The Fulbright Program, which operates in 160 countries, is a program of competitive merit-based grants that allows scholars from around the world to undertake graduate study through an international educational exchange.
Lehigh has 24 Fulbright scholars from 13 different countries — the highest number of Fulbright scholars the university has ever hosted. The Fulbright Program was established in 1946 to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and people of other countries, according to the Office of International Affairs website.
Ahmad Najafizada graduated from the American University of Afghanistan with a degree in business and finance and is now studying for his masters at Lehigh through the Fulbright Program. After he was selected as a Fulbright scholar, he was automatically placed at Lehigh by the International Education Team.
Although Najafizada didn’t choose to come here specifically, he has made it clear that this where he wants to be and he is grateful to the Fulbright Program.
“The Fulbright Partnership is strong, and I hope it continues,” Najafizada said. “I feel privileged to be a part of it.”
Nellie Gospodinova, a Fulbright scholar from Bulgaria studying instructional technology, thinks of the scholarship as a means to share information with others.
“Fulbright is an excellent program which gives unique opportunities for candidates to gain precious knowledge that they wouldn’t otherwise,” Gospodinova said.
In Bulgaria, Gospodinova is a leader of Volunteering Club 365, which aims to motivate high school students to take an active role in changing and improving the conditions of their community. She is also an intern at the Lehigh Valley Association of Independent Colleges and works in the Lehigh Prison Project, which helps prisoners from Northampton County prepare for school exams.
Gospodinova said she looks forward to going back to Bulgaria and making a difference with the knowledge she gained at Lehigh.
She said the Fulbright Program has given her the chance to become more knowledgeable about her passion and spread that to her community in order to bring about positive change.
“This is what Fulbright gives — new horizons,” Gospodinova said.
Shoghik Mikayelyan, a scholar from Armenia studying counseling and human services, said the scholarship helped her not only academically, but also socially. She said Fulbright is a great opportunity for networking and meeting people.
Tshegofatso Thulare, a Fulbrighter from South Africa studying comparative international education, said the Fulbright Scholarship creates families.
“We’re woven together by a common thread, that the program brought us together,” Thulare said.
Bill Hunter, the director of the Office of Fellowship Advising and UN programs, said he takes a personal interest in each Fulbright scholar and praises them for their exceptional curiosity. He said each scholar has a distinct background and an amazing individual story.
“Fulbrighters are truly at the top of their nations’ best and brightest,” he said. “They came here to learn everything they can.”
Both Mikayelyan and Thulare said the Fulbright Program didn’t just enable them to grow academically, but also allowed them to develop genuine friendships.
“This is more than a Fulbright experience, it’s more of finding soulmate friends,” Mikayelyan said.
However, while attending Lehigh through the Fulbright Program is rewarding for the scholars, there are difficulties. Najafizada said he faced difficulty in adapting to become more academically independent.
“In Afghanistan, governmental institutions are different,” he said. “There’s much communication between students and professors.”
Although Najafizada is still working on getting used to these differences in the classroom, he said he has become a more independent individual.
All four Fulbright scholars expressed initial feelings of culture shock, but only for a short period of time. The Fulbright program works to helps its scholars adjust to their new environment.
The scholars have sacrificed to study in the United States, leaving their families, careers and organizations behind. They all describe the Fulbright program as one of the best things to have happened to them.
“Fulbright is a new door that opens great opportunities,” Najafizada said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I (will) owe a lot to Fulbright after I graduate.”