May 14, 2009 | Phil de Haan

When the Fulbright Scholars Program was established by Congress in 1946, its aim was “to increase mutual understanding between the peoples of the United States and other countries, through the exchange of persons, knowledge and skills.”

As Senator William J. Fulbright said when he introduced the legislation that led to the eponymous program: “In the long course of history, having people who understand your thought is much greater security than another submarine.”

Calvin Fulbright honorees resonate with goals

Those words ring true for two Calvin College professors, geographer Janel Curry and philosopher David Hoekema, and a Calvin senior, Eric Bratt. All three have been named 2009-2010 Fulbright Scholar selectees. Next year they will become part of Fulbright's grand dream, which for the past 63 years has seen a steady parade of American professors and students, more than 100,000 at last count, head abroad in pursuit of mutual understanding.

Curry, who also was a Fulbright Scholar in the summer of 1995, will be based at City University of Hong Kong. She will work with four other American professors to transition Hong Kong universities from three-year to four-year undergraduate degree-offering institutions.

Hoekema will spend a semester teaching and researching African political philosophies from his base at Daystar University in Kenya, assessing the new politics that motivated the founding of new African nations 50 years ago. His project will build on what he learned during two stints as director of Calvin's Semester in Ghana program and as part of Calvin's African and African Diaspora Studies program.

Bratt, an honors student who will graduate from Calvin in May, received his Fulbright to study and do research in a Chinese village in Manchuria where the last speakers of the Manchu language live. He will be based at Heilongjiang University's Manchu Language and Cultural Research Center.

One of academia's top awards

All three are receiving one of the most prestigious awards in academia according to Calvin provost Claudia Beversluis.

“The Fulbright is a well-known international honor, and our professors and our student are in select company,” said Beversluis. “To have three Fulbrights from one school is pretty impressive.”

For the honorees it's less about the prestige of the award and more about the aims that Fulbright himself sought to solidify when he helped establish the program in the tumultuous years after World War II and prior to the Korean War.

Bratt, who will begin his study of Mandarin in July in Harbin, resonates with Fulbright's emphases on empathy and exchange as central tenets to the program. He said that the faculty of Calvin's history department has helped him understand the importance of those values over the past four years, cultivating in him a deep desire for dialogue with people of other cultures.

“I've found cultural exchange to be one of the most rewarding components of spending time abroad,” said the Grand Rapids native, who majored, and honored, in German, History and Asian Studies. “Even the simplest of conversations with an individual from a foreign culture can impact the way we see the world. Spending time abroad has made that abundantly clear.”

Curry, who is finishing a term as dean for research and scholarship at Calvin and transitioning into a role as the Byker Chair in Christian Perspectives on Political, Social, and Economic Thought, also will approach her January to June 2010 stint in Hong Kong with a keen sense of Fulbright's emphases.

“I suspect that I will learn far more from them than they learn from me,” she said with a wry smile. “Perhaps there are some things that I can bring from my experiences at Calvin that will be helpful, but I expect I will bring a lot back to Calvin with me that will benefit my work here for years to come.”

Hoekema, who will live in Kenya from February to June 2010, echoes the words of Bratt and Curry.

“Living in Kenya for an extended period of time,” he said, “will help me participate more fully in my temporary community. Then it's possible to understand a culture more deeply, and learning becomes a two-way street.”

Faith connections

All three honorees said they believe their faith will provide opportunities for learning and connecting to their communities in deeper ways.

Curry already has looked on the Web for church possibilities, and said that having her daughter as part of a Christian school there will provide further opportunities to be immersed in life both at the university and away from the academy.

For Bratt prior experiences studying in environments that are non-Christian have strengthened his faith, and he is expecting his stay in China to have an equally broadening impact. “I have no doubt that I will interact with and perhaps form strong ties with Christians while in Harbin,” he said. “Conversely, I will interact with people not of the Christian faith on a daily basis and look forward to hearing their perspective on life and on more deeper issues.”

Scholarly growth to result

All three Fulbright selectees also are optimistic about the impact their experience will have on their work as scholars.

