Passionate adviser lifts Fulbrights to new heights at UW-Eau Claire

| Erin Finneman

Study abroad. Study abroad. Study abroad. Those words are reiterated over and over to incoming students at UW-Eau Claire. As one of the leading UW System schools when it comes to sending students abroad to advance their education, UW-Eau Claire has always sought to expand its international focus.

Years ago, Cheryl Lochner-Wright saw the university’s need for a Fulbright Program adviser and volunteered to step up to the position. Her passion for the program and experience with international education made her the perfect candidate for the job, and her success is clear to see.

The Fulbright Program has been sending graduates abroad since 1946. The program's website states, “The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government and is designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.” This exchange program offers students and young professionals the opportunity to explore their interests in graduate study, teaching from a grade school to university level, and research on a global scale.

There are countless Fulbright grants available for programs that vary widely and are found throughout the world. Each country individually defines study and research priorities, and the grants are then awarded based on in-depth applications and prior experience.

“My passion is building cultural understanding through direct, person-to-person experiences,” said Lochner-Wright, a study abroad coordinator in UW-Eau Claire's Center for International Education. “Originally, I understood language to be the key to the bridging of cultures, which is why I majored in German and minored in French secondary education as an undergraduate, and why I then applied for a Fulbright English teaching assistantship in Germany after graduation.”

Lochner-Wright's experience with the Fulbright Program as a college graduate shaped her future career more than she could have imagined.

“Connections I made during that Fulbright year expanded my view of cultural exchange,” she said. “I shifted my focus from language education to international education in my graduate work and career.”

When she came to Eau Claire several years after her return to the states, she noticed that UW-Eau Claire did not have a Fulbright Program adviser, so she volunteered for the position. To say Lochner-Wright has helped lift up the UW-Eau Claire Fulbright Program would be an understatement. Earlier this year, UW-Eau Claire was tied for 15th nationally among all public and private master's-level universities in terms of producing Fulbrights, and 19 Blugolds have been named Fulbright grant winners in the past decade alone. Lochner-Wright's colleagues can’t say enough about how she has shaped the direction of the program at the university since.

Dr. Jeff Vahlbusch, a professor of German and the director of the University Honors Program, joined the Fulbright committee back in the early 2000s and enjoys advising students, recruiting for the program and consulting on applications. He is extremely proud of the success of UW-Eau Claire’s involvement with the Fulbright Program, as it continues to be one of the top universities in the country in terms of producing grant awardees. He attributes much of the success to Lochner-Wright's strong, passionate leadership.

“We love to talk about our success with Fulbright, but it wouldn’t matter a bit if we didn’t have someone like Cheryl in charge,” Vahlbusch said. “She is professional, knowledgeable, and strives to always keep learning. She is also extremely invested in the students she assists and will go out of her way to help them, even if there is no compensation in it for her.”

Like Lochner-Wright, Vahlbusch was a Fulbright-er himself. In 1987 he headed to Berlin on a grant to work on his doctoral dissertation. Ever since, he has had a passion for the program and works hard to get students involved and embarking on in-depth international experiences.

The Fulbright Program and other competitive scholarship programs can sometimes be intimidating for students, but both Lochner-Wright and Vahlbusch want the anxiety surrounding these programs to be diminished.

“We have incredibly bright, talented, engaged students on this campus, and I would like to see more of them envision themselves as candidates for Fulbright, as well as for other competitive national scholarships,” Lochner-Wright said.

Vahlbusch not only wants students to apply, but also hopes that they learn from the application process whether they receive a grant or not.

“No work on an application is ever wasted,” he said. “Many students look back on the application process as a great educational opportunity.”

Involvement, experience and leadership are what have shaped the success of the Fulbright Program at UW-Eau Claire. Although many universities have entire offices dedicated to the recruitment of grant applicants, UW-Eau Claire continues to stand out. An extremely invested committee of faculty and staff, which includes Lochner-Wright, Vahlbusch and two additional members, Dr. Maria DaCosta, professor of economics; and Dr. David Lonzarich, professor of biology; makes their time worthwhile and effective, sending impressive numbers of grant winners abroad.

Lochner-Wright is excited to see where the program will go in the future, as she gears up for another season of applications.

“The next information session regrading Fulbright grants will be held in April, and the application processes will begin thereafter,” she said. “All graduating seniors and alumni are encouraged to apply if they want to see their horizons expand through an intense, self-directed international education experience.”