattered all over the world, represent nearly every field of study imaginable and run the gamut from academics and civil servants to politicians and public figures.

From seminars to scholarships and back again

For Dr. Glade in 1990, the Fulbright Commission in Brussels was a natural choice to administer the pilot Fulbright Schuman Program. Located in the capital of Europe, the office had long awarded grants for EU-focused research at academic institutions like the College of Europe and had since 1982 organized an annual enrichment seminar at the European institutions. Thirty years later, the Fulbright Commission in Brussels continues to take advantage of its central location at the heart of the European Union to organize events introducing young leaders to the history and importance of the transatlantic relationship.

Since 1982, the Fulbright Commission in Brussels has welcomed current grantees on the Fulbright U.S. Student and Scholar Programs for a weeklong seminar on NATO and the European institutions. The conference, now formally entitled the Fulbright Seminar on the European Union and NATO, brings Fulbrighters to briefings at the European Commission, to discuss with judges at the European Court of Justice, and to learn about priorities for collective defense at NATO Headquarters.

Since 2017, the Fulbright Commission in Brussels has partnered with the European Commission to organize an annual seminar for current and former exchange program participants from both sides of the Atlantic. The EU-US Young Leaders Seminar has brought together American and European students, researchers, and young professionals to discuss topics related to migration (2017), the future of work (2018), disinformation and media literacy (2019) and the future of cities (2020).

Making the case for the transatlantic relationship

As the Executive Director of the Fulbright Commission in Brussels, my job increasingly feels like a diplomatic one: making the case not just for the merits of a transatlantic exchange program but for the importance of the transatlantic relationship itself. The audience for this argument is threefold: academics and young professionals, who need to be convinced that the relationship between the United States and the European Union is one worth studying; governments, who need to be encouraged that cultural diplomacy is still worth pursuing; and the private sector, who need to be shown that an investment in the future leaders of the transatlantic relationship is one worth making.

I am encouraged by the support of the U.S. Department of State and of the European Commission, whose unwavering support of the Fulbright Program was exemplified during a recent meeting between Secretary of State Pompeo and High Representative Borrell (himself a Fulbright alumnus) that commemorated the 30th anniversary of the Fulbright Schuman Program. Other encouragement includes the success of recent fundraising initiatives, in which corporate donors contributed over 100,000 EUR for a series of Fulbright Schuman Innovation Grants.

Over the past thirty years, the Fulbright Schuman Program has become much more than just a scholarship. It has evolved into a vibrant program that provides a platform for study, research, and discussion of the transatlantic relationship and encourages Americans and Europeans to discuss important topics facing both sides of the Atlantic. With three decades and over four hundred alumni behind us, I can only hope that this initiative endures for another thirty years to come.

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Erica Lutes is the Executive Director of the Fulbright Commission in Brussels.