The Fulbright Program, awarding merit-based grants for international educational exchange to and from the US, became effective in 1946, thanks to United Nations’ advocate, James William Fulbright.
The latter, had been recipient of the Rhodes Scholarship - an international postgraduate award to study at the University of Oxford, UK – before being elected Senator from Arkansas, in service from 1945 to 1974.
In the Old Continent, for a change, we have to wait until 1987, for the official ratification of the European Union student exchange program, the Erasmus Program – named after Dutch Renaissance humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam – that enables grantees to attend up to one year at an academic institution of their choice within Europe.
Interestingly enough, everything started with Sofia Corradi, nicknamed “Mamma Erasmus,” who had been a Fulbright recipient at the Columbia University, New York. In fact, her wonderful experience abroad changed the course of her life.
Executive Director of Italy-US Fulbright Commission, Paola Sartorio. Photo Courtesy of P. Sartorio
Back to Italy, the university registrar denied the academic recognition of her Master’s earned overseas. Corradi’s frustration turned into her life’s resolution to grant everyone the same fundamental right and opportunity of having a life-changing study experience abroad.
From that day on, she put all her efforts towards that goal, finally reached in 1987, when the Erasmus Program finally inaugurated.
Paola Sartorio, Executive Director of the US-Italy Fulbright Commission, instead of having her life-changing experience abroad, was raised in a place, where multiculturalism and tolerance for diversity have been traditionally fostered: “As a child, I studied at the ‘International School of Geneva.’ Most of my classmates came from all over the world and lived in the Swiss town because their parents were diplomats or international civil servants. Their lives inspired me to follow the same career, that’s when I realized that I wanted to be exposed to the world and work in a multicultural environment.
I later enrolled at the ‘Sapienza University of Rome,’ where I earned my International Relations degree and, lastly, I completed a post-degree specialization in the European Union at SIOI (‘Italian Society for International Organization’).”
From theory to practice, it’s not always a short step, but Paola started with a blastoff: “My international career started with an internship at FAO (‘Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’) on the non-navigational uses of fresh water.
In 1998 I became a ‘Junior Professional Officer,’ a program sponsored by the government of Italy. Each year the Italian government sponsors a number of Italian citizens to work at International Organizations.
At first, I was selected to work at the UNFIP (‘United Nations Fund for International Partnerships’), an office part of the UN Secretariat, that managed the $1 billion donation made by American media mogul, Ted Turner, about twenty years ago.
UNFIP funded development projects generated by the United Nations in partnership with NGOs and the private sector. I had the opportunity of seeing what were the priorities of the UN system around the globe.
Then, in New York City, I worked in the Executive Office of the Secretary General where, together with a small team, I supported the Deputy Secretary-General Mme. Louise Fréchette to conceive, develop and launch the second wave of Reform of the United Nations. Most of my work focused on social and economic development and coordination on the ground.
Back in Italy, I was in charge of all aspects related to the opening of a crèche within IFAD (‘International Fund for Agricultural Development’) premises. For over ten years, IFAD was the only UN agency in Rome to offer this service to staff.”
Aside from Sartorio’s zeal at the service of international organizations, she teaches her students with the same dedication: “I have taught at several study abroad organizations in Rome, mostly to American students. Teaching gives you the opportunity of sharing your passion with others and it was a pleasure to see how eager my students were to make the most of their months in Europe. Rome is the third UN hub in the world: with classes ranging from International Relations to Italian politics, we took several field trips and my students had the opportunity to experience first-hand what they were learning in class.”
The US-Italy Fulbright Commission, under the leadership of Paola Sartorio, promotes study, research and teaching both in Italy and the US through a program of merit-based scholarships for Italian and US citizens (70 scholarships “per side” every year): “The fairness of our awarding is ensured through a rigorous and transparent selection process. Candidates go through a first round of anonymous screening. Then, short-listed applicants are interviewed by a select group of government officials and alumni.
As far as teaching, there is a growing interest on both sides of the ocean to make university programs more international and diverse. Partnering with the Fulbright Program is a very effective tool to attract qualified scholars to their institutions.”
In 2016, the Fulbright Program celebrated its 70th anniversary. In 1946, the US Congress aimed to: “enable the government of the United States to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.”
Since the first agreement between the US and the Italian Government was signed on December 18, 1948, there has been a significant evolution according to Sartorio: “The nature of US – Italy relations has evolved significantly over the years. When the Fulbright program was launched in Italy, one of its main goals was to give grantees the opportunity of learning more about their host country. Today when they arrive, grantees are more familiar with the country and benefit from the cultural exchange and exposure to a different academic system.”
Of course, there is still work that needs to be done: “The number of students going abroad through our program is still low and efforts are going into encouraging a wider diversity of participants.”
You may be still asking yourself what’s Paola Sartorio’s opinion of Los Angeles and what’s Fulbright’s involvement in Southern California.
Let’s quench your curiosity, then: “I love its contagious energy and vibe. Los Angeles is the first city I ever visited in the U.S. at age 16. I was impressed by how welcoming and open people were. Since then I have visited the city many more times and I have fond memories of each of my visits.
Every year a number of Italian Fulbright grantees study and do research in Southern California’s academic institutions. In addition, the ‘Italian Culture Institute of Los Angeles’ regularly involves Italian Fulbright grantees and alumni in its activities.”