The Sponsored Student Odyssey: From Selection to Enrollment

February 10, 2012 By: Caroline Gear, and Craig E. Hastings

wRAP-Up Volume 9, Issue 1 - March 2012

The Sponsored Program Administration (SPA) Network and English Language Teaching and Administration (ELTA) Network have combined forces and follow the story of how a sponsored student, Belen Alfaro from Argentina, was selected and then her journey to her current status of Fulbright grantee at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (UMASS).

The Sponsored Program Perspective

Norma Gonzalez, executive director of the Fulbright Commission in Argentina, begins by explaining the process in Argentina. "The Fulbright Commission has a cost-share agreement with the Argentine Ministry of Education to fund grants for Master and PhD programs for young faculty from Argentine public universities. We invited the 35 Argentine state universities to nominate candidates and we received 45 nominations, including Belen's. We sent all the applications to academic reviewers who did the ranking. The Fulbright Commission and the Argentine Ministry invited the top 20 for interviews and selected Belen as one of the finalists. Subsequently, our EducationUSA staff worked with her over the course of several months to help her prepare applications, take the TOEFL and GRE tests, investigate universities and study programs, and then choose the ones that were better for her objectives. When we had all the application materials ready, we sent them to LASPAU and they took over from there."

LASPAU administers the Fulbright Faculty Development program and other Fulbright programs in Latin America and the Caribbean in collaboration with the Institute of International Education (IIE). Annually, LASPAU places up to 150 Fulbright grantees in graduate degree programs at universities throughout the United States. Each grantee is assigned, based on field of study, to a LASPAU placement specialist who works with the student to develop a submission plan of the three to five universities to which LASPAU will apply on the grantee's behalf. Factors such as academic background of the student, test scores, academic match with the degree program at the university, and overall competitiveness of both the student and the admitting program are taken into consideration. Another important factor is the ability of the admitting university to offer a tuition scholarship or other financial assistance to complement the funding provided by the Fulbright grant for living expenses and other benefits. As was the case with Belen, when additional language preparation is needed, LASPAU works closely with IIE who assigns the students to intensive English language programs prior to the start of the student's academic program.

The Sponsored Student Perspective

Below is an interview with Belen Alfaro, currently studying at UMASS Amherst, who discusses her experience as a sponsored student.

  • How did you find out about being a Fulbright grantee to the USA? What was the application process like for you?

    At the end of my undergraduate studies in Argentina, while I was working on research and doing my thesis, my director encouraged me to look for a fellowship to do a master's abroad. He specifically told me about Fulbright, but we knew that it was a very competitive and hard process. While I was getting ready to apply, I received a newsletter from the international office of my university, and in it was some information about a specific scholarship through collaboration between the Fulbright Commission in Argentina and the National Ministry of Education. This program, the 2010 Faculty Development Program managed by LASPAU, was for people who were working in a public educational institution and wanted to get a master's or a PhD from a university in the United States. I decided to apply with the support of my director and thought that I would have enough time to get ready in case I got the scholarship.

    But the process was harder than we imagined. After submitting the application and all my records, I was notified just one week before I had to take two exams: the institutional TOEFL (similar to the official) and one similar to the GRE but in Spanish. After taking those exams, thirty-three out of forty candidates were selected for an interview with one representative from the Fulbright Commission and the National Ministry of Education. From that interview, five candidates were selected for a scholarship, three for a research exchange and two of us for a master's program. Once I was selected, I then needed to work with LASPAU to find and apply for admission to a U.S. university. Since the fellowship I got does not cover the tuition and fees of the university, I had to search for a scholarship from the university too. UMASS Amherst was among the options I was considering as it had a master's program I was interested in, and it gave me a very good scholarship.

  • How did you choose urban studies?

    I have a bachelor's degree in geography and I was always interested in urban issues since I had studied urban geography in college. I was also working on research in topics related to regional and local economic development, so I wanted to link this topic with the urban issues. As a result, I found that the Master in Regional Planning from UMASS Amherst matched my interests and also had different areas of concentration in which I can focus. This will allow me to work in the future in regional planning as an academic, such as I have been doing, and also as a practitioner.

  • When did you arrive in the United States and what were your first impressions? Culture bumps?

    It was my first time to live in another country, far from my home. My first impression of the country was wonderful. I came to one of the most beautiful places in the United States (Massachusetts) and the very liberal and small town of Northampton with a lot of nice places and very friendly people. It was also really helpful to live with an American woman, because I learned a lot about the U.S. culture. The most difficult cultural aspect for me was that people in the United States are not very expressive or warm as Latin American people, in general. Other cultural bumps were the difference in the times of the day, such as the dinner time and the hours that they hang out, and also the language.

  • Can you describe your English program?

