Monday, 20 February 2012

Selecting future leaders

After re-reading Alice Stone Ilchman's chapter in America's Dialogue with the World, I've started reading her book on competitive scholarships, The Lucky Few and the Worthy Many. Just a quick read of the introduction has given me plenty to think about in terms of my research...

Firstly, they mention something that I've been struggling with throughout the process--programme evaluation. I 'm starting to feel like my research question is simply "What does the Fulbright Program do?" because after a year and a half of reading, I still don't know. Evaluations undertaken by the Advisory Commission always say that it's effective, that it does so much for international goodwill and that 99% of students were satisfied with their experience. But of course they'd be 'satisfied'--it's a year abroad with free tuition and living expenses. Who's going to say it was a bad experience? More to the point, how do you quantify concepts like "international goodwill" and "mutual understanding"? This quote really spoke to some of the issues I've been dealing with: "The more lofty and abstract the mission (e.g. increasing international understanding), the more difficult it is to evaluate what was accomplished by the recipients or the program in general." (Ilchman, Ilchman and Tolar, 2004, p. 10)

Secondly, they briefly mentioned Bourdieu's reproduction of elites and Harriet Zuckerman's "accumulation of advantage"--both centered around the premise that those who win awards go on to win more. I've looked up Zuckerman now--her research was on Nobel-laureate scientists (she found that they had a history of winning awards). In terms of my own research, I find it so interesting that many Fulbright grantees already have had scholarships before--and some even studied abroad on a scholarship before. It needs supporting evidence, but after reading about so many alums who went on multiple Fulbrights (first as students and later as professors) I think that accumulation of advantage must be taking place here.

Thirdly, there's a lot of discussion about how to identify future leaders. One of the public diplomacy ideas underpinning the programme is the multiplier effect--the prediction that exchange participants will go on to be influential elites in their societies. Their internationalist values, gained during the exchange experience, will be spread to others in their home nations. It's a solid idea, but how do they recognise a future leader in the making? What qualities or characteristics set these candidates apart from the unsuccessful applicants? And, in terms of the programme's ultimate success, how predictable are these markers of future leadership?

In the interest of reflexivity, it's worth mentioning that I never applied for a Fulbright or any other type of competitive scholarship that the authors studied. There are several reasons why: I was unaware of many of the awards, I didn't know what my plans were, and I was put off by the complicated selection process (applications, letters of recommendation, interviews, visa applications, fees, etc.). I feared going through all of that work and spending all of that money, only to get rejected. It had happened to me when I applied to Ivy League universities in high school, wasting about $70 on each application fee and asking my teachers for recommendation letters, only to get rejected like most of the students who apply to the Ivies (Princeton, my top choice, accepted only 9% that year--but 40% of legacy student applicants were accepted--again, Bourdieu's reproduction of elites...). My interviews seemed to go well, I had the highest SAT score in my school, 8 AP subjects, glowing recommendations--they told me I had a chance and I believed them. But looking back, I have to wonder (cynically) if they tell everybody that they have a chance, and they make $70 off of each of the thousands of hopeful applicants.

Enough of my bitterness about the Ivies. Back to Fulbright: As they always have more applicants than spaces, how do they choose from among the 'worthy many'? What factors come into the selection process? They are self-selected to begin with, and then the pool is narrowed down by application forms, interviews, panel reviews, etc. Each of these stages in the process is done by different actors--academic advisors at the institutions themselves (both sending and receiving), the IIE, regional selection panels, and finally the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. How do they coordinate this lengthy, complex process? Is there oversight involved at different stages, or do they just run with decisions made by previous actors? And, a question that might link it all together: how does the selection process influence outcomes?