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Making History, One Fulbrighter at a Time

Sophia Danenberg, 1995 Fulbright U.S. Student to Japan, became the first Black woman from any country and the first African-American to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Photo: Sophia Danenberg.

Fulbrighters not only enrich their educations and advance their careers, they also make meaningful contributions abroad and at home, often in unexpected ways. Throughout the program’s 75-year history, Fulbrighters have borne witness to world-changing historical moments; in some cases, they have even made history themselves. 

Juan Manuel Santos, President of Colombia, and 1981 Fulbright Foreign Student, receiving the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize. Photo: BBC.

Some Fulbrighters change the course of history: Juan Manuel Santos, 1981 Fulbright Foreign Student from Colombia, returned to his home country and eventually became president and negotiated a peace deal to end more than five decades of conflict. For his efforts he was awarded the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize

Other Fulbrighters make history: Sophia Danenberg, 1995 Fulbright U.S. Student to Japan, became the first Black woman from any country and the first African-American to reach the summit of Mount Everest. 

 Gorongosa National Park rangers Macane Costa Alberto Jornal (left) and Zacarias Muchambique (right) stack food kits in the park’s buffer zone as they prepare to distribute the kits to families. Photo: Dr. Jen Guyton

Working Together to Solve Complex Challenges

When Fulbrighters have found themselves facing natural disasters, they have sprung into action to help communities recover. 

A flooded household in Gorongosa National Park’s southern buffer zone, still inundated two weeks after Cyclone Idai. People stand on the island in the top left corner. Photo: Dr. Jen Guyton.

Fulbrighters React to Natural Disasters

Dr. Jen Guyton, 2018 Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellow to Mozambique, traveled to Gorongosa National Park to capture conservation efforts through the lens of her camera. While on her Fulbright, she photographed images of an unexpected threat: Cyclone Idai. One of the deadliest storms in history, it affected more than 3 million people, displaced thousands, and killed more than 1,300. Dr. Guyton used her storytelling skills to document the storm, as well as the resilience of human and animal residents to raise awareness and raise funds to mitigate the storm’s impact.

Edward Shippen “Ship” Bright, 2019 Fulbright U.S. Scholar to the Bahamas, a social entrepreneur, encountered Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm, while on his Fulbright. Bright pivoted from teaching to supporting the Bahamas during recovery, including through volunteering with World Central Kitchen, sending University of the Bahamas students to Hampton University in the United States, and working with the U.S. Embassy in Nassau. Bright reflects: “We were up close and personal with Bahamians during some of their darkest days. We endured what they endured, and we pitched in side-by-side with them. When you suffer and recover with someone, it becomes a special bond. Seems like cultural diplomacy to me.”

Fulbrighters Confront Public Health Challenges

Fulbrighters use their expertise to confront the public health challenges of our time. During the Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa, Dr. Cheedy Jaja, 2018 Fulbright U.S. Scholar to Sierra Leone, returned to his native Sierra Leone and served two tours with Partners in Health (PIH), providing clinical care to Ebola patients. Dr. Jaja reflects: “Each patient I treated, I told myself that I was treating myself. Empathy, compassion, and the ability to make do with very little is so important.”

In a world profoundly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, Fulbrighters continue to show flexibility, resilience, and a desire to do their part. Through research, public webinars with experts in public health and nursing, articles, and on the ground efforts, Fulbright physicians, researchers, nurses, healthcare workers, volunteers, and others continue to support those affected around the world.

Youssef Hilmi, Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA) from Morocco to Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, volunteered at the Coastal Bend Food Bank at the American Bank Center in Corpus Christi, where he helped sort and package 3,000 boxes of food for a local community. Photo: Youssef Hilmi.

Documenting Critical Moments in History

Fulbrighters sometimes find themselves at critical junctures in world history, bearing witness to major events. On their journeys, Fulbrighters encounter the people, ideas, and movements that transform societies, moving us towards a more peaceful and just world.

Bellamy Pailthorp, 1989 Fulbright U.S. Student to West Germany. Photo: Bellamy Pailthorp.

Bellamy Pailthorp, 1989 Fulbright U.S. Student to West Germany, recalls the fall of the Berlin Wall, a seminal moment in contemporary German and international history. Removing physical and ideological divisions and embracing democracy, Germany was reunited for a brighter future. As the Wall fell, she was working as a translator for an American journalist. Pailthorp vividly remembers November 9th, 1989: “The streets were crowded for days, and after a certain point you could not buy any more bananas […] People were lining up at the banks to get their greeting money and [it was] just a big massive party for several days in the streets.”

Dr. Mary Christopher, 2010 Fulbright U.S. Scholar to Egypt, used her Fulbright to teach Damanhour University veterinarian students about veterinary practices in the United States.

Dr. Christopher found herself in the midst of Egypt’s 2011 revolution, seeing demonstrations, exploring Tahrir Square between protests, and experiencing a communications blackout. During this time of uncertainty, Dr. Christopher strengthened her bonds with Egyptian colleagues and students. She explains that “The revolution stimulated discussions about oppression and democracy—people felt free to share opinions and ideas they might not otherwise have voiced […] One goal of a Fulbright is to enable you to view and understand your work in a new environment. The revolution added a unique and indelible context to this understanding.”

