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ASU named top producer of Fulbright awardees for faculty, students

Intensive support for applicants leads to success in prestigious program

A group of people hold a globe aloft

Arizona State University is one of only seven doctoral-granting universities that are top producers for both scholar and student awards. Photo by franckreporter/iStock

February 15, 2024

As a U.S. Fulbright Scholar, Lela Rankin has been able to advance her research into parenting practices and make an impact beyond the borders of the United States.

Rankin, a professor in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University, is currently in a six-month position as Fulbright Canada Research Chair in Psychology at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. There, she’s collaborating on research, working with undergraduates and connecting with the local community.

“No matter what you study, you’re able to look at things from a different cultural perspective, different theoretical perspective and different political perspective, which is all part of deepening your knowledge of the work you’re doing,” she said.

Rankin is one of eight ASU faculty members who are in the 2023–24 cohort of Fulbright U.S. Scholars. The university’s continued success in placing its faculty and students into the prestigious program has led to ASU being once again designated a “top-producing institution” of both Fulbright U.S. Scholars and Fulbright U.S. Students.

Arizona State University is one of only seven doctoral-granting universities that are top producers Overall, 12 institutions were designated “top producers” in both categories: seven doctoral, including ASU, plus one master’s, three baccalaureate and one special-focus four-year institution. for both scholar and student awards. ASU was also a dual “top-producing institution” last year, one of only nine doctoral universities with that designation for 2022–23.

Woman holding a toddler close to her
Lela Rankin, a professor in the School of Social Work in Tucson, is researching parenting practices during a six-month position as Fulbright Canada Research Chair in Psychology at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The rankings were announced on Tuesday by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which oversees the Fulbright program.

For the 2023–24 academic year, for doctoral-granting institutions, ASU ranked sixth overall for faculty awards, with eight awardees, and 21st overall for student awards, with 16 awardees. Of all public universities granting doctorates, ASU ranked fifth for faculty awards and fourth for student.

Besides ASU, the doctoral-granting universities designated as a “top producer” in both categories are the University of Southern California, George Washington University, North Carolina State University, the University of Maryland at College Park, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the University of Alabama.

ASU is successful at placing faculty and students into the Fulbright program in large part because the university invests a high level of support during the application process. Applicants have access to information sessions and workshops, plus hours of advising, application review and even interview preparation.

“Our faculty are particularly competitive because a lot of the things that Fulbright looks for align very closely with our charter,” said Karen Engler-Weber, program director in the Office of the University Provost and ASU’s liaison to both the Fulbright Scholar and Specialist Programs.

“Our faculty are already doing this work in the classroom or in their research — they’re thinking globally and more inclusively.”

ASU has been a “top-producing institution” for the Fulbright U.S. Student Program for 18 of the past 20 years, according to Kyle Mox, associate dean of national scholarship advisement in the Office of National Scholarship Advisement at ASU.

“I’m very proud because it’s a collaborative effort between dozens of faculty, a lot of staff and a lot of student work,” he said of the designation. “The numbers don’t tell the whole story, but it’s outside verification that we’re doing the right things.”

Nancy Gonzales, executive vice president and university provost, said, “We are deeply proud of the students and scholars at ASU who are advancing the ideals of our charter and design aspirations through their academic pursuits through the Fulbright Program.

“The experiences they have while on the Fulbright Program are critical in forging constructive positive relationships with people across the globe. We are proud of the reputation we have built as a top-producing institution, and are grateful to the dedicated ASU leaders who prepare our students and scholars so effectively for the Fulbright Program.” 

Finding their passion

Students and faculty members typically spend many months on their applications, starting with information sessions.

An initial part of the process for faculty is identifying which award to pursue because hundreds of positions are available and they can apply for only one, Engler-Weber said.

“I have many conversations with applicants about, ‘What is their passion? What part of the world do they want to be in?’” she said.

She mentors faculty members as they conceptualize their project proposal and then reviews their application materials, including multiple drafts of project or teaching statements, plus letters of recommendation.

Professors also can see applications from faculty who were chosen for Fulbright awards and have their applications reviewed by awardees who served in the same program or region.

“Faculty don’t have to work directly with my office, but of those that do, nearly 100% make it to the final round of competition,” Engler-Weber said. “Having that extra support to navigate the application process can make all the difference.

“And should they win the award, we help coordinate with their department for leave and help them think about next steps as they prepare for their time abroad.”

Most of the scholar awards permit faculty to bring their families, so that’s another big consideration, she said.

“It’s a life-changing experience not only for the scholar but their family as well,” she said.

Lifelong collaboration

Rankin had always been interested in pursuing a Fulbright, but was inspired last year when she saw an article in the New York Times titled “Maternal Instinct is a Myth that Men Created.”

One of Rankin’s areas of research is mother-infant attachment, and the article mentioned an evolutionary perspective on the topic that Rankin had never explored.

“It made a lot of statements contradictory to the work I do around attachment and the mother-infant relationship — that for many mothers, entering into motherhood does not feel innate,” said Rankin, who is a professor at the School of Social Work in Tucson.

“A lot of people feel lost and that they should feel an immediate love connection to their infant and if they’re not feeling those things, they can’t turn for support or help.”

So Rankin, who is originally from Nova Scotia, applied for a Fulbright award to work with a psychologist at St. Mary’s who studies that evolutionary perspective.

“What we’ve been doing together this year is deconstructing the evidence underlying this myth and the ways we can accurately think about what is good parenting,” she said.

The Fulbright program wants scholars to sustain their connections, which Rankin is eager to do.

“It’s a lifelong collaboration not just with my host university but with other researchers in the area and anyone I’ve come into contact with during this time,” she said.

