1. For those who may be unfamiliar with you and your work, can you share a little bit about yourself, your research interests at UMD, and the scope of your Fulbright?
Throughout my career, my core research interest was American policy process. Among other things I wrote three books, all focused on political aspects of health, safety and environmental policy. The first examined Congressional oversight of regulatory agencies, the second national policymaking for novel epidemics, and the third prospects for environmental justice. Though all my degrees were in political science, my experience in college journalism and interest in practical politics helped orient my writing toward general audiences. I spent the bulk of my career not in political science departments, but in schools of public affairs and a think tank, the Brookings Institution. Studies of political phenomena address a wide range of questions and employ a variety of methods, but one useful distinction is between researchers driven largely by what is new or recent within an academic discipline and those oriented more toward what is new or recent in the world at-large. My work was very much of the latter sort. The truth is that I sought to pursue a career more as a well-credentialed writer and teacher about politics than as a pure academic political scientist.
2. What inspired you to start this process of becoming a Fulbright participant? What was your process in approaching the application?
My wife is an employee-benefits attorney who was raised in a Russian-speaking family here in the United States. When the Soviet Union fell it became possible for her to find substantial work helping to advise emergent post-Soviet and other governments in social-policy and pension reform. She has to date worked in more than 30 countries. One long-term in-country assignment for her was in Armenia around 2007-2009. I explored how I might join her there and it became clear that a Fulbright assignment might work out. In the summer of 2007, I visited the American University of Armenia (AUA) in Yerevan, located a short distance from where my wife then lived and worked, to discuss whether I might be of use in some capacity as a visiting Fulbright scholar the following year. Although I had research interests in the American policy process, Armenia was hardly the place to exercise them directly. But AUA was quite anxious to have someone who could teach about American politics and policy to Armenian masters-degree candidates. That’s what I did during a nine-month Fulbright based at AUA. My mission quickly became conveying to Armenian students as much as I could about the way the United States worked. In Armenia, I was more of a teacher and representative of the American way of life than I was an active researcher although I learned quite a lot about my host country and much of what I learned informed my later teaching.
3. What was the most surprising thing you found in your research and scholarship?
I was most surprised and gratified by the intense interest in the way the American political system functioned and in what the United States had accomplished. My Fulbright period coincided with a presidential-election year. And as an Afro-American political scientist teaching in Armenia in the months leading up to, and immediately after, the election of Barack Obama as the first Afro-American president, I found myself constantly in demand to explain both the American electoral and policymaking system and the evolving role of race in American society. I was also quite moved by how strongly Armenian students aspired to use American experience and understanding to advance conditions in their own country. Never before nor since have I felt so deeply appreciated as an instructor. In this regard, I found my time as a Fulbrighter in Armenia to be some of the most rewarding teaching I ever undertook in a forty-year career.
4. How do you plan to carry forward what you learned and the relationships you formed while abroad?
I regularly engaged some eighteen students and a smaller number of local and expatriate colleagues, learning enormously from them all. I had the privilege of watching an historic American presidential election (and voting absentee) in the company of students who had known little of our system but who nevertheless harbored intense curiosity about it. For three particular students I wrote letters of recommendation years after my departure; all three sought placements for further education in the West. I was useful as a Fulbrighter and my time in Armenia, by broadening my own understanding of the world, was uniquely useful to me.
5. For other Terps that are interested in becoming Fulbright participants, what advice do you have for them?
It has now been three years since my retirement and some fourteen since my return from a nine-month Fulbright in Armenia. My view is that it was well worth undertaking. I had sought a placement in Armenia, a posting not much in demand, and got largely what I wanted. Anyone contemplating a Fulbright ought to apply understanding that her own preferences are likely not the only drivers of the eventual outcome.
I absorbed, at a level possible only through months of in-country living, a culture, a system, and even obsessions very different from anything I could fully appreciate remaining at home. Armenia is a tiny, landlocked nation, once a great empire but later sequentially absorbed into others (first Persian, then Ottoman, then Soviet) before, finally, retrieving its independence in the early 1990s—accompanied by war and brutal privation. It has adversaries on its border, genocide in its national memory, a decided lack of globally competitive exports, and a fiercely attentive (some would claim meddlesome) diaspora. Armenia is not a democracy; at best it qualifies as competitively authoritarian. But it has enormous promise and is brimming with young people hungry for change and engagement with the wider world.
Visit our Fulbright Scholars gallery to meet our fearless scholars engaging with the world. For general program information and application guidance, visit our "How to Fulbright at Maryland" section at the bottom of the page. Interested in applying for your own Fulbright, or want to learn more about the program? Email UMD’s Fulbright U.S. Scholars liaison at Scholten@umd.edu.