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[Kim Seong-kon] Fulbright made the world bright

Perhaps the late U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright would never have known, but he changed my life completely. Had it not been for a Fulbright Scholarship which was awarded to me in 1977, I could not have studied overseas, and consequently, could not have become a professor at Seoul National University. 

Instead, I may have ended up a high school English teacher and been retired by now, unable to contribute directly to the scholarship of English literature. But I was lucky enough to be selected as a Fulbright scholarship grantee when I was an aspiring, but poor, young man. And it “has made all the difference,” as Robert Frost writes in his famous poem, “The Road Not Taken.”

Of course, I am writing on behalf of all Fulbright Scholarship recipients who benefited tremendously from the grants named after the great American statesman. In 1945, Senator Fulbright promoted the passage of legislation implementing the educational grants program, which was later called the Fulbright Program, sponsored by the U.S. State Department and foreign governments.

Ever since, the Fulbright Program has greatly contributed to mutual understanding between the people of the United States and other countries. Today, the Fulbright Program, which operates in 150 countries, including the United States, is known as one of the most prestigious grant programs in the world.

As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1959 to 1974, Senator Fulbright was well aware of the importance of cultural exchange and overseas education in opening our eyes and minds. Indeed, Fulbrighters turned out to be excellent cultural ambassadors who bridged the gap between the U.S. and their countries. They brought their cultures to America and at the same time, learned American culture and brought it back to their native lands, enriching both cultures.

Upon returning to their countries, quite a few Fulbright alumni become public intellectuals or land important positions, and silently back the United States whenever it needs international support.

Admirable as he is as the founder of the Fulbright Program, there are two other noteworthy things about Senator Fulbright. He was the man who boldly opposed McCarthyism in the 1950s, and the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in the 1960s. In 1954, for example, Senator Fulbright voted against an appropriation for the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy.

After the incident, McCarthy began teasingly calling him “Senator Halfbright.” In 1966 Senator Fulbright published a book, “The Arrogance of Power,” in which he scathingly criticized the justification for the Vietnam War and the U.S. Senate that naively endorsed U.S. involvement in the Indochina conflict.

Remembering Senator Fulbright, who sadly passed away in 1995, I often wonder, why don’t we have a great statesman like J. William Fulbright? Where is our version of Senator Fulbright who wisely foresaw the future of his country and rightly perceived the importance of cultural and educational exchange?

Unfortunately, our National Assemblymen, divided by factional interests and loyalty, only seem to skirmish over trivial agendas for political gain. Alas, no lawmaker in Korea has attempted to establish an educational grants program equivalent to the Fulbright Program to promote cultural understanding between the people of Korea and other countries. If we initiate such a prestigious grant program, Korea will surely become an international leader, promote its culture all over the world, and have a host of pro-Korean foreigners who would gladly help us when we need international support.

As a benefactor of the Fulbright grant, I have always tried to play a role of a cultural mediator and return the favor that I once received from Senator Fulbright. During the Roh administration, for example, when anti-American sentiment was fashionable in Korea, I did not swim in the current of national fervor, even though I did not like the Bush administration.

Instead, through my newspaper columns and public lectures I tried to buffer the clash between the two countries and mediate the chasm of cultural misunderstanding which inevitably caused resentment and hostility.

My ties with Fulbright continued. In 1990 I was selected as a Fulbright Senior Scholar Research Grant recipient. But I was fortunate enough to be invited by Pennsylvania State University as a Fulbright Asian Scholar-in-Residence at the same time. I chose the latter which enabled me to teach at Penn State and experience the diverse cultural interactions taking place in my classes. Last year, I was once again greatly honored by receiving the Fulbright Alumnus of the Year Award.

For the past 60 years, the executive directors of the Korean-American Education Commission who have administered the Fulbright Grants have done a wonderful job of promoting cultural exchange and mutual understanding between Korea and the U.S.: Edward Wright, Mark Peterson, Frederick Carrier, Horace Underwood, and the current director, Shim Jai-Ok.

Senator Fulbright once said: “It is possible that people can find in themselves through intercultural education, the ways and means of living together in peace.” I could not agree with him more. Indeed, Senator Fulbright has made the whole world bright.

By  Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon, a professor of English at Seoul National University, is president of the Association of Korean University Presses. ― Ed.
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