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Fulbright Scholars Express Dismay and Face Disarray Following COVID-19 Restrictions

Several Harvard-affiliated Fulbright scholars were forced to cut their projects short and end their scholarships early after the coronavirus pandemic upended travel plans and research proposals.
Several Harvard-affiliated Fulbright scholars were forced to cut their projects short and end their scholarships early after the coronavirus pandemic upended travel plans and research proposals. By Steve S. Li
By Davit Antonyan and Sydnie M. Cobb, Crimson Staff Writers

Several Harvard-affiliated Fulbright scholars were forced to cut their projects short and end their scholarships early after the coronavirus pandemic upended travel plans and research proposals.

As the outbreak spread worldwide, directors of Fulbright programs in various countries alerted participants that their programs could be impacted.

The Fulbright Program awards grants to scholars from all across the globe to pursue extensive in-field research projects and offers teaching position opportunities both domestically and internationally.

Harvard is a top provider of Fulbright scholars, and serves as a popular host institution for international scholars wishing to pursue research in the United States.

Catherine L. Zhang ’19, a Fulbright scholar based in Taiwan, said she received an email on March 20 from the executive director of the Fulbright program in Taiwan encouraging all participants from the United States to prepare to return home.

According to Zhang, Taiwan was initially deemed a “special case,” giving participants the opportunity to choose whether or not they wanted to remain in the program.

Three days later, she received notice that Fulbright Worldwide was suspending all programs — including the Taiwan program — and mandated that U.S. participants return home.

Zhang said the abrupt cancellation of the program was a “jarring” experience since life seemed so normal.

“We were still going about our day-to-day activities, still going to school, still going to coffee shops,” Zhang said. “To have this dissonance of having Fulbright Worldwide be suspended and being told you have to come back to the United States right now was a very big difference for me.”

Zhang describes her return trip to her hometown of Pittsburgh as “hectic,” as she faced a slew of last-minute cancellations.

“My flight home was originally scheduled on Wednesday, but then I learned that all flights that day had been canceled as well as all the flights on Thursday,” Zhang explained.

Though Zhang faced setbacks in returning home, she said her colleagues in Taiwan ensured she was well-equipped to travel amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“My colleagues so graciously had given me multiple masks, rubber gloves, Clorox wipes, disinfectant spray, goggles, and my director even gave me a hazmat suit to wear,” Zhang said.

Gennadi Pobereƶny — a Fulbright scholar and researcher at the Harvard Ukranian Research Institute — was studying the Soviet Genocide in Ukraine when the pandemic hit.

After getting the go-ahead from the Fulbright office in Ukraine and a government agency, he organized a lecture tour in Ukraine that was supposed to start in March. However, right as it was about to start, he found out he would have to end his project early and travel back to Ukraine as international quarantines took effect.

“I took a long time to set it up and convince people that it would be a good idea to have it done,” Pobereƶny said.

Although he is currently transitioning his lectures to a remote format, Pobereƶny emphasized the difficulty of keeping them equally engaging.

Other scholars said they found success in their projects despite the COVID-19 restrictions.

Fulbright scholar and Harvard Medical School associate professor Ateev Mehrotra was researching remote telemedicine in Australia before the suspension of the Fulbright program. Though he was not able to complete his research in Australia, Mehrotra said he has been able to make some progress in the United States.

“We didn’t get a chance to publish anything, because we were forced to come back,” Mehrotra said. “To some degree, I’m still in touch with my hosts, we still have calls here and there. Some stuff has continued, but I think much less so than previously.”

Joseph Rowlands, a Fulbright Future Scholar recipient and visiting PhD researcher from Australia, was studying how to develop and measure quantum computing hardware with Professor Amir Yacoby when the Fulbright suspension was announced.

“By the second week, the gates of campus were shut, and I was forced to return to Australia,” Rowlands wrote in an email. “I think I now hold the record for the world’s shortest successful Fulbright program, so at least that’s something!”

Though he wrote he was “incredibly impressed” with the University’s swift response to the virus, Rowlands added that he hopes to continue his research at Harvard at a later date.

“I still have a lot to learn from the researchers there, but at this stage I just hope things can start going back to normal,” Rowlands wrote.

—Staff writer Davit Antonyan can be reached at davit.antonyan@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Sydnie M. Cobb can be reached at sydnie.cobb@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @cobbsydnie

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