Studying (During) a Crisis: An Interview with Fulbright’s Artemis Zenetou

The Fulbright program is an enduring testament to the international outlook of American education, and a trademark of its valuable function as a cultural diplomacy tool. Through its own programs as well as through its support to many Greek students studying individually in the United States, it has fostered long-lasting ties between prominent alumni in both countries, and a corresponding community of scholars and professionals renewing the program’s commitment to advance understanding between the two peoples. As the response to the COVID-19 pandemic reshapes education, the National Herald spoke to Artemis Zenetou, Fulbright’s executive director in Greece, to learn how the program moves forward during these challenging times.

The National Herald: Ms. Zenetou, how has the pandemic influenced the Fulbright scholarship program?

Artemis Zenetou: This was an academic year full of complexities, and probably one of the most challenging, at least for me, as executive director of the Fulbright foundation in Greece, since I assumed duties about two decades ago. One major drawback was that, basically, all the American grantees that were in Greece on a Fulbright grant, and this goes also for all countries that host Fulbright programs, had to leave and be basically almost evacuated within 48 hours from their host countries, including Greece, to return to the United States. This was a directive from the U.S. Department of State, and we worked very closely with the U.S. embassy to implement it. Now, for the Greeks that were on a Fulbright in the United States, the situation was somehow different, because not all of them chose to return to Greece, simply because some of the programs were not affected. And it depended, really, on which state the university was in. Talking about the next academic year, the pandemic started right at the time that we were in the process of evaluating and interviewing the new cohort of applicants for academic year 2021. Thankfully, we managed to kind of switch to online interviews and online meetings, so this was not majorly disruptive. What is becoming disruptive, and, clearly, it's beyond anyone's control, is the fact that we do not really know when the academic year, that would normally start in September, will start. Most of the programs for Fulbright, either for U.S., or Greek citizens, will be starting in January 2021, with the exception of those that are attending degree programs.

TNH: How many grantees are in your next cohort, and how many are returning to the United States or to Greece?

AZ: First of all, just for historical purposes, the National Herald was among the newspapers that was featuring Fulbright from its early years (it started in 1948), and, in fact, there was a wonderful article in the mid 50s about Greeks arriving in the U.S. via Fulbright. Normally we offer close to 70 scholarships both ways. This year it's closer to 64, simply because some of the grantees decided to opt out for next year and not to be entangled in the uncertainty of starting in January or later. But to date I would say that since 1948 there were more than 6,000 U.S. and Greek citizens that participated in these exchanges. And what is lesser known is that Fulbright Greece has awarded also close to 2,500 scholarships to Greek citizens to attend the U.S.-affiliated schools in Greece, like Anatolia College, the American Farm School, Athens College, and Pierce-Deree.

We've followed the news from ICE and the administration, suggesting initially that students who are enrolled in degree programs the instruction of which is online would not be allowed to get an F1 or J1, which is the visa for Fulbrighters. Is there a provision for your grantees, for the Greek grantees who are in degree programs in the United States? Are there any who need to be in the United States in September who did not have the opportunity to defer enrollment?

Yes, there are a couple; and they decided not to defer, and as it stands any of these instructions… you know, they evolve. But they do not affect any of the Fulbright grantees -they are completely different types of visa. So, the U.S. sponsored visas, which is like a government program, like Fulbright, is not subject to any such limitations.

TNH: And how about travel?

AZ: I cannot comment for non-Fulbright students, but I can tell you that Fulbright students, as I said, because there are U.S. government-sponsored visas, they will not encounter any such limitations. What they may encounter -but this has to do with the university and the state where the university is- is whether there is an imposed quarantine when they arrive. So, I think what is prudent at this point is that all students are in close contact with their host institutions in the United States to find out exactly what are the requirements for each state and each university. Everyone has to be very proactive, and to be in constant communication with their universities in the United States.

TNH: How is the Fulbright network coming together to support new grantees in this era of physical distancing, and what provisions are being made to support students under these unusual circumstances?

AZ: We ended up utilizing more online meetings than we have done before, which is something, even when circumstances allow and we will be having more in-person meetings, I think we will definitely adopt, having more gatherings of groups of our grantees online, because they also welcome this opportunity. Fulbright engages with grantees -and, later on, alumni- as much as they wish, and we have many different ways of engaging them as part of outreach programs; being in review committees, a program that we have for artists alumni… and, I think, what is telling is looking over on grantees from the early years -even from the 50s- that are still friends of the Foundation being engaged in different ways. I think this is a testament of the select and different nature of this program that creates not just a Greek-U.S. community, which I call an educational and cultural bridge, that counts more than 72 years, but also a global network, because Fulbright right now operates in more than 160 countries. We take pride of Greece being the first Fulbright program in Europe, and the second globally, and there are connections with alumni in many different parts of the world.

There are some states that have been affected more by the pandemic. Greece sends about 2,200-2,500 students every year to the United States to study. Are there areas where they are concentrated, which would mean different needs for students, and are there are any measures being taken to address specific concerns?

This 2,500 -sometimes 3,000- students do concentrate in some sort of suspect states, that are the ones that are the big education industry of the U.S., and it's inevitable. But even within the states there are smaller and mid-sized institutions that they go to. Regarding the pandemic and some of the states that have been hit harder: at the time that these decisions were made, the pandemic did not exist, because it was the beginning of the pandemic. The changes we've seen in the last two months may affect indeed the decision and desire, and having someone matriculate or ask for deferral to next year, but that we will not know and be able to assess until later this year.

TNH: Has there been a question of adjusting Fulbright grants to address pandemic concerns -whether that would be the financial component, or the assistance that Fulbrighters could look to after their first year and so on?

AZ: There are things that we're considering and working on, so I would rather opt out to answering this question for now.

TNH: What about the American Fulbrighters who are planning on visiting Greece?

AZ: Well, actually, also the American grantees, assuming that all goes well, they should be arriving in Greece January 2021. Also, their question so far has been “is it certain that we will start in January 2021?” We say “to the best of our knowledge.” And, basically, right now this is like the constant answer, because some of them, when they were reading the news that Greece seems to be faring quite well within the pandemic -and we do hope that this will continue because some things are so volatile, they were trying to see whether they would come earlier, which we could not do, because this is a decision that affects the global program and not just the U.S.-Greece exchanges.

Equally interesting is that there is increasing interest from American students to come to Greece, for either short short-term or long-term programs outside of Fulbright, and we're very pleased to see that Greece has sort of risen up to a world destination education place, to number 14, globally, which is a great number. And the numbers of American students coming to Greece the last few years far exceed the number of Greeks going to the United States, and there is also a new initiative partnership between the Greek ministry of Education and the Institute of International Education that Fulbright was called to be in the advising committee of engaging more U.S. and Greek universities in order to attract more American students to Greece. So, I just wanted to say that that Greece is definitely an education destination worth exploring.

TNH: What would you say are the main drivers motivating this change?

AZ: I think that Greece got in the map for the wrong reasons, initially, because of the financial crisis and the social unrest, and all these things, so it started getting into everyone's map. When things changed, and normality came back into the country, I think that more people started understanding what Greece could offer, and also that modern Greece has a lot more subject matters and disciplines to offer through its educational institutions, and there are more English programs available now in Greek universities across the country. So certainly, I would look forward to continuing the discussion and highlight Greece as an educational destination.


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