The Commission for Educational Exchange between the United States and Nepal, better known as the United States Educational Foundation (USEF-Nepal) or The Fulbright Commission, is celebrating 50 years of its establishment. Since its inception on June 9, 1961, USEF-Nepal has granted the prestigious Fulbright scholarship to 650 Nepalis, in addition to administering other grants and scholarships through the US Department of State. Danielle Preiss and Biswas Baral caught up with USEF-Nepal Executive Director Laurie Ann Vasily to discuss the Commission’s achievements and the history of the Fulbright student exchange programme.
Could you give us a brief overview of USEF-Nepal since its establishment in 1961?
It was established by a binational treaty between the governments of the US and Nepal. It is governed by a board of directors. Five of them are appointed by the Nepali government and five by the US Embassy in Kathmandu. It operates as a binational organisation to promote educational exchange. We cater to both the US citizens coming to Nepal under the auspices of the Fulbright Program and the Nepali citizens going to the US either independently or by using the services of USEF-Nepal or various scholarship programmes administered through this commission. Most of our programmes are funded by the US Department of State. But as I said, it is a binational commission. The board of directors make all the decisions about where the grants go and other decisions about how the commission runs.
What were the initial goals behind the establishment of the Fulbright Commission in Nepal and how have they evolved over the years?
The Fulbright Program had been operating in Nepal even before 1961. Two Nepali men—Ram Chandra Malhotra and Yog Prasad Upadhyay—went to the US in 1952 as the first two Fulbright grantees from Nepal. The Fulbright Program has always had the same goals which were set forth in the original legislation drafted by then senator from Arkansas, James William Fulbright, who saw international educational exchanges as an important means to promote peace and understanding among peoples of different countries. The Fulbright Program operates in 155 countries worldwide. This involves academic exchanges with Nepali students going and pursuing degrees in US colleges and Americans coming to Nepal to pursue various degrees, teach or do post-doctoral research here.
How would you assess the impact of the Fulbright Program in Nepal?
The impact is in some ways immeasurable because part of the beauty of this programme is that it’s a grant for an individual and that individual can take the opportunity and make of it what he or she wants. Especially for the Nepalis who go to the US—they come back to their own fields and many of them become leaders in their fields. There is an expectation of the Fulbright grantees that those who benefit from that opportunity come back and contribute significantly to Nepal; and many have. Many of them have reached the levels of secretaries, chief secretaries, leaders in the private sector and in the public sector. So the impact goes beyond a single individual. In this case we are talking about 650 individuals who have reached a level of success in their fields and in their own communities. One of the challenges we are now facing is bringing Fulbright opportunities to a different range of people. Those folks who are extremely qualified, they might live outside the Valley. Part of our challenge now is reaching outside the Valley to identify those people and make Fulbright, Humphrey and other grant opportunities available to them.
Still, the Fulbright is a very prestigious programme and there are a fairly small number of people involved in the exchange. Do you worry that the programme fosters elitism?
No. Part of the challenge for a programme like this is that the system of educational opportunities for Nepali citizens has long benefitted a narrow number of groups in Nepal. Some of those opportunities are now becoming more available as the educational system improves. For instance the number of primary schools has significantly gone up since the Fulbright Program started. Public education in Nepal has become an entirely different thing. So the kind of questions we can now have for qualifying for a Fulbright are quite different from the ones we had 20 or 30 years ago. We are always looking to send Fulbrighters who represent Nepal in all its diversity. We are not seeking to contribute to elitism. We are seeking to provide opportunities to all qualified Nepalis so that people in the US can also better understand the diversity of Nepal. And that Nepalis can, through those opportunities, contribute in different fields.
The common perception is that it is very tough to get a Fulbright scholarship. Many people don’t apply for that reason. Would you encourage more people to apply?
It is hard to get a Fulbright. And it will always be hard. I don’t mean to discourage anyone in saying that. What I am saying is that there is a certain profile of the candidate we are looking for. One of the very important things in the application progress is the essays. The essays are the expression of the individuality of the candidate. That essay is where he or she presents who he or she is or what he or she wants to do with the potential opportunity. So in an applicant, we are looking for someone who has taken leadership in his or her field—that could be anything from vulture conservation to agricultural development to contribution in a wide range of other fields—and has a vision for themselves and whatever it is that they are trying to move forward in. We are looking for people who have a sense of how to use the Fulbright opportunity to do something more when they come back to their field in Nepal.
Besides administering the various scholarship and grant programmes, what other activities is USEF-Nepal engaged in?
USEF has served tens of thousands of Nepalis by providing them with accurate, unbiased and relevant information about studies in the US. That is significant and far-reaching. Students who are interested in studying at any level in the US can come and learn about application procedures, how to write good application essays; we host college representatives who talk to students directly about how to gain admissions; we provide information on scholarship opportunities and information about the required tests.
Since the start of the Fulbright Program, do you think there has been an increased awareness of Nepali socio-cultural issues in the US?
Absolutely. And it is happening not just on the East or West Coast. If you talk to Yog Prasad Upadhyay who went to the US in 1952, the number of Nepalis in the US at the time was so minimal. There are a number of different ways in which the Fulbright Program and a number of other US-funded programmes (for example, the Peace Corps programme) contribute at that level. Going back to Senator Fulbright’s vision of people-to-people diplomacy, the American Fulbrighters live in Kansas, they live in Idaho, they live in San Francisco and different places. When they return from Nepal, they talk about the realities of life in Nepal, the diversity and multiculturalism of the country. That people-to-people understanding is being developed, which the Commission, through its many different programmes, continues to support.
Do you rate that as the programme’s biggest legacy over the last 50 years?
Yes. That it has lived in people’s hearts. And people have come to understand each other at an individual level, at a societal level, at a global level through this programme. Government-to-government relationships are important. But people-to-people relationships are important as well and those continue to be fostered. There are Fulbrighters in the US and Nepal who talk of those cross-cultural experiences as life-changing. They came to know something different about the world because of those experiences. Their minds were opened. Their hearts were opened. Those are the important legacies of this programme, along with all of the contributions the individuals have made in their given fields.