Man pointing to a screen in a classroom
Michael Gradoville, an assistant professor of Spanish in the School of International Letter and Cultures at ASU, teaches at the University of International Integration of the Afro-Brazilian Lusophony while in a Fulbright research and teaching position in Brazil.

Michael Gradoville, an assistant professor of Spanish in the School of International Letters and Cultures, is researching and teaching multilingualism at the University of International Integration of the Afro-Brazilian Lusophony in the northeastern Brazilian state of Ceará.

The university, founded in 2010, was established to foster greater integration between Brazil and countries where Portuguese is an official language due to colonization.

“From a linguistic point of view, it is a truly unique place because of the intense contact between people from different Portuguese-speaking countries,” he said.

“The international students are generally multilingual due to the language situations in their respective countries, which opens opportunities to explore how their Portuguese is or is not affected by their other languages.

“In many ways, the context itself reflects a major goal of the Fulbright Program, which is to foster exchange between cultures,” said Gradoville, whose trip is five and a half months.

Both professors are enjoying the local culture.

Rankin’s family is with her, and her children are enrolled in local schools, learning about Canada and how to speak French.

“There’s a lot of rich cultural musical traditions in the area, so it’s common for people to gather in the evening and pull out instruments and sing songs,” she said.

Gradoville has found that life without a car in Ceará is much easier to do than in the U.S. And he's enjoying the food discoveries he's making.

“There is an abundance of fresh food here, notably fruit, some of which is nearly unknown in the United States,” he said.

“I particularly enjoy having a sapoti with breakfast. When I was at the supermarket yesterday, I found a fruit imported from Bolivia that I had never heard of — achachairu. Naturally, it is now waiting in the fruit basket for me to try.”

Both professors were pleased with the months-long support they received from Engler-Weber during the application process.

“She provided several rounds of feedback to me in terms of what the questions were really getting at and what kinds of applicants they would be looking for,” Rankin said.

Gradoville recommended that faculty interested in pursuing a Fulbright keep an open mind about where they want to go.

“I would recommend exploring places outside of Europe and also outside of the major cities of the country in question, somewhere where there are fewer Americans,” he said.

“In such an area, it is probably easier to foster more meaningful and unique connections with people.”

Coming full circle

Students also spend months preparing their Fulbright applications, and the Office of National Scholarship Advisement provides intensive support.

Mox said that the disruption of the pandemic led to a better advising system.

“What we found in the years since COVID, when all advising went online, is that students benefit from a cohort advising model, so most advising happens in small groups,” he said.

“This not only increases the number of advisees but the students also feel accountable to their peers, get excellent feedback from their peers and feel like part of something bigger than themselves, which keeps them motivated.”

In addition to being more efficient, online advising has increased the diversity of the student applicant pool, with more students from campuses besides Tempe and from a greater variety of majors, he said.

Collin Frank is currently on a 10-month U.S. Student Fulbright teaching post in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.

“Armenia is so interesting. It’s not really European and not really Asian. It’s its own thing,” said Frank, who is teaching English at the University of Yerevan.

“I’m teaching Armenians, and many have never met an American before. I’m the first, and maybe only, American they’ll see, and it’s an honor but also a bit intimidating. But ASU helped me with that.”

Frank earned bachelor’s degrees in global studies and Russian at ASU and will graduate with a master’s degree in political science this year. This summer, a week after he returns from Armenia, he’ll begin an internship in Washington, D.C., as a winner of the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship, which requires a five-year commitment to the U.S. Foreign Service. In the fall, he’ll begin pursuing a master’s degree in foreign service at Georgetown University.

Frank became interested in the Fulbright a few years ago, when several University of Yerevan students came to the Melikian Center for Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies at ASU. The Armenian students attended some of his courses because they were creating an American Studies program.

“Now I work in that American Studies program, so it’s come full circle,” said Frank, who also made several recordings for conversational English classes.

“It’s fun to think that in some rural class, I’m the male voice in these recordings for the official Armenian textbook for learning English.”

Frank said the Office of National Scholarship Advisement helped him to refine his Fulbright application, but ASU’s support began even before that.

“It was professors helping me to get internships and me saying, ‘I’m not qualified’ and them saying, ‘Do it anyway.’ The Russian Department is small but mighty.”

Frank said the application is a lot of work, but the result is rewarding.

“It’s so worth it, even if you don’t get it,” he said. “The time you spend thinking about your motivations and what you want is very valuable.”

Taking a chance

ASU also engages with Fulbright as a much sought-after host institution for both faculty and students from other countries, according to Engler-Weber. 

“I work directly with visiting scholars, and sometimes students, to help them identify the best potential fit in terms of departments to host them, while the ISSC (International Students and Scholars Center) works extensively with both visiting faculty and students from abroad to navigate their Fulbright at ASU,” she said.

Both Engler-Weber and Mox emphasized that people in the ASU community should consider themselves Fulbright material because the program is eager to have a diverse group of awardees.

“Diversity and inclusion are essential to Fulbright, which aims to have a cohort that comes from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences to be more representative of the U.S, as Fulbrighters represent the U.S. abroad,” Engler-Weber said.

In 2023, ASU was named a Fulbright Hispanic-Serving Institution Leader.

“Any student who is ready to have this global engagement can do this,” Mox said. “They can write a strong application if they engage with our office.

“I encourage ASU students and recent graduates to take a chance on themselves rather than say, ‘This isn’t for me.’”

Fulbright Day at ASU

Faculty, staff and students who have considered applying for a Fulbright award are invited to an information session, which runs 3:30 to 6 p.m. March 27 in Room 202 of the Memorial Union on the Tempe campus.

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