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What Happened When I Didn't Get a Fulbright

What Happened When I Didn't Get a Fulbright

I think I failed today.

“The William J. Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board has asked the International Institute of Education to inform you that you have not been selected for a 2019-2020 Fulbright U.S. Student Award.

I know you will be disappointed, but I want to assure you that your application received careful and serious consideration by the Board, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the United States Department of State, and the Fulbright supervising agencies abroad. However, as is often the case, the number of well-qualified applicants for this year far exceeded the number of awards available. For the 2019-2020 competition, the Fulbright U.S. Student programs received over 10,000 applications.” 

Cool email, bro.

The Fulbright student program sends recent graduate, graduate students, and young professionals abroad to teach English, explore independent research, or attend graduate school. It’s generally considered one of the more competitive and prestigious awards on tap. 

My Fulbright application has been in the works for years, honestly. As an undergraduate student I was drawn to it due to, well, perhaps an unhealthy sense of competition and need to prove myself after struggling with mental health and slipping grades during my freshman year (a whole other story…) However, I was not eligible to apply due to family employment with the government…and secretly that was ok, because while I felt tempted by the flashy scholarship, I barely felt qualified to attend the information sessions hosted by my academic department.

Six years, a graduate degree, and time spent living abroad later, I was finally both technically eligible and confident enough to apply for program. 

My true nerdom was unleashed. My biggest struggle with application was not compiling documents, coming up with research ideas, writing essays – it was choosing a country! The program only lets you apply to a single opportunity in a single country. I have never so much related to the “kid in a candy store” analogy. I calculated application vs. acceptance rates for the past three years to determine the most and least competitive countries, changed my mind several times, and eventually landed on a teaching position in Hungary - something I wouldn’t haven seen myself choosing in a thousand years but was suddenly pumped with excitement over.

The application process also took me to some scary places – most notably reddit, where I discovered entire communities dedicated to every aspect of the application process and program itself, down to spreadsheets collecting the date and times of notifications from each country from the previous several years. My brief flirtation with that level of neuroticism was…anxiety-producing. Some feedback from my application board triggered a brief depressive episode. An advisor suggested I remove a mention of how traveling had personally been a strong antidote for my mental health struggles. It was solid writing advice, but my Prozac-ed brain received a different message: Mentally ill people can’t be academics. That rabbithole took some time to pop back out of – and some well-timed words of solidarity from one of my mentors, a professor herself who sympathized. There was plenty of self-doubt and frustration throughout the process. Submitting the application felt like an achievement in itself. I was proud of myself for going outside my comfort zone.

When I was notified that I was a semi-finalist in late winter, I was elated. I felt confident, excited, and fortunate. 

When I received my rejection letter, I felt ashamed, embarrassed. I felt like a failure. I felt bashful that I had been so confident in myself when clearly I was not that worthy.

It socked me in the stomach. I’m still hurting, but I’m starting to be able to look at the situation logically as well. Had anything actually changed in the month that passed between my notification of semi-finalist status and my notification of non-selection? 


I’m still the exact same person capable of those exact same feelings of confidence, excitement, and academic interest. A group of strangers had simply declined to select me for this particular opportunity. 

I wanted to write about this because plenty of people will be sharing their Fulbright, graduate school, college, internship, and job acceptances in the months to come. They should rightfully be proud and excited. They’ll be featured on their college websites, local newspapers, and family holiday conversations. I’ll be excited for them, though undoubtedly I’ll also feel a twinge of jealousy.

The semi-finalists won’t be written about. The people who applied and did not make it past the first round will not be written about. Fulbright does not provide feedback on applications, so no one will know if their words made a certain judge pause and think, if one of us missed it by a margin. The non-selected cannot be ranked, and so, by competitive academic standards, we cannot be celebrated. 

But here’s the thing. 

I did not get :

  • A Fulbright scholarship

  • Bragging rights for that Fulbright

  • That much-coveted “Fulbright Scholar” designation on my C.V.

  • This particular chance to live and study abroad

Here’s what I did get:

  • A new confidence in myself that had been hiding for so many years

  • The courage to ask for recommendations – something that has been the bane of my existence since college applications

  • Humility – when you brag about being a Fulbright semi-finalist to a friend and they say “What’s a Fulbright?” it strongly encourages you to pull your head out of your own ass. 

  • The realization that I have so many more people rooting for me than I thought

  • A deep sense of community, from my university, friends, family, and academia as a whole

  • Excitement and overwhelming wanderlust

  • The realization that my capacity is as small or as large as I choose to make it.

  • An open door. Now that a Fulbright isn’t my next step, what is? What do I do with this world laid out in front of me?

In the end, the first list doesn’t actually matter.

I’m not trying to sound like Im having a pity-party or whatnot. With this post, I’m trying to speak to my fellow overachievers and self-doubters, fellow academics, and all those folks deep-diving into the Fulbright reddit. If you don’t win, they’re not going to write about you. That’s life. And that’s ok. Write about yourself.  Set your own rules for winning. 

To my fellow reject-ees and those who feel like failures today - I see you, and you’re a badass. Your journey is your victory.

I guess what I’m saying is, I failed today. And I think I’m going to be just ok with it.

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