Bienvenido Mr. Fulbright, and congratulations!

Posted: June 15, 2014 at 8:47 am

The Fulbright Program aims to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship.

—Senator J. William Fulbright

The Prince of Asturias Foundation announced this week that the Fulbright Scholarship will receive this year’s Príncipe de Asturias award for international cooperation.  This is the highest recognition bestowed by Spain to an organization or person who has made an exceptional contribution to international cooperation and understanding.  In past years it has gone to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Red Cross and Nelson Mandela.

As a Fulbright alum and fan, I share the excitement of the entire Fulbright family on this much deserved recognition and I extend my congratulations to all Fulbright scholars, staff at IIE and CIES (disclosure: I serve on its board), the U.S. Department of State, all bilateral commissions and contributing governments and foundations around the world.

The Fulbright Scholarship is one of those government programs that works.  With a current investment of less than $250M a year by the U.S. government plus $80M from overseas partners, the Fulbright program has allowed more than 100,000 American students and faculty to study, conduct research or teach overseas.  And it has allowed more than 200,000 foreign students and faculty to do the same in the U.S..  In doing so, it has helped build 300,000 bridges of understanding between the U.S. and 150 other nations.  It’s hard to imagine a more effective way to build goodwill with relatively little investment.

The classic Berlanga movie “Bienvenido Mr. Marshall“, one of my favorite of all times, offers an insightful and very funny take on the stereotypes Americans and Spaniards had of one another circa 1950. It is also a critical tale of American economic development investments (or lack thereof) in impoverished, post-war Spain.  The villagers in imaginary Villar del Río get ready to welcome the Americans and their gifts only to see Mr. Marshall drive by without stopping. I suppose my views of America growing up must have been shaped by movies of that sort in addition to the dubbed versions of John Wayne, Marlon Brando, Clark Gable and Kirk Douglas.

Whatever my stereotypes of Americans were, they didn’t help me much when in the Summer of 1991 I boarded a TWA plane headed to the U.S., compliments of a Fulbright Scholarship.  My life would never be the same.

Thanks to my Fulbright I discovered a fascinating and diverse new country, which I learned to love and make my own.  I also discovered a gem of American society, the American research university, which shaped my views of what higher education can do to change the world for the better.  Georgia Tech, my home for 4 years, allowed me to explore academic fields outside my own and gave me two graduate degrees and a wife–I couldn’t ask for more!

I returned to Spain in 1995 with a much richer appreciation of the U.S. and full of ideas, and American-style ingenuity, as to how Spanish higher education could be improved. I worked in business and at three academic institutions there, then returned to the U.S. where I have worked at two others.  I’ve become a U.S. ambassador (lower case, no Senate confirmation) when I’m in Spain and a Spanish ambassador in the U.S..  I’ve also learned to establish connections between peoples and organizations in other parts of the world.  I’ve become so fascinated by the power of reaching across national boundaries, that I’ve even written a book about it.

In Berlanga’s movie, Mr. Marshall never shows up in the end.  The Villar del Río villagers are left disappointed and as ignorant of the americanos as always.  Mr. Fulbright did show up and made a big difference, in my life, 300,000 others and the millions that together we have managed to reach.

Congratulations Fulbrighters!  Let’s work to make sure the Fulbright program grows stronger.  For now, it would be useful and timely if you joined the #SaveFulbright movement.

Write to Ángel Cabrera at president@gmu.edu

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