Thursday was Fulbright Day, and some of the 300 or so Nepalis who have studied in the United States under the Fulbright Program gathered in Kathmandu for an annual get-together.
There certainly isn't anything unique about Nepali students leaving home for a Western education anymore. More than 1,500 Nepalis went to the United States last year alone, a quarter of them to pursue post-graduate degrees. While some Nepali parents can afford to foot the bill, most students still rely on grants and scholarships. Among the latter, the Fulbright Scholarship is perhaps the most contested and coveted.
This year, there were more than 300 aspirants for the Nepal-wide selection of five candidates for the 2004 Fulbrighters. The prestige attached to being a Fulbright scholar is partially due to a rigorous selection process-only the cream of the crop gets through.
In 51 countries, including Nepal, there are binational commissions to administer the program. "It began with a simple idea, but has grown to allow an untold amount of shared knowledge, cross fertilisation and global networking," says Michael Gill, head of the Fulbright Commission, Nepal. In June 1961, the Commission for Educational Exchange between the United States and Nepal (USEF-Nepal) was formally established, but Nepali students and scholars had gone to the United States as Fulbright scholars even before that.
In 1952, Ram Chandra Malhotra and Yog Prasad Upadhaya became the first Nepali Fulbrighters when they were selected to study public administration. Since then, some 260 students, 47 post-doctorate scholars and 46 travel grantees have been to the US under Fulbright auspices to study, teach and to conduct research. In a reverse flow, 122 American students and 133 senior scholars have come to Nepal.
Many Nepali Fulbrighters joined the civil service and rose up the ranks but very few got into politics. Former minister and RPP leader, Prakash Chandra Lohani, a 1962 Fulbrighter, who is the new finance minister in the Surya Bahadur Thapa cabinet is one of the few. "It helped me broaden my perspective-the experience helped me become a better person and a better professional," Lohani told us.
Fulbrighters are required to return to Nepal and work in their field for at least two years. But Dilli Devi Shakya, the president of Fulbright Alumni Association of Nepal (FAAN) is concerned with the rising numbers who stay on in the US, especially those who are studying technical subjects.
Shakya is a supervisor to research students at Tribhuban University's Department of Botany. She is also the first woman to head the government funded Research Centre for Applied Science and Technology (RECAST).
"The Fulbright experience teaches you how best to exploit what is at your disposal," the 1990 Fulbrighter adds.
Nepali scholars are diversifying in their academic fields of interest under the Fulbright program. The younger generation has opted for creative writing, fine arts and media studies-a departure from the traditionally popular areas like economics, administration and the sciences. These changes have also been reflected within the American education system and their teaching values.
Former head of the National Planning Commission, Mohan Man Sainju, remembers how difficult his first two semesters were as a Fulbright scholar at the University of North Carolina in 1969. "I struggled against the rigidity of science. I wanted to study development not as an isolated economic issue but also in light of its social, political and anthropological connections," Sainju recalls. At least in his case, the hard work seems to have paid off.
USEF-Nepal says the quality of applicants has dipped and crested with poltical and socio-economic changes in the last 50 years. The quality of early scholars were good because most of them had Master's degrees from universities in India that followed the British-style education system. In the 1970s education suffered a serious setback, but the tide turned for Nepali applicants, especially in the 1990s.
Until then most scholars held government jobs, but today people working in the private sector, international organisations and independent scholars are coming to the fore. "We would like our selection to be more representational of the diversity in the Nepali population," says Gill, who himself was a Peace Corps volunteer here in the 1970s and speaks fluent Nepali. "We are doing better than before, but we still don't get as many dalit and janjati scholars as we would like."
The Fulbright Program was conceived by late US senator J William Fulbright to promote mutual understanding through education between the US and other countries. The US Congress formally established the program in 1946. An international policy-level governing body, appointed by the US President and consisting of 12 members drawn from academic, cultural and public life, was set up.
The Fulbright Program is the largest exchange of students and scholars in history. Nearly 25,000 individuals have lived, studied, taught and learned in the US and 140 other countries. Along with Peace Corps, the Fulbright Program is hailed as the most successful US government undertaking for knowledge sharing. At present it has mutual exchanges with more than 120 countries.
Minnesota State University magazine Today features former Nepali ambassador to the United States, Damodar Gautam (extreme right) on its cover.
Illustrious Nepali Fulbrighters Lain Singh Bangdel (left) and Dilli Devi Shakya (right).
US Education Foundation Director in Kathmandu, Michael Gill with former head of the NPC, Mohan Man Sainju, also a Fulbright scholar.