Hannes Richter

An Interview with Lonnie Johnson

Hannes Richter

In an interview with Austrian Information, Dr. Lonnie Johnson spoke about current developments in the field of Austrian-American educational exchange. 

AI: The Fulbright Program during its early years of post-war Austria was a time fraught with economic hardship and political uncertainty compared to Austria today – now member of the European Union and a country with social stability and strong economic growth. Based upon very different periods in history, have the expectations of American students when wishing to study in Austria over the past sixty years changed in any way? And vice versa, for Austrian students wishing to study in America?     

Johnson: The first generation of Austrian Fulbright grantees grew up in the Third Reich, and they were leaving a recently liberated, war-torn, economically depressed and occupied country to spend a year in the peaceful and prosperous United States. In countries with totalitarian pasts -- like Germany and Austria -- part of the idea was to show young people how democracies with functioning market economies work.

Conversely, the American grantees were leaving the comforts of post-World War II America to study or teach in an occupied country, which was quite an adventure. I once asked Willy Schlag, the founding executive secretary of the Fulbright Commission in Vienna, about the biggest problems American students had in the 1950s in Austria and he said: "No refrigerators; no orange juice." Today, American grantees are impressed by the high quality of life in Austria. 

AI: What attracts American students to want to study in Austria, and is that any different from what attracts Austrian students to the U.S.? Are there some fields more conducive for Americans to study in Austria rather than in the U.S.? If so, which ones? And vice versa, for Austrian students studying in the U.S.?     

Johnson: Austrian culture, conservatories, concert houses and archives always have attracted and continue to attract many American students. The largest field of specialization among the 2,000 American Fulbrighters who have studied in Austria is German -- usually combined with the study of Austrian literature -- followed by music and musicology, history, and political science.     

Over 3,400 Austrian Fulbrighters have studied in the U.S.; among them the study of English -- combined with American literature or American Studies -- has been the most common field of specialization, followed by the natural sciences, engineering, business, economics, and law.     

One could say that the arts, humanities, and social sciences have predominated historically among the American grantees, whereas Austrians have focused more on the hard sciences and acquisition of technical or professional expertise, but the program is very broad. We have had American engineers as Fulbrighters in Austria and Austrian artists and musicians as Fulbrighters in the States, too. 

AI: What are the most important criteria for selecting a Fulbright recipient? Has the caliber of student changed in any way over the years?

Johnson: The mandate of the Fulbright program is to promote mutual understanding between the people of the United States and other countries so we are looking for grantees who are good citizens and interested in the kind of unofficial cultural diplomacy that is fostered by Fulbright exchanges. The program is based on annual, open, national, merit-based competition and conceived to recognize personal, academic, or artistic accomplishments. Therefore, the caliber of the candidates has been consistently high throughout the years.  

AI: In what way have the following impacted the Fulbright Program for better or worse, the U.S.-Euro exchange rate, new visa restrictions, current economic recession and growing competition with other study abroad programs and increasing price of education?     

Johnson: The Fulbright Program initially was funded solely by the U.S. government which made the depreciation of the U.S. dollar starting in the 1970s a problem, but since the 1980s the Austrian government has made an annual contribution to the program, too. Today Austria is among a handful of countries whose annual support for the Fulbright Program surpasses that of the United States. Visa regulations in Austria and the United States have become increasingly restrictive in the past decade, but Fulbright grantees enjoy the support of the authorities in both countries.     

Finally, the recession has hit all institutions of higher education which has made the competition for resources tougher. This has impacted the scholarships and funding available for graduate students, teaching assistants, and Ph.D. candidates in the U.S. in particular. 

AI: And how are the costs of higher education impacting the Fulbright Program?     

Johnson: The increasing costs of higher education are a serious challenge. I recently compared what it cost an Austrian Fulbright student to study at Harvard in 1951/52 with 2010/11. Sixty years ago the costs were zero. Harvard waived all tuition and fees, and a variety of American organizations came up with the funds to cover living costs on-site.Today, tuition and fees are about $ 45,000, the living costs about $20,000, and a Fulbright award covers less than half of the total costs. 

AI: Has the importance of the Fulbright Program changed throughout the years?     

The historical importance of the Fulbright Program for Austria was that it was the only real and substantial opportunity for young Austrian students and scholars to study abroad for decades, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. As Austria began to prosper in the 1970s and 1980s, it also started to fund its own scholarship programs for other destinations, but Fulbright still was the biggest show in town. Things changed dramatically in the 1990s with Austria's membership in the European Union, which provided a wide range of new opportunities for Austrians.

In the olden days, Fulbright was an exclusive opportunity and the United States was the only destination. Now Austrians have a wide range of opportunities to study all over the world and studying abroad is common. However, United States is still a very popular  destination. 

AI: And what about globalization and the refocusing on new fields of study in the 21st century?

Johnson: Student flows are changing. In the olden days, the United States was the dominant magnet for international students, and the great majority of Americans who studied abroad, did so in Europe. In other words, international education was focused on the United States for Europeans and on Europe for Americans. The internationalization of international education has entailed getting more Europeans and Americans to seek destinations different than the ones that have dominated in the past.

The United States and Europe also certainly are competing for international students and talent, along with newcomers to the field of international education, like Australia. Globalization has made the international educational market a very competitive place.