Fulbright-Hays: 55 Years of Supporting of Doctoral Research

By Rohan Chatterjee, LACS MA Student/CLAS Communications Assistant


Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo by Fulbright-Hays DDRA recipient, Chris Gatto.


Last September marked the 55th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy signing into law the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act, otherwise known as Fulbright-Hays. With Kennedy’s signature the Fulbright program extended its franchise of government sponsored educational exchange programs to include doctoral research as well as K–16 educator exchange.  

The Fulbright program and Latin American Studies share similar conceptual genealogies, as part of a wider push by the US government to develop area studies programs at the close of the hostilities at the end of World War II. The measure was first introduced by Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, whose distinguished political career spanned 30 years and would become the program’s namesake, in a bill reflective of the New Deal-era thinking prevalent in the political climate of the era. The funding for the Fulbright program has its genesis in the post-war cleanup of military equipment. Rather than incurring the costs of return battle worn machinery, the US government traded the surplus equipment for treaty concessions, including educational exchange programs.

From these more utilitarian origins, Fulbright-Hays has flourished into a heuristic student exchange program that has provided educational training to some 370,000 “Fulbrighters” across the US and the world. Today Fulbright-Hays offers around 8,000 grants annually and operates in over 160 countries.

Fulbright awardees join a distinguished community of former fellows which includes 57 Nobel Prize winners, 29 MacArthur Foundation Fellows, 82 Pulitzer Prize winners, and 33 current or former Heads of State; seven of which are from Latin America. 

The Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad (DDRA) fellowship is specifically geared towards doctoral candidates, providing 6–12 months of funding (which can total up to $60,000) for dissertation research in one or more countries worldwide (except Western Europe unless visited briefly for archival research). The program is intended to create modern language and world area specialists who have an interdisciplinary approach to research. 

The University of Chicago has a long and fruitful relationship with Fulbright-Hays, with 120 fellowships awarded to UChicago students since 2007. The story at Center for Latin American Studies reflects this success: since 2007 there have been 32 Fulbright awardees—over a quarter of all recipients from the University—focused on Latin America. Just last year, CLAS-affiliated students made up half of the University of Chicago’s 2016–17 Fulbright awardees. Our fellows have come from diverse disciplines such as Anthropology, Art History, Comparative Human Development, History, Music, and Political Science. These fellows have conducted pioneering research in nine countries spanning the length and breadth of the Latin America.

CLAS reached out to current and former Fulbright-Hays fellows to share their experiences and their advice for future applicants.

Keshia Harris (PhD Candidate, Comparative Human Development) is currently in the field, collecting data for her dissertation Somos Una Salada de Fruta: Academic Achievement in Brazilian and Colombian Structures of Opportunity, a study of “public education, racial identity, national identity, and skin tone stratification.” 

How has the Fulbright-Hays assisted your research?

The fellowship has allotted me with the resources to travel to both countries, travel to schools throughout each city multiple times per week (often of far distances from my residence), print over 600 surveys, live and eat comfortably in safe neighborhoods, and have health insurance coverage while abroad.

How has the Fulbright-Hays prepared you for future study and career?

The extensive and detailed application process for the fellowship has certainly prepared me for future grant writing, specifically for prestigious and competitive funding opportunities.  Additionally, as a Fulbright recipient, I am now a member of a community of scholars … I can mentor and obtain guidance from for a lifetime.

Do you have any advice for future applicants?

The application for the Fulbright process is not to be taken lightly.  I dedicated more time to the application process in writing the narrative and obtaining the necessary requirements than I did when I applied for doctoral programs. The on campus resources that I found to be most helpful were meeting regularly with the graduate fellowship director and the fellowship writing group.  I absolutely recommend joining a writing group in which students review other applicants’ writing contributions and receive feedback from the fellowship and writing coordinator. I advise to start two to three months or more in advance, organize all of the requested materials with specifications into a spreadsheet, and seek support.

Chris Gatto (PhD Candidate, History) recently returned from his Fulbright-Hays fellowship, which supported his studies of indigenous communities and agricultural changes over the nineteenth century in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico.

How has the Fulbright-Hays assisted your research?

Archival research—the foundation of my project—is a very slow process, due to limited archive hours and documents that are very difficult to interpret. The Fulbright offered me eight months of funding, which allowed me to live in both Mexico City and Oaxaca for a year and slowly complete the work that needed to be done.

How has the Fulbright-Hays prepared you for future study and career?

I am currently in the process of writing the initial chapters of my dissertation. The Fulbright allowed me to get the research portion of my project out of the way early, so I can now spend my time in Chicago writing and completing teaching obligations and not take additional trips back to Mexico (even though I would love to!). The Fulbright will certainly help me when I go onto the academic job market in a couple years. The market for Latin American history PhDs is quite competitive, and universities want to see that you have your dissertation nearly completed. The Fulbright—by offering a year of funding for research—will allow me to write my dissertation quicker, and, hopefully, have it done before I go onto the market.

Do you have any advice for future applicants?

The most helpful resource I found in completing the application process was reading previous students’ successful applications. I received these applications from Jessica Smith [Associate Director of Fellowships, UChicagoGRAD], the coordinator of Fulbright grants at our university, who was able to find several students that had applied on similar topics. I would highly recommend asking her for these applications, in addition to asking her about the detailed point system graders use when evaluating applications.

José Juan Pérez Meléndez (PhD’16), now the Max Weber Post-Doctoral Fellow of History and Civilization at the European University Institute, carried out Fulbright-funded research on orchestrated migration schemes in Brazil in the first half of the nineteenth century, specifically on colonization companies that recruited new migrants to the Brazilian hinterland.

How did the Fulbright-Hays assist your research?

The Fulbright-Hays DDRA fellowship allowed me to carry out research in more than a dozen archives in Brazil for the space of a year….While I worked mostly in Rio de Janeiro, the Fulbright-Hays allowed me to also travel to Porto Alegre and Bahia to search for migration or colonization proposals at the regional level. I found that the capacity to carry out a truly multi-site archival research and to dedicate enough time to get to know the nuts and bolts of each archive was one of the most valuable aspects of this fellowship.

How did the Fulbright-Hays support your career?

The type of learning one experiences through this type of immersion—in my case, a more intimate knowledge of local and national politics as well as of the urban culture of Rio de Janeiro—can hardly be replicated in any academic setting. This lived experience added depth to my thinking about my research but also impelled me to branch out and educate myself with everything that Brazil had to offer. Ultimately, that is the true north of teaching: having direct contact and a true intellectual involvement with the questions that concern us and with people interested in similar or even better questions. In my experience, meeting colleagues carrying out research in Brazil and getting the opportunity to enjoy a sustained dialogue with them for the length of the fellowship and beyond has been one of the most salient benefits of this fellowship.

Do you have any advice for future applicants?

I was very lucky to count on the help of Jessica Smith during the application process. Jessica provided great practical advice on the application and a good dose of encouragement not to mention a lot of perspective, which allowed me to understand that there were other ways to carry out extended research abroad. In addition, I was lucky to count on a great cohort of Latin American history colleagues at UChicago who had already gone through the experience of applying for this sort of fellowship and who generously shared some tips. Overall, working on draft after draft after draft was, in the end, time well spent. Early if gradual preparation helps: anything from doing pre-dissertation work in the field to dedicating a bit of time, say, a half-hour of work, to the application every day in the months before the deadline.

For more information, please visit the UChicagoGRAD website.