I could feel the energy and excitement at the airport baggage claim. I could hear the Fulbrighters laughing and greeting each other “as-salamu ‘alaykum,” (may peace be upon you) and “chutoor haste” (how are you?). In northwest Arkansas, home of the late Senator J. William Fulbright, the namesake of the Fulbright Program, 49 Afghan Fulbright Students gathered to start their Re-Entry Seminar at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. This was the same place they met for the first time two years ago at the beginning of their Fulbright journey at universities across the United States. And now, it was time for them to reconvene for workshops and discussions on their personal, academic, and professional experiences and growth before returning home to Afghanistan.
From March 29 to April 2, the Afghan Fulbrighters gathered at the University of Arkansas to discuss their personal, professional, and academic experiences in the United States, discussing and analyzing the challenges and opportunities they will face upon returning to Afghanistan.
The seminar theme, “Social Movements and Entrepreneurship,” encouraged participants to view their return home through the lens of these two topics. The students visited local start-ups and small businesses such as the Future School, Kyya Chocolate, and TriCycle Farms, where they engaged with social entrepreneurs and change makers in the community. The week culminated with student presentations on various business models and innovations to the Walton School of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, providing the participants opportunities to network with key stakeholders at the university for future partnership, collaboration, and funding opportunities.
The week also included a virtual discussion with Fulbright Program alumni in Afghanistan. During these conversations, the students were able to ask open and honest questions to those who have successfully reintegrated into Afghanistan and are making contributions to their local communities. In a video message, President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani, a Fulbright alumnus himself, thanked students for their commitment to furthering their education, and encouraged them to bring that knowledge and experience to Afghanistan.
During the closing ceremony, one participant said: “Being a Fulbright Student in the United States has exceeded my expectations. When I first arrived in Ohio, I was so shy and nervous meeting my classmates, colleagues, and roommates. Even though I have a very supportive family and parents back home, I lived a sheltered life. But being here has allowed me the space to grow professionally and personally. I learned what it means to be a strong and independent woman. I know that it will be difficult when I return home and acclimate myself to Afghan culture again — but I will have to be patient and encourage my family and those around me to adopt the new me, the confident me.”
The Fulbright Program is an important element of U.S. foreign policy with the mission of building mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries. Each year, about 8,000 U.S. and non-U.S. students and scholars study, teach, and conduct research worldwide. These Afghan Fulbright Students, like those who have gone before them since the worldwide program was established over 70 years ago, will play an integral role in the future development of their country. Education is the most powerful tool a country can deploy to ensure a prosperous and thriving country. The Fulbright Program is fostering and encouraging Afghanistan’s future leaders. Since 2003, more than 450 Afghan students have received Fulbright scholarships to study in the United States. The success of the Fulbright Program in Afghanistan is a testament to Senator Fulbright’s belief that people-to-people relationships are essential to fostering peace and stability worldwide.
About the Author: Jessica Wilson is a Program Officer in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ Office of Academic Exchange Programs.
Editor’s Note: This entry is also published on Medium.com/StateDept.