Harris Wiltsher, Associate Professor of printmaking and design at Florida A&M University. Photo: Harris Wiltsher.

Harris Wiltsher, 1993 Fulbright U.S. Student to South Africa, witnessed the birth of a new era of democracy. In 1993, Wiltsher’s Fulbright took him to the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town, South Africa, where he witnessed the crumbling of apartheid. As a result of his Fulbright experience, Wiltsher created a print series, delivered various talks, and constructed a traveling exhibition, “South Africa: A Better Life for All.” Wiltsher’s firsthand experience allowed him to communicate South Africa’s rapidly changing society to the United States.

Megha Rajagopalan, 2010 Fulbright U.S. Student to China, is a 2021 Pulitzer Prize recipient for International Reporting. Photo: Megha Rajagopalan.

Megha Rajagopalan, 2010 Fulbright U.S. Student to China, is an award-winning international correspondent for BuzzFeed News, who has reported from 23 countries in Asia and the Middle East throughout her career. For her in-depth reporting on the internment of Uyghurs in China, Rajagopalan, alongside colleagues Allison Killing and Christo Buschek, won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting. Her keen journalistic skills were honed during her Fulbright when she researched the evolving role of enterprise journalists in Chinese society.

Bringing History To Life Through Stories

In addition to making history, Fulbrighters also share important stories to keep cultures, memories, and ideas alive. Destry Maria Sibley, 2017 Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellow to Mexico, documented the oral histories of Los Niños de Morelia, a group of child refugees who fled the Spanish Civil War and settled in Mexico in 1937, including Sibley’s grandmother. Interviewing this now-elderly population and their descendants, Sibley developed a podcast series and website dedicated to their stories to discover the past and raise awareness of the millions of child refugees today.

Fulbrighters also assess archives and reexamine the past for greater understanding. Paul A. Shapiro, 1973 Fulbright-Hays Fellow to Romania, served as the founding director of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. for 19 years (1997-2016), where he led the museum’s effort to provide focused leadership to the field of Holocaust Studies in the United States and abroad. Shapiro currently serves as the first director of the museum’s new Office of International Affairs, with the goal of enhancing the museum’s international presence and impact. A leader in the field of Holocaust studies, Shapiro has dedicated much of his career to increasing awareness about and accountability for the Holocaust, working to open archives and make them accessible for education and research, and ensuring understanding of the contemporary relevance of this defining historical event of the 20th century.
Tsione Wolde-Michael, 2015 Fulbright-Public Policy Fellow to the African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, is a historian and curator with a primary focus on African American history. Wolde-Michael worked with a small team as co-curator of the landmark Slavery and Freedom exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which has been publicly recognized for the ways it has transformed American understanding of slavery and the African American experience.

Slavery and Freedom exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Photo: Smithsonian Institution.

Making History Beyond Earth

Dr. Harrison H. Schmitt, 1956 Fulbright U.S. Student to Norway, on the surface of the Moon. Photo: NASA.

Fulbrighters have used their knowledge to expand our understanding of the world around us; some have gone even farther. Dr. Harrison H. Schmitt, 1956 Fulbright U.S. Student to Norway and geologist; and Dr. Joseph P. Allen, 1959 Fulbright U.S. Student to West Germany and nuclear physicist;were selected by NASA as Scientist-Astronauts in 1965 and 1967, respectively. Dr. Schmitt flew in space as Apollo 17’s Lunar Module Pilot, landing in the Moon’s Valley of Taurus-Littrow on December 11, 1972. He is the only scientist and last of 12 people to step on the Moon. Dr. Allen flew on two space shuttle missions, which were both milestone flights: the first operational mission on Columbia in 1982, and the first satellite salvage mission on Discovery in 1984.

Earth’s top minds are reimagining space exploration for the future. Dr. Eduardo Bendek, 2008 Fulbright Science & Technology Fellow from Chile to the University of Arizona, has more than 10 years of experience in state-of-the-art opto-mechanical systems for ground and space-based telescopes. Dr. Bendek works at NASA’s Ames Research Center (ARC), where he focuses on the search for habitable planets beyond the solar system. In 2015 he was awarded NASA’s Exceptional Technology Achievement Medal for his contributions to the agency on the development of exoplanet detection technologies. Dr. Elizabeth Jens, 2010 Fulbright Foreign Student from Australia to Stanford University, is a propulsion engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). An expert in rocket science, she worked on a subsystem for the NASA Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover, which is currently searching for signs of ancient microbial life. She also researches hybrid rocket technology to enable a new class of small spacecraft.

Tomorrow’s Story

Over the 75 years of the Fulbright Program, Fulbrighters have witnessed historic events during their exchanges and some Fulbrighters have been the drivers of history themselves. Fulbrighters have answered calls to action and have led others during defining moments in history when creative solutions for complex global or local challenges were required.  Each Fulbrighter is part of a network of hundreds of thousands of alumni serving as leaders and changemakers in communities across the world.  And, through each Fulbright experience and Fulbright-created connection, we are hopeful that the activities that Fulbrighters are carrying out today will be written in the next chapter of the history books as having a positive impact on future generations in the U.S. and around the world.