Both Curry and Hoekema expect that their Fulbright experiences will enrich their teaching at Calvin. Hoekema is eager to gain a deeper understanding of politics and society in East Africa in order to strengthen a course he developed recently on African thought and culture. Curry is considering a new course on the geography of Asia.

For his part Bratt, who was inspired to learn more about the decline of the Manchu language in northeast China after reading a March 2007 article on the New York Times Web site, hopes to use his Fulbright experience as a springboard to graduate school. After his experience in China ends he is tentatively planning on doing another year of Mandarin language study and then enrolling in a master's program in East Asian Studies.

The Fulbright Scholars Program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and annually sends some 800 U.S. faculty and professionals abroad each year. Grantees lecture and conduct research in a wide variety of academic and professional fields. The program receives its primary source of funding through an annual appropriation from Congress to the Department of State. Participating governments and host institutions in foreign countries and in the United States also contribute financially.

Fulbright program began with war surplus funds

Senator Fulbright served as a United States Senator from Arkansas from 1945 to 1974. A southern Democrat he was the longest-serving chairman in the history of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He earned a political science degree from the University of Arkansas in 1925, where he was a star on the football team, and later he studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He also spent two years as president of the University of Arkansas prior to entering politics.

The program that bears his name came about after World War II ended, when the U.S. was confronted with millions of dollars of surplus war equipment overseas. Fulbright's novel solution was to give it to the foreign governments on whose soil the equipment was housed—in exchange for U.S. students being allowed to study in those countries. Thus was born an international exchange program that in the six-plus decades since has enriched not only U.S. students traveling abroad, but also U.S. professors and other professionals, as well as foreign scholars coming to America to increase their global perspective.

Fourth Fulbright

In mid-May one more Fulbright honoree was added to Calvin's ranks, bringing the total for spring 2009 from three to four.

Calvin professor of history Jim Bratt learned he had been selected to be a Fulbright-Dow Distinguished Research Chair at the Roosevelt Study Center (RSC) in the Netherlands for spring 2010 where he will finish a book on Dutch theologian, politician and scholar Abraham Kuyper.

The RSC, a research institute, conference center and library on modern American history, takes its name from three famous Americans with Dutch roots—Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt—and is located in Middelburg in a 12th-century abbey.

Bratt, whose son Eric Bratt will be a Fulbright student scholar next year in China (see main story to left), can't wait to head overseas, to a place his own grandfather once called home.

“In 1985,” he said, “I received a Fulbright and went to the Netherlands, to Amsterdam, where I began to look at Kuyper and his influence in the Netherlands. This Fulbright brings my work full circle. I'm thrilled to be going back.”

Sponsored by Dow Benelux, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Fulbright Scholar Program, the Fulbright-Dow chair was established to give prominent U.S. scholars in the field of U.S. history and American Studies a chance to be affiliated for a four-month period with the RSC and to work on a contracted book project or articles for a peer-reviewed academic journal.

Bratt plans to do both during his stint in the Netherlands, tentatively slated for spring 2010.

“I plan to finish writing my biography of Kuyper,” Bratt said, “a book aimed at providing an international audience with an analysis of a Dutch statesman-theologian.”

Bratt noted that Kuyper's work on integrating religious commitment into the public life of a pluralistic society continues to be of interest in the 21st century.

“In particular,” he said, “American audiences—both those religiously affiliated and those with an interest in religion’s intersections with politics and culture—should find it illuminating to learn more about the ways that Kuyper thought the interplay between these sectors should unfold.”

Bratt hopes to complete about 75 percent of the book during an upcoming sabbatical and then finish it during his stint at the RSC. The book will be published by Grand Rapids-based Eerdmans Publishing Company as part of its Library of Religious Biography, a series designed to bring serious scholarship to an informed lay audience.

Bratt hopes the volume will mark a significant addition to the existing scholarly literature.

“Kuyper’s life and thought were all of a piece,” said Bratt, “so it is important to supply the context of the life out of which the thought proceeded, the dynamics of the thought as they propelled his career, the national setting in which that career unfolded, and the international situations to which he was responding.”

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