Fulbright program in trouble under Trump

“Did you ever play Twister with your girlfriend?”

“Do you eat French toast and pancakes with maple syrup for breakfast? With bacon too?”

“And how the heck does the Electoral College work?”

These were just a few of the questions I received from students and fellow professors during my Fulbright grant to San Lorenzo, Paraguay. The Fulbright Program, founded in the wake of World War II, doubles as the U.S.’s premier academic exchange and our most effective means of creating good will toward America. Unfortunately, the Fulbright and other related programs are under dire threat.

This month, the White House released its budget proposal for the fiscal year 2019. Buried amid cuts across departments is a whopping 25 percent cut to the State Department. How does the Trump administration seek to achieve such drastic cuts? Regrettably, by crippling the Fulbright and other valuable exchange programs.

During my Fulbright grant, I had the privilege of teaching Paraguay’s best and brightest. My teenage students were the future leaders of Paraguay — scholarship recipients, heads of student government and even founders of NGOs. And thanks to Netflix, Spotify and YouTube, they were totally enamored with American culture, music and movies, hence the questions about breakfast and Twister. Yet for all their love of Beyonce and “Friends,” my students knew shockingly little about the lives of ordinary Americans. ¨Have you ever met a celebrity,” they asked little old me. “Is high school really like ‘13 Reasons Why?’”

In class we dove headfirst into my students’ stereotypes and misconceptions. The question of “Why do all black people look like gangsters?” became an opportunity to bring a black American into the classroom to lead a dialogue on black life in the States. A Christopher Columbus Day celebration was an opportunity to consider the rights of indigenous peoples. A visiting American journalist led a conversation on the importance of alternative and independent media sources. And on the Fourth of July, we explored new-to-them Abigail Adams and Betsy Ross. Now more than ever, the Fulbright Program supports cross-cultural dialogues that reach far beyond George Washington and Katy Perry.

After our lessons, Paraguay’s young changemakers thought a little less about Disneyland and Hollywood, and a little more about America’s true cultural treasures: historical pioneers, a free press and cultural diversity — and the relevance of these themes to their country.

State Department exchange programs are administered by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). In recent years, ECA has operated with an annual budget hovering around $630 million, a numerical rounding error equal to 0.00014 percent of this fiscal year´s $4.4 trillion proposed total federal budget. This Trump administration believes this number should be reduced to a paltry $159 million, a figure far below what ECA needs to implement the Fulbright and other critical exchanges.

However, we have been here before. Last year, the Trump administration also attempted to dramatically underfund ECA, at the then unthinkable level of $288 million. After an outpouring of constituent protest, bipartisan committees in both the House and Senate rejected the budget and voted to continue funding the State Department at previous levels. This year’s proposed ECA budget is less than one half the figure that Congress dismissed last year. Unfortunately, this time around we are still waiting for the strong bipartisan coalition to reemerge.

Congress has the power of the purse, and it is up to both parties’ congressional leadership to send a strong and resounding message to the administration: ECA will be fully funded for fiscal year 2019 so Fulbright continues as a powerful tool of cultural exchange.

My students now know that, actually, French toast is from France, and maple syrup is from Canada. They’re still waiting for a future ¨Fulbrighter¨ to explain the Electoral College. If Congress acts to preserve the Fulbright, they may get their answer.

Samuel Fishman (samuel.fishman@fulbrightmail.org) is on the second period of his Fulbright grant in Paraguay. He is from Timonium and graduated from Dulaney High School in 2012.

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