SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) - The prestigious Fulbright Scholar program was accused of leaving its United States students scrambling to financially pay for their way back home, after suspending the program amid the Coronavirus outbreak.
"We were told if we didn't depart on time. our grants would be terminated, and we would lose alumni status in the Fulbright Program," said Fulbrighter and Stanford doctoral student Joe Amato.
Now in self-isolation after returning home from Italy, Amato said they were notified by the Fulbright commission that the program was suspended after Italy went on lockdown. The said they were then told the commission and the U.S. Department of State was requiring them to return to the U.S. immediately, and no later than March 22.
Fulbright, which pays for recent graduates and graduate students to further their education and research abroad, told students in emails obtained by KPIX 5 that it would assist in their return home.
However, Amato and several students said they were only given the original money promised during the program, and nothing more. The program, they said, comes with a $650 travel stipend, which comes at the end of their nine-month stay. but they said that money is only enough under normal travel circumstances, and not an emergency crisis.
Amato said as he watched flights being cancelled and the uncertainty grow, he felt pressured to fly out immediately to keep his Fulbright status, and preserve all the work he'd done so far.
"I ended up buying a 4,000 Euro ($4,500) one-way, business class ticket to fly the very next day," Amato said. "I didn't sleep for 36 hours as I packed all of my belongings, cleared out my apartment and got to the airport."
His stay in Italy to work on his dissertation suddenly came to a halt, and was cut in half.
Others like New York University graduate student Magdalen Andreoni and Columbia University graduate student Anastasiya Matveyenko, remain in Italy. They hope to leave by Tuesday.
They also said that the Fulbright commission failed to provide any extra financial assistance as they fled the epicenter of the outbreak, and are trying to return to America.
"This money that I was planning on using for my life now all went to a broken lease, flights, and basically making sure that I'm out of this country safely," Andreoni said. "My biggest concern is that I have to pay for health care as soon as I get back to America."
But it's not just the financial impact they said is the issue. Many Fulbrighters took to Fulbright's Instagram page and join in their concerns that forcing them to leave the countries abroad actually put them and others more at risk of becoming infected with COVID-19.
"I'm very worried about endangering my family," Andreoni said. "Actually, a greater health concern to us as we passed through other cities in Italy and international airports, and had to return to our families in the U.S.," said Amato.
He said while he understands the Fulbright commission may be under pressure, he believes the Department of State could have stepped up to help in their evacuation.
KPIX 5 received a statement from Fulbright's spokesperson Peter VanDerwater who said in part, "While at the moment the primary focus is to ensure a safe return, they (Fulbright commission) will certainly be addressing other related concerns in the days to come."
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