Stephen Gironda can’t believe his fortune.
“My jaw drops sometimes in the middle of the shower,” said the 25-year-old from Monmouth County, N.J.
Gironda won a coveted nine-month Fulbright award that will carry him to Rome to research how diet, exercise, and other factors affect susceptibility to addiction. He’ll be working under a distinguished researcher in that field whose work he closely followed while getting his master’s at Villanova University.
At Villanova, such fortune is becoming common.
Villanova students won 32 Fulbright awards this school year, double its tally from last year. While the Fulbright program hasn’t released its numbers by school for the current year, history suggests that Villanova could land in or near the top nationwide.
More than 35 percent of Villanova students and alumni who applied were accepted this year. Of research universities with 80 or more applicants, no other school has had an acceptance rate that high since 2004-05, said Michael T. Westrate, Villanova’s director of the Center for Research and Fellowships.
“Our students ... are punching outside their weight class,” said Westrate, himself a former Fulbright scholar.
Fulbrights are one of the most prestigious post-baccalaureate awards in the country. Established in 1946 at the urging of U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright, they were designed to foster mutual understanding across partnering countries and the United States after World War II. They are sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, with more than 160 countries participating. The awards cover room and board; health benefits; a round-trip plane ticket, and, in some countries, partial tuition, research, and enrichment allowances.
Students can pursue almost any area of interest, from the arts to the sciences, business, public service, and government. Students can teach English, study or conduct research.
Their applications consist of a two-page proposal, one-page personal statement, recommendation letters, and transcript. For research awards, applicants must also have an invitation from the country for whose program they are applying.
Expert panels in the United States and host countries pick the winners.
Princeton and Penn in past years have led local schools in the number of winners, placing second and fifth last year, respectively, among research institutions. Rutgers University wracked up 23 Fulbright awards, placing ninth.
“We attribute our success to identifying as many well-qualified candidates as possible, and helping them demonstrate records of achievement and experience that are well matched to the country in which they seek" to study or teach, said Neal Buccino, a spokesman for Rutgers-New Brunswick.
Pennsylvania State University and Temple each had 10 last year, while Villanova had 16. Other local research institutions with fewer than 10 include the University of Delaware, Drexel, Rowan, and Lehigh. Among smaller private colleges, Swarthmore logged nine and Dickinson eight. Others with fewer than eight include Franklin and Marshall, Haverford, Bucknell, Muhlenberg, Gettysburg, Lafayette, and Ursinus.
Westrate’s team at Villanova has consciously pursued an increase in Fulbright opportunities for students and alumni, raising the visibility of the awards and involving many on campus in student preparation.
“I’ve had professors who said your only homework assignment tonight is to research what a Fulbright is,” said Jamilah Jones, 22, a 2019 Villanova graduate from Philadelphia who won a Fulbright to teach English in Brazil.
She had already learned about Fulbrights at age 14 in an after-school program in Germantown aimed at helping gifted at-risk urban students reach their potential. Former Fulbright students who had been in the after-school program came back to talk, she said. Jones loved what they had to say.
“It was the global aspect,” said Jones, the daughter of a Philadelphia police officer and firefighter. “A lot of us were in the [after-school] program because we wanted to branch out of our neighborhoods, so education was a way to expand beyond where we were.”
She hopes to one day do the same for others, by creating schools with similar international opportunities.
After Westrate came to Villanova in 2016, the school revamped how it assists Fulbright applicants. In the past, a staff member would read and assess multiple applications. Now, each reads and works with only one.
“I found when somebody is reading 8 to 20 applications, they get mixed up,” he said. “They read one, they know it really well and spend a lot of time on it.”
To make that work, he asked administrators throughout the university to get involved, starting with the Rev. Peter M. Donohue, the president. Donohue agreed, and at a staff meeting asked his cabinet to help, too. All but two participated, Westrate said.
Professors also expose students to global thinking in the classroom, spurring interest in Fulbrights.
“You open the world to them, and they run with it,” said Lynne Hartnett, associate professor of history.
Lucy Minicozzi-Wheeland, 22, who won a research Fulbright to look at defense and diplomatic policy in Ukraine, felt that support.
“They have gone above and beyond in helping me,” she said.
Minicozzi-Wheeland, whose parents are a Villanova professor and administrator, checked a book out of the library when she was 14 on how to speak Russian and fell in love with the language. She became interested in a Fulbright to travel and see another part of the world.
A Fulbright on a student’s resume can boost a career, Westrate said. A former student at Notre Dame, where Westrate previously worked, charted a quadrupling of views on his Linked-In page after he became a Fulbright semifinalist and another quadrupling after he won the award, Westrate said.
The awards also raise the university’s profile and can help in rankings, such as U.S. News and World Report’s, he said.
And the experience, itself, is priceless, said Westrate, who as a Fulbright scholar studied life in the Soviet Union and wrote a book, Living Soviet in Ukraine from Stalin to Maidan.
“There is stuff in that book out of a top-secret military museum,” he said, “that I got because I was a Fulbrighter.”
Gironda hopes his opportunity will help him with his long-term goal of building better rehab centers. His interest began when he was 13 and a friend overdosed. Since then, he’s watched the opioid crisis worsen.
It’s an opportunity he may not have known about had he not come to Villanova. He heard nothing about Fulbright as an undergraduate at Rowan University, he said.
Within two weeks of arriving at Villanova, he said, “it was like ‘Fulbright, Fulbright, Fulbright’ — from every angle.”