Pros and Cons of the Fulbright Program

pexels-photo-356079.jpegSomeone messaged me on Instagram today asking “How is the Fulbright program? I’m considering it. Pros, cons?”

If you have a passion for traveling, living abroad, learning about and integrating yourself into a new culture, and a meaningful project that will benefit the world, yes, you should absolutely apply for a Fulbright.

For those who know me, I don’t sugar coat things. If I think a program is amazing, that’s the truth. If I don’t like something, I’ll state that or won’t speak on it.

To summarize, I am having the best time of my life as a Fulbright research grantee and loving every single moment. 

PROS:

  • My lab is a great environment and I love the team
  • My research advisor is invested in my well-being, my career, and training as a scientist. He is brilliant, kind, well-connected, and respected in his field. I’m fortunate to be under his guidance
  • I have an exciting project
  • I love my host-country. Belgium is a perfect fit for me. Brussels is a diverse city and I have access to all of the things that I love to do.
  • The Fulbright Commission in Belgium (I can’t speak on the other Commissions) is fantastic. They host numerous social and professional events for us and provide resources to make our transition as smooth as possible. I sincerely feel that they care about us and our success. They’re genuinely kind people.
  • I can easily travel throughout Europe and it’s affordable #becauseEurope

CONS:

The burden of out-of-pocket costs for transitioning abroad is insane.
This was by far one of the most frustrating and discouraging things that I had to deal with. I feel like this move to Belgium simply wasn’t affordable. If not for sponsors, additional funding, and my Captial One Venture Card (with 0% APR for 12 months – this was crucial), I would have been SOL.

  • A visa application to Belgium can easily cost up to $1,000.00. Shout out to the African Studies Center at the University of Michigan for sponsoring my visa application – something I did not have money for AT ALL. Had I known that my visa would cost that much, I would have saved in advance, but I discovered this after I won the Fulbright and only had a few months to apply. I guess it was my responsibility to figure this out, but as someone who had never lived abroad anywhere for more than 6 weeks, I just didn’t know.

 

  • In order to be paid we had to provide our address to the Fulbright office. So if it took you a month to find housing, you weren’t getting paid for at least one month. We had to pay for airfare, lodging, and all other expenses *before* receiving our first Fulbright grant payment. I moved to Belgium in July and received my first Fulbright payment at the end of September. Fortunately for me, the BAEF paid me before I left for Belgium.  I don’t know what I would have done otherwise. Granted, this is no different than what I had to do for Graduate school, but I was able to save for that because I knew my costs upfront and knew I’d be paid within the first month no matter what.

 

  • Side bar: this is probably something that discourages people from underrepresented and economically disadvantaged backgrounds to apply for programs like the Fulbright. If you can’t afford to move yourself abroad, why would you apply for a grant to go abroad you know? Somehow these programs need to cater to student/scholar populations that may experience financial challenges. Maybe they do and I’m unaware…but… if somebody didn’t provide these financial resources for me to move to Belgium, I wasn’t gon’ go (even with a Fulbright causeeeeeeeee I’m not taking out any more loans in this lifetime). #Dassafact

 

  • The stipend is enough to get by and it was impossible for me to find this information ANYWHERE online. After I complete my grant project, I’m going to share my detailed yearly budget, taxes, etc. to give a clear idea of the cost-of-living in Brussels (which ain’t too shabby). I could not live where I do if I didn’t have extra funding from the BAEF. Fulbright pays ~1,100 EUR per month which is roughly $1,300 USD per month. My rent/utilities/phone bill/etc. costs ~900 EUR per month. So basically, Fulbright covers my housing lol and BAEF covers everything else. My place is a GREAT deal, I live in a studio apartment in a good and safe neighborhood and it’s close to my lab. To put things in perspective, with both sources of funding I maintain the same standard of living as I did as a graduate student in Michigan. That said, the people I know solely supporting themselves through Fulbright have roommates. The people I know living alone have additional sources of funding (through their affiliate institutions, the National Science Foundation, etc.).

 

  • I have to admit, when I attended our Fulbright orientation, I was not surprised (I won’t say I was disappointed even though I was) to see that I was the only black Fulbrighter (although currently that may no longer be the case – yay). I’m also the only black Belgian American Educational Foundation (BAEF) fellow. It’s something that I’m used to. Granted, I don’t know the application stats, the demographic of the pool of applicants whom applied, but I do get tired of being “the only one.” I’m sure there are a myriad of factors that contribute to these outcomes buttttttttttt that’s no excuse. We can do better.

 

  • I use my opportunities to highlight my experiences abroad so that other underrepresented persons will be encouraged to apply for a Fulbright or whatever. This is actually part of the reason I started @fulbrightnoir on Instagram, to create a space where other black people could see themselves represented abroad and be encouraged to pursue their dreams and consider an international exchange program.

This turned into an essay, my bad. Really, everything is great. I am beyond thankful for my life abroad and the funding I have to do the essential microbiology research to help our communities worldwide. It’s a blessing to be apart of the Fulbright community and I couldn’t be more grateful.

Some of the pros/cons I mentioned are not necessarily Fulbright specific and are certainly country dependent; stipends and resources for grantees differ among countries and programs. Our Fulbright staff are amazing, but that’s Belgium.

Keep this in mind when reading about my experiences; I live in the capital of the European Union (EU) in one of the most vibrant cities in the world. I may have had a very different experience had I done a Fulbright in another country. All the more reason I am grateful that I chose Belgium 🙂

If you have any other questions about the program or my experiences in general, let me know!

With Love,
Chi-Chi

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