Campus investment results in record number of Fulbright placements

By Hayley Bruce, Iowa Now

Fort Dodge, Iowa, native Douglas Baker has never traveled outside of the United States.

But, in a few short months, the University of Iowa student will board a plane headed for Japan where he’s set to conduct research on a classical Japanese composer that’s the perfect melding of his academic and personal interests.


Douglas Baker

Baker, a double major in Japanese and Music, is just one of 13 University of Iowa students and alumni who have been awarded a Fulbright U.S. Student Program grant to conduct research, attend graduate school, undertake creative projects, or serve as English teaching assistants abroad in 2015–16.

That’s the most placements the UI has ever secured in a single calendar year and—thanks to hard work among UI faculty and staff across campus— represents significant improvement among our peers.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s most recent report on the Top Producers of U.S. Fulbright Scholars and Students, the UI has risen from 128th to 45th in the number of Fulbright U.S. Student Program awards for 2014–15 among its peer institutions.

Karen Wachsmuth, associate director of international fellowships at the UI, who serves as the official Fulbright Program Adviser for the university, says much of that success can be attributed to the UI’s robust network of professional development resources, and the “Fulbright Family” she’s been building on campus over the last five years.

“We’re trying to get students thinking about applying for a Fulbright from the day they set foot on campus,” Wachsmuth says. “I give them suggestions on how to develop themselves in ways that make them more competitive candidates, and a big part of that, of course, is helping them to develop their writing skills. I also encourage them to take advantage of all the language-learning resources we have on campus.”

With the help of an ad-hoc committee of former Fulbright recipients and faculty mentors, Wachsmuth hosts information sessions for students interested in Fulbright, sets students up with mentors, holds writing workshops and mock interviews for applicants, and offers one-on-one assistance for students interested in Fulbright and other international fellowship opportunities.

UI Fulbright winners past and present credit the UI’s resources and hands-on approach for their success and for the incredible international opportunities they’ve had access to.

Baker says Wachsmuth and peers in the writing workshops she organized helped him work through no fewer than five drafts of the grant proposal and personal statement he was preparing for his application this year.

“Other applicants are actually excellent resources because you’re feeding off of each other,” Baker says. “You’ll read another application and it will spark a new idea, or help you think about a new angle.”


Katherine Ryken (right), of Iowa City, works alongside another medical student in Bosnia as part of her research on patients with traumatic wartime injuries at the University of Sarajevo Clinical Center Department of Orthopedics. Her research was made possible by a Fulbright U.S. Student Program grant. Photo courtesy of Katherine Ryken.

Katherine Ryken of Iowa City—who received a Fulbright last year and is finishing up her research in Bosnia and Herzegovina where she’s studying and assisting patients with traumatic wartime injuries—says having the support of Wachsmuth and other mentors during the application process was key to her success.

“I met with (Wachsmuth) and several other advisers on multiple occasions and I took absolutely every piece of advice they gave me for my application,” Ryken says, adding her experience abroad has been transformative for her both personally and professionally.

“Personally, I will be kinder, more independent, and more grateful for the experiences that I am granted. I will take away the overwhelming good of people despite our vast capacity for evil,” Ryken says. “Professionally, I will be a stronger researcher and take more personal control over research projects. I am more confident in myself and more experienced.”

Learn more about the Fulbright U.S. Student Program award winners for 2015-16.

Ryken is finishing up her Fulbright and will return to the UI in July, where she’ll begin her clinical rotations at the Carver College of Medicine.

Baker, who’s set to graduate this May, says he’s excited for the opportunity to research what he’s passionate about abroad, and grateful for the support he’s received in his pursuit for a Fulbright.

“The UI is really unique in comparison to other universities that do Fulbright in that they’re much more hands-on with their applicants,” Baker says. “I think it’s one of the strengths of being a research institution, but I always felt like I had a place to turn for help, which is nice when you’re applying for something as large as a Fulbright.”

Baker will leave for his Fulbright in Japan in September.

Whether students succeed in winning awards or not, Wachsmuth says the application process can be an important journey in self-discovery and goal setting for them as they prepare for the future.

“I’ve never had anyone say they are sorry they did it, whether they get the opportunity or not,” Wachsmuth says. “Students often tell me that the application process really helps them focus their goals—whether they are applying for graduate school or preparing to enter the workplace—they learn to clearly articulate their dreams and to be practical about the steps and how to get there.”

More information about international fellowships, resources for applying, and upcoming events is available on the student funding website. For information about next year's competition, make an appointment with Karen Wachsmuth by filling out the Preliminary Application Form.

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