When Robert Chirwa, a computer science professor at Bluegrass Community and Technical College, found out he’d won a Fulbright award, he felt “ecstatic.”
“When I heard that I was a Fulbright scholar, I was very excited,” he said. “I was, like, trying to pinch myself.”
As far as he knows, he’s the first instructor in the Kentucky community college system to participate in the prestigious, federally funded educational exchange program that sends students and scholars overseas to do research or teach. Chirwa is scheduled to go to Tshwane University of Technology in South Africa to teach a yearlong course on machine learning starting in January.
He’s a somewhat rare case. Of the approximately 800 U.S. scholars who annually win a spot in the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program, a small fraction are community college instructors. Just a dozen community colleges were listed as Fulbright top producers during the 2022–23 award cycle, which was a drop from 14 the previous academic year and 28 the year before that, according to data from the program. In comparison, 239 doctoral institutions and 84 master’s degree–granting institutions were top Fulbright producers for the 2022–23 cycle. (A community college qualifies as a top producer if one of its employees wins at least one Fulbright that year, whereas other kinds of institutions need more awards to earn the title.) Meanwhile, community college students don’t qualify for the student program, which requires a bachelor's degree and sends about 2,000 students overseas annually.
Community college advocates and officials at the Institute of International Education, which manages the Fulbright program for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, are currently working to expand award opportunities to more two-year colleges. The institute hosted a workshop in March with community college leaders and program alumni to discuss ways to help community colleges overcome barriers and access the international ties and prestige that come with the program.
David J. Smith, a former legal studies professor at Harford Community College in Maryland, who went to Estonia through the program in 2003, said only eight community college instructors won the award that year, and the number hasn’t significantly increased. He pointed out that community colleges are among “the most diverse higher education institutions” with both urban and rural campuses that collectively encompass much of the racial, socioeconomic and political diversity of the country.
Community college students also make up nearly half of American undergraduates, so, “something isn’t aligned, and I think [the Bureau of] Educational and Cultural Affairs must have recognized that,” said Smith, president of the Forage Center for Peacebuilding and Humanitarian Education and past president of the National Capital Area Chapter of the Fulbright Association.
Barriers to Entry
When the Fulbright program was established in 1946, community colleges weren’t really “on the radar” of its creators, Smith said. “It really started off as a program that would serve liberal arts institutions, and as a result, it’s really gotten an elite reputation.”
He said that reputation, and the structure of the program, can be a deterrent for community college educators. The program sends professors to foreign universities for a full semester or academic year to teach or do research. But community colleges are less research-focused than their four-year counterparts, so instructors don’t necessarily think of themselves as potential candidates, he said. Community colleges also tend to have less capacity to cover instructors’ courses in their absence.
The Fulbright program does offer some short-term programming, including the International Education Administrator Program, a two-week seminar abroad for American college administrators to learn about other countries’ higher ed systems. The Fulbright Specialist Program sends experts in various fields to foreign universities for periods of two to six weeks. The Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program also allows awardees to make shorter visits of at least a month to host countries over the course of two years. Community colleges can host visiting scholars, scholars in residence and foreign language teaching assistants through Fulbright programs, as well.
But community college leaders sometimes balk at the logistics of sending their instructors abroad, Smith said. Administrators at Harford, for example, weren’t familiar with the program and were initially resistant to him applying and accepting the grant.
Chirwa said encouragement from Bluegrass administrators was critical for him. His department colleagues will cover his courses while he’s away, in addition to his responsibilities as coordinator of the computer and information technology and cybersecurity programs.
But Koffi Akakpo, president and CEO of Bluegrass, said the challenges presented by Chirwa leaving are outweighed by the value of the professional development opportunity.
“We cannot ask faculty to train future global leaders without giving them themselves the opportunity to learn other cultures and learn how other people from other parts of the world do things,” Akakpo said. “At the end of the day, it’s a win-win. There is some kind of sacrifice that is made, but if we truly care for our faculty and staff, I don’t think any sacrifice is too great.”
Kush Jenkins, an accounting professor at Northern Virginia Community College who won the award last year, said the expansion of remote learning makes the Fulbright program an easier lift for community college professors because they can continue teaching some of their courses while abroad. At the same time, he acknowledges not every community college is going to have the capacity to have their instructors participate.
“The smaller ones out there, they’re lifting a heavy load,” he said.
Northern Virginia Community College is an uncommon success story. It has had 28 Fulbright winners since 1986, and administrators and program alumni regularly educate faculty members about the program and help them to apply. Jenkins applied seven times before winning the award, which sent him to Trinidad and Tobago. Now he’s meeting with other faculty members interested in the program to give them tips, like others did for him.
“I don’t want to be the last,” he said. “I want us to break 30, 35 and over.”
Robin Matross Helms, vice president for membership and educational services at the Association of Community College Trustees, said participating in Fulbright not only benefits faculty members who go abroad but their students and campuses more broadly.
She noted that as community colleges struggle to recover from enrollment declines, the Fulbright program offers them recognition abroad and can help them attract international students.
Campus leaders also want to prepare students for “an increasingly globalized economy,” Helms said. “With community colleges participating in the Fulbright program, whether by sending faculty abroad or hosting them on their campuses, they’re bringing global perspectives into the curriculum and classroom, helping students build the skills and knowledge they need when they enter the workforce.”
She also believes the Fulbright program benefits from the “deep teaching expertise, agility, adaptability and commitment of community college faculty and staff to promoting the success of a diverse student body,” she said. “Community college educators are exactly who the program needs representing U.S. higher education around the world.”
Leeza Fernand, director of the Community College Initiative Program at Northern Virginia Community College, a state department program that brings international exchange students to community colleges, added that community college professors and administrators who participate in Fulbright programs become “unofficial ambassadors” for community colleges as a whole. She said since she went on the Fulbright International Education Administrator Program to Japan in 2018, Japanese embassy officials in Washington, D.C., have invited representatives of her community college to embassy events.
“It really opened up a lot of opportunities, because community colleges are still really misunderstood abroad,” said Fernand, who is also the college’s associate director of international education and sponsored programs. “There are countries that get it and want to emulate the model, but most countries just assume we’re just like any other technical [college],” without understanding these colleges are a “pathway to baccalaureate” degrees or have a strong “connection with industry.”
Community college advocates and program organizers have been devising new ideas for bringing more community colleges into the Fulbright fold.
“Knowledge is power,” Fernand said. “I think that we just continue to educate about the opportunities that exist and try to maintain that community college faculty are really sought after by the U.S. Department of State in reference to Fulbright funding.”
Smith believes these institutions need their own short-term Fulbright program altogether, one that includes instructors outside of liberal arts fields. He said there’s no reason not to send experts in building management or construction, for example, overseas to share their knowledge abroad, as well.
“U.S. taxpayers are funding the Fulbright program,” he said. “We want to fund things, we want to support things, that reach all Americans and all Americans have equal opportunity to access … The way the program is set up now, that’s not possible for community college faculty.”