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Pitzer Finds Success with Fulbrights

December 4, 2010

Pitzer Finds Success with Fulbrights
by Sara Birkenthal

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ranked Pitzer College #1 among all U.S. liberal arts colleges in its Fulbright Program results and rankings report. In the 2009-2010 academic year, 23 Pitzer College students and alums were awarded Fulbright Fellowships, part of a prestigious program of grants for international educational exchange. In the overall rankings category, including both U.S. liberal arts colleges and universities, Pitzer ranked fifth overall. The four other Claremont Colleges finished behind Pitzer. Pomona College, with eleven Fulbright recipients last year, tied for 4th in the rankings for liberal arts colleges. Claremont McKenna College, with eight recipients last year, ranked 10th. Scripps and Harvey Mudd Colleges, on the other hand, did not have enough Fulbright recipients to be included in the rankings.

Pitzer’s Fulbright success is not a new phenomenon. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s database of annual Fulbright success rankings, Pitzer has consistently ranked in the top five among liberal arts colleges.

What accounts for the  overwhelming success of Pitzer students and alums in the Fulbright Fellowship application process? As Pitzer College President Laura Skandera Trombley said, “the success of this program at Pitzer is entirely credited to the hard work of our students and the amazing support they receive from faculty and staff.”

Hard working students and support from faculty and staff are certainly not unique to Pitzer. However, Pitzer students’ community engagement and high participation in cultural immersion study abroad programs in non-traditional locations contribute to a high number of extremely qualified Fulbright Fellowship applicants each year. Pitzer’s high Fulbright success rate is partially attributed to the fact that last year alone, Pitzer students logged over 100,000 hours of community engagement. The Pitzer Community Engagement Center (CEC) is committed solely to helping Pitzer students be “responsible citizens of communities both local and global.” Additionally, Pitzer students must fulfill a social responsibility requirement before graduating.

While CMC emphasizes applying the study of liberal arts to pragmatic careers in government and economics, and Pomona emphasizes applying the study of liberal arts to finding one's  intellectual passion, Pitzer emphasizes applying the study of liberal arts to philanthropy. This aspect of Pitzer’s mission jibes with that of the Fulbright Fellowship Program, which emphasizes service to one’s home and host communities.

The extremely high study abroad participation rate among Pitzer students also contributes to their success. While slightly over half of CMC and Pomona’s Classes of 2010 took advantage of study abroad opportunities, 74% of Pitzer’s Class of 2010 did so.

Many Pitzer students choose to study abroad in atypical locations, according to Tom Ilgen, Professor of Political Studies at Pitzer. Ilgen cites “a desire to study in places like Nepal and Botswana” and a commitment to learn the local languages of these places as characteristics that make Pitzer students competitive Fulbright applicants. Especially considering that the most popular region for applicants to the Fulbright Program is Western Europe, many popular Pitzer study abroad destinations are underrepresented in the Fulbright applicant pool.

The fact that the Pitzer Office of Study Abroad & International Programs encourages Pitzer students to seek out volunteer opportunities while abroad “as a way of engaging more deeply with [one’s] host community” helps Pitzer students make particularly meaningful connections with organizations in the countries in which they study abroad. Assuming that a large percentage of Fulbright applicants wish to return to the country in which they studied abroad, this feeds conveniently into the Fulbright application’s request for a letter from a university or organization in one’s desired host country.

According to Nigel Boyle, Professor of Political Studies at Pitzer and the College’s Fulbright Program Advisor, the wide-scale participation of Pitzer students in “cultural immersion” study abroad programs helps students make connections with local organizations and universities. “This type of study abroad program has a big, lasting impact on students and turns an unusually high proportion on to going abroad,” Boyle told the Forum.

Pitzer provides special assistance to its Fulbright applicants, which often includes up to 70 students—up to one-third of each year’s graduating class. “Here we keep them on track,” said Boyle.  He runs a series of Fulbright Workshops and oversees application editing by past Pitzer Fulbright recipients as key components of this assistance. “Late nights spent working on Fulbright applications is almost a rite of passage for the senior class,” said Boyle.

Additionally, Pitzer offers two formal curricular opportunities to prepare Fulbright applicants. Two courses are offered annually. The first, “Teaching and Politics: Practicum” culminates in students submitting Fulbright Teaching Fellowship proposals. The second, “International Studies Workshop” “guides students through the development of proposals, personal statements and other items required for Fulbright nomination,” according to the Pitzer course catalog.

“Unlike other colleges, where the majority of applicants are, say International Relations or French majors, Pitzer gets strong applications from all majors,” said Boyle. And Pitzer applicants who do choose a more “typical” Fulbright major often choose International and Intercultural Studies (IIS), Pitzer’s unique major that emphasizes “the deconstruction of the idea that anything is objectively, universally true,” according to Alexa Teevens, a CMC junior who chose Pitzer’s IIS major over CMC’s more typical International Relations major.

“Cultural understanding is easier to facilitate because an IIS major comes into an interaction without assuming any ethnocentric biases,” explained Teevens. This emphasis on open-mindedness and cross-cultural understanding is a value that is shared by the Fulbright Committee. In the words of Professor Boyle, “In most institutions, there’s a certain type of student who applies, but at Pitzer nearly everyone is that type of student.”

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