'Be confident, not over-smart' - Fulbright scholar Avia Nahreen's tips for aspirants

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The Fulbright Scholarship for Foreign Students is one of the most prestigious and competitive scholarships for international students. It gives young professionals the opportunity to undertake master’s studies in the United States with full funding. 

Worldwide, around 8000 Fulbright scholarships are awarded annually. In Bangladesh, around 650 Fulbright scholars have studied in the United States under this program.

Avia Nahreen Labonno received the Fulbright scholarship in 2019 to study for her MPA degree at the Maxwell School of Citizenship, Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

Today, she is a PhD student researching water justice issues at the same school. The Financial Express has reached out to her to share some tips for aspiring Fulbright scholars.

When asked about the common mistakes most of the applicants make, there are three major issues for which they get rejected, Avia said. 

“A crucial common mistake is that applicants do not align their work experience well with the discipline they are applying to. A Fulbright scholar is usually an ambassador of a country, and it helps if their work accomplishments contribute to global or national development.”

Many do not satisfactorily fill up all sections of the application. Every part of the application is equally important.

“Lastly, applicants think an excellent CGPA makes the most significant impact and hence do not put much effort into writing a convincing Statement of Purpose, which is one of the most important components of a well-made Fulbright application.”

So who will be the ideal student eligible enough to receive a Fulbright scholarship? She answers, “It depends. It could be someone with years of relevant work experience or credible recommenders to vouch for their professional capabilities and give back to the country after completing their master’s in the US.”

This Fulbright scholar has a bunch of suggestions for future applicants applying for the scholarship, “Applicants must look into these factors as they have greater weight in evaluation - future plans, awards and recognition, research experience, statement of purpose, and personal statement.” 

“While writing a Personal Statement, there are four critical aspects: Firstly, it must be very well written and grammatically correct. You must spell check thrice before finalising. Secondly, the personal statement must be convincing and interesting to read.” 

“Thirdly,” she continued explaining, “personal statements should relate to the Fulbright program and must demonstrate how personal experiences have helped shape the applicant’s professional aspirations and accomplishments. Fourthly, applicants must ensure that it is within the stated word limit.” 

There is a misconception that only students with high academic achievements can get into the Fulbright program. But in Avia’s opinion, that’s not true, as she was granted the scholarship with a CGPA of 3.20. 

“To account for the low CGPA, the applicants should have sufficient experience that is highly relevant to the program they are applying to and clarify how thousands of dollars investments on them will eventually help Bangladesh and the US-Bangladesh relationship.” 

“They should be able to explain their low CGPA convincingly,” Avia assures students who want to apply despite having a low CGPA.

After passing the evaluation under scrutiny, the next step in the selection process is an interview. Avia’s advice for the applicants is, “Be yourself. Speak the truth. Be confident but not over-smart, and show your enthusiasm.”

Adding a Fulbright scholarship to the resume is a prestigious achievement; it helps in the future endeavour in higher studies and the job industry. Avia says, “I have been told the Fulbright award would help me immensely in future job and grant applications.”

“Personally, the scholarship has helped me in getting a PhD offer from the same university. I was the only applicant in my year to be awarded a University Fellowship (I don’t have to work as a Teaching Assistant for a certain number of years). I do think being a Fulbright scholar had a role to play in it.”

Though the selection of Fulbright scholarship is a rigorous process and few applicants get selected, it has great value at home and abroad. 

As it brings excellent career opportunities and a chance to represent their own country abroad, more and more students should be inspired to apply for this widely recognised program. 

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