Until a few weeks ago, I had planned to stay in Morocco for a total of fifteen months. I arrived in September 2019 to study the Green Mosques Program—the country’s bid to find inspiration for the environmental movement in religious texts. At the start of 2020, I never would have expected the outbreak of the coronavirus in China to affect my plans. By early March, though, Morocco was moving to cancel all international flights in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. I realized that I would have to depart the country right away if I wanted to leave at all.
Cutting short my time in Morocco by nine months, I rushed back to the United States on the last plane from Casablanca to Miami. Since then, I have had plenty of time to reflect on my half-year in Morocco and my decision to end my stay there. I was participating in the Fulbright Program, the State Department’s premier initiative to promote cultural diplomacy between Americans and their peers in dozens of countries. The coronavirus has upended this historic exchange.
The Fulbright Program sends Americans abroad every year to conduct research, teach, and facilitate cultural diplomacy.
Created by Senator J. William Fulbright in 1946, the world-famous initiative sends thousands of American academics, professionals, and students abroad every year to conduct research, teach English, and facilitate the kind of cultural diplomacy that has underpinned American soft power for decades. Fulbright grants also allow international students to come to the U.S. to attend graduate schools and participate in exchanges giving other countries a better impression of the U.S. Participants include 370,000 Americans and foreigners from 165 countries.
Fulbright Scholars, many of whom prefer to refer to themselves as “Fulbrighters,” form the core of the United States’ investment in cultural diplomacy. The State Department also administers initiatives such as the Critical Language Scholarship Program, which enables American students to learn Arabic, Chinese, Russian, and other understudied languages that the U.S. has prioritized.
Though the State Department oversees the most important aspects of cultural diplomacy, by no means does the government agency have a monopoly on American student exchange programs. The Defense Department offers the Boren Awards, which finance Americans’ study of languages critical to U.S. national security in exchange for a year of work at a government agency. The Peace Corps, meanwhile, has become famous for deploying American volunteers to assist rural communities in the Global South, from Albania and Armenia to Colombia and Peru.
As the heart of the U.S.’s longtime bid to present a better image of itself to the rest of the world, Fulbright Scholars and participants in other U.S. initiatives pride themselves on working at the forefront of cultural diplomacy. Even so, these student exchange programs have come under pressure in recent years. In 2017, 2018, and 2020, U.S. President Donald Trump tried to cut funding for Fulbright Scholars. The Trump administration also wants to shrink the Peace Corps.
The U.S. Congress has shown little interest in enacting the cuts that the Trump administration has requested, given these student exchange programs’ abiding popularity in the U.S. as well as abroad. Nonetheless, the spread of the coronavirus has presented a new challenge that neither the State Department nor Fulbright Scholars foresaw.
On March 12, the State Department announced “a temporary pause of exchange programs” in response to the pandemic.
On March 12, 2020, the State Department announced “a temporary pause of exchange programs” in response to the pandemic, which had already led to the cancellation of Fulbright exchanges in Azerbaijan, China, Italy, Mongolia, and South Korea. The same day, the State Department gave Fulbright Scholars in all remaining countries with programs the option to leave right away. One week later, the U.S. suspended the initiative altogether in response to a “Global Level 4 Health Advisory” from the State Department. American diplomats discouraged all travel outside the U.S.
From my apartment in Rabat, I felt like circumstances seemed to be changing at a lightning pace. Two days after the State Department paused student exchange programs, I decided to inform the Moroccan–American Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchange (MACECE), which oversees Fulbright Scholars in Morocco, that I wanted to go home. A day later, I boarded a plane to Miami International Airport. Most other Fulbright Scholars in Morocco did the same.
In keeping with the lack of certainty that has surrounded the ongoing pandemic, the future of the U.S.’ student exchange programs remains a mystery. My friends who had traveled to Morocco through the Boren Awards and the Peace Corps had to return before I did; my classmates from Boston College who applied to become Fulbright Scholars in fall 2020 have little idea what will happen to their applications, nor does the State Department seem to have much more information at the moment. The coronavirus has led to considerable setbacks to cultural diplomacy.
With the uncertainty surrounding the ongoing pandemic, the future of the U.S.’ student exchange programs remains a mystery.
Despite the damage caused by the temporary loss of these student exchange programs, I have no regrets about leaving Morocco, and I support the State Department’s handling of the health crisis. If I had stayed, I only would have burdened the American embassy in Rabat and the Moroccan officials dealing with the pandemic, who should be dedicating their already-limited resources to their own citizens. I would have had little opportunity for cultural diplomacy in a quarantine.
MACECE has been welcoming American professors and students to Morocco since 1982. The spread of the coronavirus has put this exchange on hold. However, Morocco and the U.S. will benefit from restarting it when the pandemic slows, for Fulbright Scholars promote mutual understanding.
Once the outbreak stabilizes and the international community refines its tools for fighting health crises, I hope that the State Department will reinstate the student exchange programs that have allowed Fulbright Scholars and other Americans to show the rest of the world a different side of the U.S.
The U.S. has struggled to overcome a reputation for emphasizing geopolitics at the expense of bilateralism and multiculturalism.
In the Arab world in particular, the U.S. has long struggled to overcome a reputation for emphasizing geopolitics at the expense of bilateralism and multiculturalism. Fulbright Scholars want to fix this problem, but they need the support of their government now more than ever.