Big Names, Big Decisions: The Beginning of a Fulbright Journey at Columbia University

Dear (future) Fulbrighters, I was asked to tell you about the experience of choosing between two schools as a Fulbright grantee. My story is quite complex. During my MA in History at the KU Leuven I was looking for opportunities to continue studying abroad. The first program I found was very appealing. It was a dual MA/MSc degree program in International and World History – both in Columbia University and LSE. I realized that my chances of getting admission where rather limited, so I applied to some other schools. I am particularly interested in South Asia since I wrote my thesis on South Asian (Sikh) migration to Belgium, so I searched for programs meeting my interest.   In the beginning of April I received an interesting offer of the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington (Seattle). I was awarded a fellowship that covered full tuition, health insurance and some of my living expenses for the first year of the MA in South Asian Studies Program. It was a non-renewable grant and no promises could be made for the second year of the program, but the professors I was in touch with assured me that they would support me to find grants upon arrival.   Still, I was dreaming about attending Columbia University and LSE. In the field of history both institutions are leading centers in the world. Living and studying in two metropolitan cities provided the opportunity to establish profound and long-lasting contacts with interesting people from all over the world. But I had not been admitted yet, so I decided to play safe and accept the offer in Seattle.   In the meantime, I was preparing my application file for the Fulbright Commission. I included all information about the fellowship of the University of Washington and did not put too much stress on the fact that I had applied elsewhere. However, only two days after submitting my application, I received a letter from Columbia University and LSE with congratulations on my admission! I could not be more confused. I immediately contacted the Fulbright Commission in Belgium to ask whether it was possible to add this new information to my file. I quickly received the response that this was not a problem.   I decided that my final decision would depend on Fulbright’s grant. In case of a small grant (or no grant), the dual degree program and Columbia University would be definitively off the table. I was extremely happy to learn that Fulbright found me an eligible candidate and I was very proud to receive an in-aid grant of $5,000. Since I had no other funding for Columbia University, I eventually turned down their offer and started to prepare myself to go to Seattle.   Surprisingly, in the first week of July I was contacted by the director of the dual degree program in Columbia University and LSE to announce that I had been elected for a newly established 50% tuition reduction scholarship in both institutions. I must say this turned my world upside down.   The first thing I did was going to Brussels, to the office of the Fulbright Commission, to verify if changing schools was even allowed. After having this confirmed I sought advice from independent experts – some professors in Belgium and in the United States. Their recommendations all came down to this: the program is a unique opportunity, but it may not be worth a high mortgage. I was already very much aware of this, but I had the feeling that the program had the function of a red flag to me, like if it was warning me. All this good news coming in my direction… It was something I could not simply refuse.   Every time I had to take a decision about where and what to study, I had done this with the dual degree program in mind. Somehow the option never completely disappeared and it never ceased to attract my attention. If I was really honest to myself, I knew that studying the dual degree program was what I sincerely wanted.   The only thing I needed to do was to find the appropriate amount of money. I won’t go in details, but I was very lucky to find a sponsor, who enabled me to take the decision with a peaceful heart. Nevertheless, I found it extremely difficult to turn down the offer of the University of Washington. First, because they had been very kind to me and I felt very welcome. Second, because I had already bought my airline ticket. And last but not least, because I was not longer able to join the Fulbright Gateway Orientation I had been selected for. That was a major disappointment because I had especially been looking forward to meet Fulbrighters from all over the world, but it was inherent to my choice.   When I now think of it, I realize that mine was a luxury problem. I simply had too many good options. I have now decided to go to Columbia and LSE and that choice makes me very happy. Does that mean I could not have been happy at the University of Washington? I don’t think so. Did I make the right choice? I think so, but I will keep you updated!     My best wishes, Sara Cosemans]]>