I was born in a farm in New York and I grew up a nomad, moving from place to place, country to country. In 1929, my father graduated as an engineer from Princeton University. You can well imagine how impossible it was for him to get a job as an engineer, so he finally found work in a funny little magazine on the 8th floor of the Grand Central Building in NewYork City. That little magazine transformed itself over the years into a larger magazine called TIME. My first overseas experience was when I flew to Bogotá, Colombia at the age of 14, for a summer study program to learn Spanish. I saw people living in a very different culture, and since then I was fascinated by how the world worked. That summer influenced me to continue my education in Political Theory and International Government at Radcliffe College, the women’s college counterpart to Harvard University; and I earned my Bachelor of Arts in 1955.
I went to South Korea in 1958, where I taught English at Ewha Women’s University. I had two jobs after one year, one teaching English and the second as a copyreader at the English language paper,The Korea Times. I learned that my students had very different perspectives and purpose in life. It taught me that we are not completely defined by our race or our religion, but that we are alike as human beings. When I arrived in Seoul, many of the main streets were still covered in dirt. There were ox carts and people with a frame on their backs walking in the street. In 1991, I took my husband, Bill Fulbright, to a Fulbright event held at the Bando Hotel, which was the only building in the city taller than two or three stories. And of course, he asked me to show him around. I told him I couldn’t possibly show him anything because Seoul now looks more like New York City.
After I taught in Korea, I taught two more years in an Anglo-American school in Moscow in 1961. After Moscow, I taught one year in Germany as well. Then I worked as an art teacher in Rippowam School in New York from 1964 to 1969. I love teaching because I learn as much if not more than my students. Each group is new, especially if you move across borders and teach in different cultures. I spent the majority of my adult life in the fields of education and the arts. In 1972, I moved to Washington D.C. and taught at American University. After three years of teaching there, I became the Chair of the Art Department at Maret School in Washington D.C.While I was working at Maret School, I was elected as the ‘Teacher of the Year’ in 1980.
In 1975, I decided to continue my own education as well, and I earned my MFA from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. From 1987 until 1991, I was the director of the Fulbright Association, which is how I met Senator Fulbright. His ideas and thoughts on both peace and international education were just amazing to me. The idea that you can send an impressionable young person across a border and put them in an educational setting in a different culture long enough to force them to confront that culture to realize that another way of being and way of forming the community is equally as valid, and that is a mind expanding idea.
From 1997 to 2000, I was the Executive Director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities at the White House. Its mission is to encourage partnerships between the public and private sectors in order to enhance cultural life in America. Prior to this position, I also served as an “Unofficial Ambassador” for the 50th anniversary of the Fulbright Program. In that capacity, I traveled to numerous countries on all five major continents and all over the United States to speak about the importance of international education exchange and the pivotal role played by the Fulbright Program. In April 2006, I established the J. William & Harriet Fulbright Center and incorporated it as a nonprofit organization. My goal was to encourage world peace through education. The central aim was to illuminate the links between educational programs and peaceful communities, and to foster that growth. The Fulbright Center also served as an advocate of international exchange by teaching young people about other cultures and broadening their worldviews. I am energized when I see students,teachers,artists,and diplomats working to create peaceful solutions to our world’s very difficult problems. I wanted to continue and further the legacy of my husband, Senator James William Fulbright, who established an educational exchange program for American scholars to study abroad and for foreign scholars to study in the United States.
Fortunately in 2008, I met a brilliant young man named Gokhan Coskun, who worked together with me to speak of the importance of international educational exchange globally. Since then, we fostered the growth of my educational legacy by opening Harriet Fulbright Institute and Harriet Fulbright Schools. The success we had through the institution located in Washington D.C. led to our expansion of Harriet Fulbright Institute to Istanbul, Turkey and to Almaty, Kazakhstan in 2015. The Harriet Fulbright Institute in these new locations will continue to develop next generation leaders and foster mutual understanding between peoples and nations through our global education, research, and leadership programs. HFI serves as an advocate to resolve conflicts through international education programs.
For the last decade my lecture tours have been worldwide. I have been invited to give talks on diverse topics such as the vital role of international education exchange, arts education, the life of Senator J. William Fulbright, and leadership and human progress. I received Honorary Degrees including a Doctorate in Law from William & Mary College and University of Scranton, Doctorates in Humane Letters from Long Island University, Arcadia University, the Bank Street College of Education, Pace University, University for Development Studies in Ghana, and a Doctorate in Philosophy from Stevens Institute of Technology. I was inducted as an Honorary Bennett Fellow of the School of International Studies at Oklahoma State University. Panama presented me with its highest civilian award ‘El Orden de Manuel Amador Guerrero’ and the Republic of Hungary gave me a similar honor, the Middle Cross of the Order of Merit. I was awarded the Order of Australia by the Governor-General of Australia, for service to educational and cultural exchange between Australia and the United States. It’s particularly gratifying when I meet young people who tell me their lives have been changed for the better by the opportunity to live and study in another culture.
My impetus might best be described in an eloquent paragraph written by my husband, Bill Fulbright in his last book, published in 1989, The Price of Empire: “Our future is not in the stars but in our own minds and hearts. Creative leadership and liberal education, which in fact go together, are the first requirements for a hopeful future for humankind. It aims at the achievement in international affairs of a regime more civilized, rational and humane than the empty system of power of the past. I believed in that possibility when I began. I still do.”