By Harry Anderson
What does 22-year old Smithfield resident Luke Thompson have in common with Aaron Copland (the “dean of American music” and recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal and Pulitzer Prize), Ruth Simmons (former president of Brown University), and Joseph Stiglitz (Nobel Prize economist)? He, like all three, stands in the rank of the world’s more eminent men and women: Fulbright scholars, of whom 54 are Nobelists, and 82 have earned the Pulitzer Prize.
When Luke learned of the Fulbright program, he muttered to himself, “Umm…sounds interesting” and sought out the advice of Anthony Cashman, the director of the Fellowship Office at College of the Holy Cross from where Luke is about to graduate, having majored in political science and Chinese. Cashman was frank, telling him, “The odds aren’t very high.” Not deterred, however, he began the lengthy application process prescribed by the Federal Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. With guidance from three faculty members, he coped with the most challenging part of the process: the writing of two essays.
He met the October deadline, hoping that he would convince those in Washington who sit in judgment of the prestigious program that he fits the profile of a Fulbrighter that is given on their website: “All Fulbrighters share a strong academic background, leadership potential, a passion for increasing mutual understanding among nations and cultures, and the adaptability and flexibility to pursue their Fulbright project successfully.”
In 1946, soon after the end of WWII, J. William Fulbright, the senator from Arkansas, introduced to Congress a bill to establish a program that would increase mutual understanding between the people of America and people of other countries. His bill passed and was signed into law on Aug. 1, 1946, by President Truman. At its signing, the senator said the program’s aim was “to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship.”
At the outset, Luke knew his intention. For three summers while a student at Smithfield High School he visited China under the aegis of Bryant University’s Confucius Institute and then returned to China in his junior year at Holy Cross for a semester’s study. Now he wanted to investigate the culture of Taiwan and to try to unravel the complex political status of this island’s identity. The final act in his unfolding Fulbright drama was to get permission from the Taiwanese government to settle there for one year.
Although quite knowledgeable of how and why his situation would be precarious if he were to receive the grant and stay a year on this populous island (about 25 million Chinese), Luke submitted his application. He reasoned that Taiwan is the ideal place to merge his two interests: political dynamics and China, the ever-present possibility of war notwithstanding. Since 1949, when Chiang Kai-Shek lost the Civil War and fled to what was then called Formosa and set up a government, creating two separate states (mainland China’s Communist-ruled People’s Republic of China or PRC and his Democratic Republic of China or ROC), both sides adamantly hold to their perspectives: reunify or legally acknowledge the autonomy of ROC.
In March, not many minutes after receiving word from Washington, Luke shouted into the phone to his mother, “I got it! I got it!”
He admits that he is nervous, yet excited. “I hope this Fulbright helps me to accomplish my three goals in life. One is to go to grad school to study international relations. I’ve been accepted by George Washington University, BU, and John Hopkins. Another is to be happy, and the third is to do something good for the world. You know, all people everywhere are people. I want everyone in every country to understand this.”
Following in the footsteps of Copland, Ruth Simmons, and Joseph Stiglitz, come August Luke Thompson will wear the mantle of a Fulbright scholar. He will fly off to the Kinman archipelago – a chain of small islands that dot the Taiwan Strait and stretch to about a mile off the coast of China’s mainland. There he will teach English and illuminate for his pupils the essence of the United States of America.
If all goes well, Luke will “bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs” – Senator Fulbright’s aim – so that “nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship.”