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Fulbright scholars face uncertainty, financial stress

Fulbright scholars booked multi-thousand-dollar plane tickets to leave Italy, now worry they won’t be able to complete their research and degrees

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Fulbright scholars in Italy frantically booked flights back to the United States last week after finding out on March 10 that the Fulbright program in Italy would be suspended due to COVID-19, according to five Stanford-affiliated scholars interviewed by The Daily. Now in voluntary self-isolation in the United States, these Fulbright recipients said they face many uncertainties, including whether they can complete their research and degrees.

The March 10 email informed Fulbright scholars that they would continue to receive grant payments through June, but some are unsure whether they can finish their research or degrees now that they’ve left Italy.

The message came eight days after an announcement that Fulbrighters could leave Italy voluntarily if they wished. Many had hoped to stay in the country until they saw the March 10 email.

“We knew that voluntary departure would mean not coming back,” said Makshya Tolbert ’15, who began a master’s degree in gastronomy through Fulbright in Italy in October.

“[Another Fulbright master’s student] and I resisted the idea of voluntary departure because we knew that we wanted to finish our degrees, and the program is short,” she added. “It’s only a 13-month program.”

Joe Amato, a Fulbright scholar and fourth-year history Ph.D. student at Stanford, said he cannot complete his research without material from archives in Italy.

“I’m going to go back as soon as I can,” he said, though he doubts Fulbright will sponsor his return.

Fulbright participants also said they worried about the possibility of infecting others upon returning to the United States.

“I didn’t particularly feel like I would be safer in the United States,” said Francesca Lupia ’19, who began conducting Fulbright research last September and left Italy last week. “If we had the option of waiting out the quarantine in Italy, there would probably be less risk of transmission.”

Financial stress

Fulbright scholars said one-way tickets from Italy to the United States cost as much as several thousand dollars last week, far above the 550-euro ($621.50 as of March 10) travel stipend Fulbright provides. Fulbright scholars described the cost as particularly straining given that they live on about $1,450 per month from their grants and are not allowed to have other jobs while pursuing their research. 

A March 20 email informed Italy Fulbright scholars that they would be reimbursed for the cost of their emergency departure.

“I think most of us will at least receive grant money until the end of June, but the issue is that the grant amount (€4400) was supposed to cover all of our living expenses through June 30,” Lupia wrote in a message to The Daily. “Given [the] higher cost of living in the States, this means that we are left jobless and with only what remains of our stipend when we return to the States.”

Some have also suddenly found themselves without health insurance.

“We got health insurance as part of the Fulbright,” said Marlene DeLeon M.A. ’19. “But once we left Italy, that benefit is completely gone.”

The health insurance Fulbright provides is limited, and Fulbright encourages scholars to have their own health insurance. If scholars are not covered by a family member’s plan, however, Fulbright may be all they have to rely on due to the cost of private insurance.

DeLeon said she has no health insurance as of this week. She said she is currently experiencing stress-related health issues such as hair loss, but does not have symptoms of coronavirus.

The rush to leave Italy produced both psychological stress and financial strain, Fulbright recipients said. Tolbert did not have time to pack up her apartment before she left for the U.S., bringing only a few changes of clothes with her.

“Most of us are paying rent still in Italy and also are now being asked to pay rent here,” she added. “And most of us just don’t know how to do that.”

“The health and safety of Fulbright participants is our top priority, and we regret the disruption that Fulbrighters as well as many others are experiencing worldwide as a result of current conditions,” wrote Peter VanDerwater, a Fulbright Program official at the Institute of International Education, in an email to The Daily. “We are making every effort to work with Fulbright participants to arrange prompt departures, and providing transitional funding to assist them in their onward plans.”

“All Fulbrighters, whether still in the host country or having returned to the United States prior to their original return date, will receive Fulbright alumni status with all of its benefits,” VanDerwater added.

Members of the Fulbright cohort from Italy are turning to the U.S. government in hopes of assistance. Lupia said she and several other scholars have asked their senators to contact Fulbright on their behalf.

“We were in Italy representing the United States as cultural and academic ambassadors on a State Department program,” Lupia said. “Despite vague reassurances that the State Department could be able in some way to assist in our departure, we have been unable to get concrete assistance with the evacuation and relocation process from the agencies that were sponsoring our residence in Italy.”

In other European countries, some Fulbright scholars are opting to leave voluntarily as they realize mandatory departure might be the next step their programs take, too. They have foresight based on the experience of scholars in Italy to guide their decisions.

Cheyenne Garcia ’18 voluntarily left her research position in the Netherlands and returned to the United States on Friday. The program was officially suspended after Garcia planned her departure, but she told The Daily she thinks “it was a wise financial decision” to act early.

She said she believes the Netherlands Fulbright program has been trying to be supportive. 

“I don’t want to throw them under the bus or anything because I think they’re confused and the government’s confused. Everyone’s confused,” she said.

This article has been updated to include a statement from Peter VanDerwater, a Fulbright Program official at the Institute of International Education.

Contact Jasmine Kerber at jkerber ‘at’ stanford.edu.