Portrait of Elizabeth Lightfoot, director of ASU's School of Social Work.

School of Social Work director named Fulbright Scholar Alumni Ambassador

By

Mark J. Scarp

Elizabeth Lightfoot traveled the world — twice — as a Fulbright Scholar, each time for a year. A huge amount of planning is involved, both professionally and personally, for such a major journey. Fortunately, future participants in the Fulbright program will have her experience to guide them.

As the first social worker to join the program’s Alumni Ambassadors, Lightfoot, director of the Arizona State University School of Social Work, will spend the next two years telling other social workers about what goes into spending a year abroad as a member of the Fulbright Scholars, a foreign travel program for academics sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

Lightfoot, an ASU Foundation Professor, is one of two ASU professors to be chosen as an ambassador. ASU is the only university to have more than one faculty member as ambassadors, according to the roster on the ambassadors’ website. Meng Tao, a professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, is the other.

Founded in 1946 and funded by legislation sponsored by U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, the Fulbright Scholar Program supports U.S. academics’ travel abroad to collaborate, interact and share knowledge, then return home with a deeper understanding of other cultures.

The program, administered by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, awards approximately 8,000 grants each year.

Lightfoot traveled to Namibia in 2008, then to Romania in 2018, as a Fulbright, as the scholars are known. She is one of a handful of former Fulbrights to be selected to the latest cohort of ambassadors. In addition to telling academics about the benefits of participation in the program, ambassadors also discuss the planning and groundwork that will go into a scholar’s time away from home.

Former scholars give applicants details of trips

Former Fulbrights are chosen as ambassadors because they can best describe to potential scholars the experience of travel, immersion in another culture, and learning and collaborating opportunities – and how to balance the experience with one’s work, Lightfoot said.

Lightfoot, who was selected as an ambassador from about 250 applicants, said she had already been promoting the program because it meant so much to her and her family. It gave her children the chance to live in another country and learn firsthand about life there, she said.

There are arrangements she said she remembers well, from setting up a household in a new place with a different culture, to maintaining the home she left behind.

One task not many applicants might think of right away: what to do with the family dog.

Among Lightfoot’s preparations as she readied for her family’s trip to Namibia, in southwest Africa, was to rent her home in Minnesota, where she was living at the time.

“Bringing the dog along would have been difficult, so whoever it was would be renting the dog, too,” Lightfoot said. “We heard from people who as renters hadn’t previously been allowed to have a dog, so the people we chose got to have one for a year.”

Lightfoot said she is happy to be an ambassador because she said she knows the program’s managers want to increase social workers’ participation. Her activities over her two-year tenure will include visiting other campuses and attending conferences, where she will describe her time abroad to social workers who might make good Fulbright Scholars.

Lightfoot said she’ll also apply her experience by serving on panels that review applications for the program.

“I know what they’re looking for,” she said. “I hope to appeal to social work faculty to apply and to know that it’s possible for them to be chosen.”

Lightfoot said she values her experiences in both countries today.

Namibian bumper stickers in the U.S.

Lightfoot’s time at the University of Namibia led to her setting up an international placement program between that university and the University of Minnesota, where Lightfoot taught before coming to ASU in July 2021.

“For me, I definitely feel like I have these international connections,” she said. “I came back and had connections, built relationships, and I brought back Namibians to Minnesota.”

When Lightfoot began seeing Namibian bumper stickers on cars traveling about the Twin Cities, she said she knew she had placed a good number of them locally.

“I thought, I might have caused that. My one trip introduced these connections,” she said.

And while in Namibia, Lightfoot said locals she spoke with couldn’t believe how the American foster system was structured, as they couldn’t imagine taking a child from a family and putting that child into the hands of strangers. Namibia’s culture of extended families means they are culturally inclined to take in a young relative, even a distant one, she said.

Insights about Ukraine from time in Romania

When she and her family were planning for their Romania trip, her by-then 15-year-old daughter insisted that this time, the dog would come along.

While in Romania, Lightfoot gave lectures to faculty at small universities about America and about social work. Under its onetime communist regime, Romania didn’t permit social workers, because doctrinally, communists say theirs is a perfect society with no need for such individuals.

Lightfoot said her children also benefited from living abroad, calling them global citizens. One is currently living in Europe and another is bilingual.

Romania borders Ukraine, which has provided additional insight into that nation’s current war with Russia, she said.

“My daughter who went to Romania with me knows more about Ukraine than her friends because she knows Romanian history,” Lightfoot said.

Learn more about Lightfoot’s time in Namibia and Romania here.