Fulbright program's benefits are exponential

The Fulbright law, signed by President Harry S. Truman on Aug. 1, l946, created a program that has had a deep impact on millions of people around the world.

The legislation, the brainchild of Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, was designed "for the promotion of international good will ... in education, culture and science." Some 280,000 academics from the United States and other countries have been influenced by this program and, in turn, their Fulbright experiences have widened student and general population perspectives back home.

I have been privileged with four Fulbright awards to teach in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and in the l989-90 school year, I was the Bicentennial Professor of American Studies at the University of Helsinki in Finland. With each tenure, I have brought home experiences that encouraged students to learn about other cultures and to realize that citizens of the world are more alike than different and that any differences can be dealt with courteously and cooperatively.

At Bangalore University, a student assistant led me throughout the nooks and crannies of my host city; thus, we walked a lot. When we came to a church, he made the sign of the cross; when we passed a mosque, he prostrated himself; at synagogues, he'd bow; and at Hindu shrines he'd utter a prayer.

"Why do you stop at all these Holy Places?" I asked.

"I want to cover all the bases," he replied.

My students in the United States found out, some for the first time, that religious diversity existed other than in their own country and that their religious freedoms did not stop at international borders.

I was repeatedly impressed with the universal "mischievous" nature of youth, and a game of marbles taught me — and, subsequently, my American students — that, pretty much like adults, youngsters everywhere have similarities.

On a street in Islamabad, I came upon some boys playing marbles on the sidewalk. I stopped to watch. A youngster looked up at me from where he was crouched with his marbles, and said "Yeh, bukra hai!" That little rascal didn't know that I had studied some Urdu and that I knew he had called me a goat. I leaned down close to him, and said "Baaaaa!" He ran off, but he was back the next morning. We became good friends over the next several months.

It is just as easy to make friends as it is enemies; governments around the world should try it sometime. I learned that Bangladeshi working people sometimes take chances to provide for their families. That is why so many fishermen live on little islands in the Bay of Bengal and risk getting washed away by all too common cyclones. "We are a poor peoples," one Bangladeshi told me, "but we have loves." And that is not a bad message to transmit to Americans, students and otherwise.

Fulbrighters also learn how to get along with people. they can meet the president of a country at l0 a.m. and a street beggar at 2 p.m. and be equally comfortable with each. The program is certainly intergenerational; my own teaching awards made a huge impact on not only me and my classes, but my family as well. My son, Daniel, who also is a college professor, is now a Fulbrighter in his own right, having been awarded two grants, one each to Sri Lanka and Albania. We agree that there is no such thing as a "former Fulbrighter;" once a Fulbrighter, always a Fulbrighter.

It is impossible to quote exact statistics, but I would not be surprised to learn that one Fulbright grant widens the perspectives of at least l00 other students and individuals. Multiply that by 280,000 and you come up with 28 million people.

That wouldn't be a bad statistic for world governments to remember as they go about the business of trying to get along with one another.