By Vanessa Miller, The Gazette
Image by UI International Programs
IOWA CITY — On a whim, as a University of Iowa freshman in 2010, Audrey Williams enrolled in an intensive elementary Turkish language course and fell in love.
She subsequently signed up for every Turkish course she could cram into her schedule and, in fall 2012, she spent a semester in Istanbul studying language and politics and conducting research on Turkish counterterrorism policy. Upon returning to the UI campus, Williams said she felt pulled to go back and applied for a grant to do so through the Fulbright U.S. Student Program.
She was denied. But Williams tried again and recently learned she’s among a record-breaking 13 UI students or alumni awarded Fulbright grants to go abroad to conduct research, attend graduate school, teach English or pursue other creative endeavors during the 2015-16 academic year.
“It’s really, really competitive,” said Karen Wachsmuth, associate director of UI international fellowships and adviser of the university’s Fulbright program.
The university has a Fulbright Faculty Committee of about 20 members charged, in part, with helping applicants hone project pitches and complete necessary requirements. Wachsmuth said several UI faculty members are involved at the national level in choosing which of the thousands of applicants should receive a Fulbright grant.
“I asked one of our committee members, ‘What was the experience like?’ ” Wachsmuth said. “He said it was like giving the Nobel Prize.”
The program, administered by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, aims to increase mutual understanding between Americans and citizens of other countries. Of the 10,000-some applicants to the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, about 1,900 were selected for the upcoming year, Wachsmuth said.
This year’s 13 UI recipients represents a 63 percent increase over the institution’s eight grant recipients last year, when it ranked 45th among peer institutions in number of Fulbright awards. Wachsmuth said she doesn’t yet know what this year’s record-breaking tally will mean for the UI ranking.
“But we are hoping we have moved up quite a bit,” she said.
Iowa State University last year had four students earn Fulbright awards, ranking it No. 73. ISU officials didn’t have this year’s total available Monday.
From the institutions that have students selected for the program, Fulbright annually identifies “top producing schools,” which Wachsmuth said comes with national prestige.
“It’s extremely influential in a university’s standing,” she said.
Last year, 36 schools earned the top producing label, including 20 with as many or fewer recipients than UI tallied this year.
“I think we may make it this year,” Wachsmuth said. “We are getting a lot closer, but it really takes developing the culture.”
Applying for the program can take a year or longer, and UI students go through a campus review process that involves mock interviews and faculty advice on essays and applications. Depending on the program, applicants might go through reviews and interviews with the country in which they want to serve.
This year’s batch of UI Fulbright recipients will leave for their respective programs between September and January.
Williams, who graduated from UI in 2013 and has been working as a program associate for Partnership for a Secure America in Washington D.C., will start her Fulbright program in September. She will work out of Ankara to research Turkey’s transition from a developing nation and its cooperation with several east African nations.
Other UI students awarded Fulbright grants include Steph Rue, a master of fine arts student who will investigate the history and technique of Korean book arts and paper making; Douglas Baker, who will research the composition style of Japanese composer Taijiro Goh by accessing unpublished compositions in Japanese archives; and Daniel Goering, who will study work-life balance issues by consulting with experts at the University of Tokyo in Japan.
Acacia Roberts, of Iowa City, is planning to use her Fulbright award as an English teaching assistant in Morocco. A linguistics major in French and Arabic, Roberts said she plans to create a weekly conversation group for young adults in hopes of increasing their language skills through discussions around global events.
“That’s how I learned languages,” she said. “And it stuck with me.”