Vakunta appointed as UIndy’s Fulbright liaison

Representatives from the Fulbright Scholar Program approached Chair of the Department of Global Languages and Cross-Cultural Studies and Assistant Professor of French and Francophone studies Peter Vakunta last year to see if the University of Indianapolis had a program liaison. Upon discovering that the university did not, Vakunta expressed interest in filling that position. After the Council for International Exchange of Scholars went through his application and scholarship background, Vakunta was notified in late November of 2016 that he had received the position of UIndy’s Fulbright Scholar Program liaison. Vakunta said he expressed interest in the position because of his love of research, his desire to connect UIndy to the international community and his love of service.

“What motivated me is that I’m a community-oriented person, and I want to make sure that I give back to the community and that I give back to the campus community,” Vakunta said. “My presence on campus is not important if people don’t benefit from my presence here, so serving, to me, … ties with the motto of the university, which is education for service. I like serving, and I like to make people benefit from what I think I know.”

The Fulbright Scholar Program started out as a bill proposed to the U.S. Senate in 1945 by then Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas. The goal was to start an international educational exchange program, according to Vakunta, and the bill and program were approved in 1946. The Fulbright Scholar Progam has multiple objectives, Vakunta said, but one of the most important is to promote scholarship at institutions of higher-level education, such as UIndy. To do this, the program appoints liaisons to represent campuses and provide information and opportunities to students, faculty and higher administrators. Vakunta said that he is tasked with five primary responsibilities as a liaison and that there are multiple ways he can go about approaching each.

“The first one [responsibility] is promoting the Fulbright Scholar Program here on campus,” Vakunta said. “What we [liaisons] do is, we play a vital role in promoting the program on campus by sharing vital information with faculty and also with students and staff. So I could do all kinds of things like organizing conferences or organizing workshops on campus to educate people on campus about the Fulbright Scholar Program.  The other thing that I could do is make sure that I do a bit of lecturing. I could get faculty who have been overseas, who have won the Fulbright grants, [and] I could ask them to share their experiences.”

Vakunta’s second responsibility is to educate higher-level administrators, such as the university provost and president. Vakunta said the importance of doing this is to provide another avenue of faculty development and to work to bring a Fulbright Scholar in Residence to the campus. Vakunta’s third responsibility is to encourage students and faculty on campus to take advantage of the Fulbright Scholar Program grants, which enable recipients to travel abroad to do research. He said that he needs to identify students who are capable and interested in doing research and make sure they have available the information about the grants and programs available so that they can participate in the program.

“The fourth aspect of what I should be doing as a liaison is to recognize people—faculty or even students on campus—who have been Fulbright recipients,” Vakunta said. “When they come back, it is important that we acknowledge them. We acknowledge them by publishing their names in campus newsletters, in campus newspapers and sometimes even organizing little events to recognize them, to make them feel important, make them feel like their accomplishments are really meaningful to the campus community.”

The fifth aspect of Vakunta’s position is to create links with other institutions of higher learning. This allows joint programs, an opportunity to exchange expertise and the development of the Fulbright Scholar Program across campuses and to boost the program’s image, he said.

In addition to the duties assigned by the program, Vakunta is looking into partnering with the Multicultural Engagement and Global Awareness Center, which he directs, to come up with a scholarship program that will encourage students to compete for prizes by doing research.

When it comes to events at UIndy, Vakunta said that he hopes to bring a Fulbright Scholar to campus for a semester to teach, mentor and help students through the process of applying for a Fulbright Scholar grant.

In addition to Vakunta, UIndy also has a Fulbright advisor, Associate Professor of Sociology Amanda Miller, and multiple other professors who are interested or involved in the program. Miller’s job differs from Vakunta’s in that she works more with students who are interested in the program and less with promoting it, she said.

“A Fulbright advisor guides interested students along the process of creating an independent research project or rationale for teaching in a different country,” Miller said. “For research advisors, the work is really only just beginning upon the award of a Fulbright; we continue to work with our student to get IRB [International Review Board] approval for their research, team up with the in-country sponsor where appropriate and offer advice to the awardee.”

Miller believes that Vakunta is a good fit for his role as liaison because of his interest in international education. She said that she is looking forward to working with him and other interested faculty in helping students and faculty members better understand the program in the hope that more will apply.

“I think Dr. Vakunta will bring his many strengths to the role, including a passion for international education and deep desire to help students view the world in a new way,” Miller said. “I’m very excited to hear some of the ideas Dr. Vakunta has for encouraging more students to apply for the program.”

Interested students can reach out to Vakunta or attend one of two workshops being held in March for more information about the Fulbright Scholar Program and how to apply. Both Vakunta and Miller encourage interested students to find out more and apply for the program.

“If you are incredibly self-motivated and want to see the world, talk to your favorite faculty member about the possibility of a Fulbright,” Miller said. “You can’t be awarded one if you don’t apply.”