    Even though I got the TOEFL score that UMASS Amherst requires, Fulbright gave me a scholarship to an English academic program in the United States before my master's degree started. The Institute of International Education placed me in the International Language Institute (ILI) in Northampton, and at the beginning I thought that five months of English was too much—but it was not. It was an intensive program, with grammar classes in the morning and different elective classes in the afternoon, such us pronunciation, writing and essays, learning from songs, and U.S. culture. What I really liked about the school and the program is the method of teaching and the relationship among professors and students. It was a very different way to learn a language, very interactive and dynamic, using different materials and activities. The feedback at the end of the month and the possibility to talk with the professors about the strengths and weaknesses were really important for the process. Moreover, learning about the U.S. culture was essential for the transition to another country. Related to this point, I found in the ILI more than a place to study language since I met people from different countries that were in the same situation as me. We found important support to get used to the culture and the country.

  • How was the transition from intensive English to graduate work in urban studies?

    The transition from the English program to the university was not so hard since I was practicing and learning English before, and also living in the country for a while. Although it is a very different routine and work that I have now in graduate school, I feel that I have many more tools and skills to face and manage this new challenge. I got them in my pre-academic program. I am grateful that I had the chance to come to the United States before my academic program started, and especially to ILI, because it would have been difficult to start directly in the university.

  • What are your future plans?

    I will be working on my master's degree until August 2013, and after that I will probably go back to Argentina since it was the agreement with Fulbright to work at least two years in my country and for the university that supported me to study in the United States. I hope in these two years I can reach my goals and make important contacts and work with these people in the future.

The International Student Adviser Perspective

The following is an interview with Patricia Vokbus and Nancy Condon, international student advisers at UMASS Amherst. They share their insights on the challenges and benefits of working with sponsored students.

  • How is advising a sponsored student different from advising other students?

    Sponsored students have an extra layer of bureaucratic responsibility. In addition to fulfilling the requirements of their academic department and of the university and of USCIS, they must also be aware of and pay attention to the requirements of their sponsor and of the agency, such as LASPAU, which is charged with handling the student while in the United States.

  • Do sponsored students have special needs?

    The fact that sponsored students' applications are usually handled by the placement staff at an agency can make the student more distant and thus less aware of the whole application and acceptance process. That can become a source of confusion once the student arrives at the university and is inundated by all of the bureaucratic business that every student has to manage. The sponsored students sometimes wonder if there are certain things that they are supposed to do on their own, or is the agency handling it for them? To alleviate any problems, the students should contact the international office and introduce themselves if they have not had any correspondence from them.

  • Do you provide different or additional services to your sponsored students?

    In our office, there is a specific adviser designated to work with sponsored students, and we try to make contact with the student as soon as our office knows that she has been accepted. That staff person attempts to coordinate all of the student's needs, including contact with the sponsoring agency, processing any cost-sharing benefits that the university has promised, and working with the student to be sure that documentation gets to the billing office and that the students know what they need to do to make that happen. UMASS Amherst is a big university and our bureaucracy can be complicated, challenging, and frustrating. However, any problems can be dealt with or avoided by having this designated adviser.

  • What is it like working with the sponsors-challenges, difficulties, things that work really well/ best practices?

    One of our biggest challenges for sponsored students is to get in direct contact with them when they are accepted. Often the contact info which is available to us is through the agency and not directly to the student, and so we often find that information, which we try to send students to help them make plans to arrive at UMASS Amherst, either doesn't reach them at all or is delayed. It makes it very difficult to help a group of students when we aren't even sure that our information is getting to them. Another challenge for busy offices like ours is the extra paperwork that is sometimes required by the agency. For example, in addition to our having offered a tuition waiver to a student and sent e-mail confirmation of that offer, some agencies also require an official letter, on letterhead with signature, to confirm the award. It seems like extra work and burdensome to an institution that is providing significant financial support to the student and indirectly to the agency. But these are just paperwork problems, and once we have contact with the student everything can be sorted out. Having a designated adviser means that we know our contacts at the various sponsoring agencies and can get in touch with them to solve any issues.

  • How many sponsored students do you have on campus? Which Countries?

    Around fifty students from all over the world, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cyprus, El Salvador, Germany, Haiti, Indonesia, Latvia, New Zealand, Tanzania, Tibet, Ukraine, and Vietnam.

  • Are there benefits when sponsored students complete an ESL program nearby?

    The obvious benefit is that students have the opportunity to become acclimated to the area before they even begin their studies so that the transition from ESL studies to enrollment in a degree program is smoother and easier. They are better equipped to deal with the inevitable culture differences in the classroom since they have had a solid start to their experiences in the United States and, most importantly, have more tools and the self-confidence to address any issues. We notice a big difference in students coming from an ESL program in the area since they are able to dive right into their lives at UMASS Amherst without the usual settling in period.

This publication has been developed by NAFSA members for use by their colleagues. No part of this newsletter may be reproduced without written permission from NAFSA: Association of International Educators. The opinions expressed in wRap Up solely reflect those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of NAFSA: Association of International Educators. wRap Up and NAFSA neither endorse nor are responsible for the accuracy of content and/or opinions expressed.