It has been over a year since I arrived in the United States to pursue a graduate degree as a Fulbright student. In these months, I’ve had the opportunity to learn many new things about the United States’ culture and customs such as, how great colleges are and how different two neighboring states within the same country can be in terms of traditions, weather, and landscape.
Saying that my journey with Fulbright is only a few months old is not accurate. It is off by almost 1,000% (You must be familiar with percentages, since you already sat or are sitting for the GRE). It all started about five years ago, when I first heard about the program. I have always wanted to study in the United States and there I was, a sophomore in college hearing for the first time about a full scholarship that could give me the opportunity to achieve this life-long objective. I immediately started looking for more information about it, and within weeks I was ready to apply. There was only one problem: I had to eventually wait for about three years to graduate from engineering school with a Bachelor’s degree since the Fulbright Foreign Student Program offers grants to students that want to pursue graduate–level studies and research.
Time flew by and the long-awaited moment finally came. I was a senior and about to graduate from engineering school, which also meant that I had to prepare a graduation project. I was also applying for the Fulbright Program at the same time, and it was a mentally-demanding task. This process was somewhat tiring as applying involved mainly preparing and sitting for standardized tests (GRE and TOEFL), talking to professors about recommendation letters and career advice, and hardest of all, writing two 1,000-word essays. One essay was about my research objectives and what exactly I wanted to study in the United States and why, and the other essay was about my experience and how it ties into my academic objectives and career goals. These essays had to be good enough to get the selection committee to want to meet with me so that I could convince them to grant me the scholarship. The essays are by far the single most important part of your application — take them very seriously! The application reminds you that plagiarism is wrong, but I want to emphasize that again. You’re automatically disqualified if you’re caught plagiarizing.
Grades might help your case greatly, but they are not a deal-breaker or a deal-closer for that matter. To quote one of my Fulbrighter friends who helped me a lot during my application process: “Fulbright is about having a compelling story to tell.” The United States is a country with high emphasis on merit (speaking from my experience). Take advantage of that. Focus on your application. You are already different from everyone else based on your genome composition, so try to be original. Originality is not overrated, and selection committees who read about a thousand applications every year value it highly. Be candid and spend a considerable amount of time on the application, it’s worth it
In the end, I managed to do both: graduate and complete my application on time. It is worth mentioning though that if I were to do it all over again, I would probably do it the same way, but people are different and some need more time. Therefore, it is always better to start working on the application earlier. It is also important to bear in mind that during that process, I had a couple of friends (Fulbrighters and non-Fulbrighters) who helped with everything I needed. That is the most important intangible factor that plays a major role in helping you get the scholarship- seeking help.
I know the following sounds like a cliché, but it is true: “Everybody you will ever meet will know something you don’t,” so humble yourself and ask for help. Look for friends that you trust and know you well enough, and have them review your essays and help you get out of the standstill that you will most likely run into when writing. Let me be redundant: help is important, seek it. It is important that you leverage the communication media we have today and reach out to people whom you think might be helpful to you. In doing that, try reaching out to people you know best. During my application process, my friends and family helped me with essays, preparing for the standardized tests, obtaining recommendation letters and choosing specific programs for writing my statement of purpose.
The next step is the interview process. Once you submit your application, you may be called for an interview at the U.S. Embassy or Fulbright Commission (this may change based on your country, but I received a call about a week after the application deadline passed). I remember exactly what I was doing when I received that message. It was after Iftar during Ramadan, and I was supposed to go have my interview while fasting. The night before, I rehearsed my answers (thinking I was smart enough to anticipate the questions). I put on my best suit and went to my interview. I was confident, and I felt that this was my opportunity to achieve something I dreamed about for so long. Even though I was tired because of fasting, driving, and not getting enough sleep at night, I kept it together. The first question they asked me was different from what I anticipated. It surprised me, but thinking back, it was the best thing that could have ever happened to me as it woke me up. My cerebral activity peaked, and I was as awake and aware of the situation as I could have ever been. The committee asked me about my motivation, my background, and about myself. However, they still asked me the generic question: “Why should you receive a Fulbright scholarship?” I was tempted to say, “Because I applied,” but I thought the stakes were too high so I refrained from joking. I came out of the interview room with mixed feelings; I felt I did well but did not know if that was enough.
I wanted to go to the United States for grad school more than anything else, so I declined any long-term commitment (jobs and other scholarships) while I was waiting for the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board to grant me the scholarship. Therefore, during those nine months (which were very long), I had to rely on the help of friends to cope with the stress associated with the whole experience. Fulbright alumni also helped greatly by answering all the questions I had. I found some of their writings from when they were Fulbrighters very helpful as well. Family and friends were also great support systems that were needed as this period was one of the most uncertain and toughest periods during the application process.
Two months later, I was contacted that I was conditionally selected for the grant, meaning that if accepted into an American university, I would receive a Fulbright grant. This might sound like great news but in fact, the best way to look at it is through a quantum physics lens: I was both selected and not selected at the same time. That e-mail meant that from that moment forward the only thing I could do to better my chances of selection was absolutely nothing. I kept a positive attitude, which was extremely hard to do at times. I tried to forget about it, and in some way, I was successful in not thinking too much about it but subconsciously, I was obsessing about it all the time.
The wait was almost unbearable, but ended up being rewarding and became one of the best experiences as the outcome was positive. One year after submitting my application, I was selected as a finalist by being accepted to Portland State University, confirming that I was going to be a Fulbrighter representing Algeria. You will, indeed, be representing your country, and often, people will remember your country before your name. But they’ll also remember that you’re a Fulbright student and that’s worth it.
Gaya is a second year Fulbrighter studying towards his M.S. in Engineering and Technology Management at Portland State University. He is from Algeria.
Read more Fulbright stories here.