On March 13, after three months in Spain on a seven-month Fulbright scholarship, I was informed by the Spanish Fulbright Commission that the State Department was urgently advising Fulbright scholars return to the United States, due to COVID-19. As my grant was a special joint award between Spain and Greece, I received a similar email from the Greek Commission a few hours later.
While initially this recommendation sounded somewhat voluntary, the pressure to go was strong. I was asked to make a decision over the weekend. Though we were told that we would continue to receive grant payments, our flights home seemed more likely to be reimbursed, with special funds from the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), if we left immediately. As the weekend progressed, I learned that scholars in nearby Italy, where evacuation was mandatory, had been told that if they did not leave they would be in danger of having their grants revoked, losing alumni status, health insurance, and remaining grant money. There was even a question of whether they would be asked to repay past payments.
Fulbright does not recommend using the health plan they provide as primary insurance, but due to the cost of health insurance in the United States, many grantees do. No other grantees I spoke to had housing waiting for them in the US. Younger grantees had given up their apartments, older grantees had rented out their homes. Leaving host countries meant breaking leases and resulting monetary loss. Some grants were tied to foreign degree programs, which grantees may now be unable to complete. We have been encouraged to remain in contact with our host institutions in meaningful ways, but expecting Fulbrighters to work remotely as they frantically search for housing and try to avoid getting sick may not be realistic.
Between preparing an application, the six months it takes for an application be reviewed, and the time between an acceptance and the beginning of a grant, preparing for a Fulbright award consists of a full year and a half. During that time, in addition to acquiring visas and making other preparations, grantees may leave stable jobs. Though a Fulbright stipend is very little money, the prestige of the program and the worth of the experience seem to outweigh the risks.
The thought of giving up these grants was devastating, particularly for those who, like me, were not even halfway through. By far the greatest worry we had about returning to the United States, however, was contracting COVID-19 while traveling. I have asthma. I am lucky that I can stay with family, but both of my parents are over the age of 65 — though my father, a doctor, is more at risk due to his job than contact with me.
On March 20, the entire Fulbright program was officially suspended for the 2019-2020 year. All grants have been terminated. As some grantees were determined to remain in their host countries, the commission in Spain initially thought the health plan might be reinstated following the suspension the Fulbright Program. Ultimately it was revoked. This plan, in any case, is only valid while a grantee is abroad. Scholars who followed Fulbright’s advice to return lost the insurance upon setting foot in the United States.
I will likely receive payments for the Greek portion of my grant, which I never had a chance to begin, as a lump sum in June. Fulbrighters whose grants extended beyond June will receive far less than they were promised and those whose grants were not due to begin until the spring or summer — who may already have quit jobs, given up apartments, and made other preparations — have been offered nothing.
My remaining stipend is money I had been planning to live on through the spring. I don’t know that I can save it for a later research trip, particularly given that the cost of living in my home state of Massachusetts is considerably higher than in Spain and Greece. My Spanish visa has been cancelled, so if I were to find a way, I would not be able to return for the full span of what remained. The time to focus on my work, to see how it could evolve over the seven-month journey, to think comparatively as I moved from Spain to Greece, is gone.
Still, I am lucky to have so far not lost my life or anyone I love in this pandemic. I know many people have lost jobs and I understand that readers may find it difficult to sympathize with someone who just spent three months in Spain. Mine is a problem, however, about which something can be done. During the past week, as scholars have made heart-wrenching decisions and anxiety-ridden journeys back to the United States, driven by recommendations from the State Department that seemed designed more for political unrest than for pandemics, Fulbright has apparently been informing new grantees that their proposals have been chosen for next year. A quick search through Twitter will find a number of new grantees celebrating their acceptances. Fulbright’s own social media pages are full of official statements that, as of now, next year’s selection process is going ahead as planned.
Once Fulbright analyzes how best to respond during a pandemic, the program should offer new grants to those whose grants were cut short this year. This would be unprecedented, but this crisis and the program’s response to it were also unprecedented. Usually, Fulbright alumni have to wait two years after grant completion to reapply, and preference is given to those who have not been awarded a Fulbright before. Grantees who lost grants this year may be too disillusioned to eventually reapply. Offering them new awards would honor their commitment to the Fulbright Program, and justify the risks all grantees take in order to serve as cultural ambassadors for the United States. These make-up grants may be a better investment than cutting losses on a cohort of dissatisfied alumni and incomplete projects. This story is going to spread, and promising applicants will be less likely to uproot their lives for a program that may drop them and the work they care about in troubled times.
Beyond these concerns, I would have made my decision to leave Spain much more quickly, and with far less anguish, had I been assured of a future grant.
I am still honored to have received a Fulbright award and particularly grateful to the commissions in Spain and Greece for choosing my project. I was the first recipient of the award I received, which has been offered since 2017. Over the next year, the world is going to have a renewed need for inter-cultural understanding. That is the Fulbright Program’s mission. I want to see it succeed.
Maia Evrona is a poet, prose writer, and translator of Yiddish literature. She has been awarded fellowships from the Fulbright Scholar Program, the National Endowment for the Arts, and other organizations.