News & Events

27 January 2023

A tribute to the Commission’s first executive secretary, Alan Pifer, by Executive Director Maria Balinska

A few years after the end of the Second World War, a young American veteran of the Battle of the Bulge who had just finished up a fellowship year at Cambridge, approached the US Embassy in London about finding a job in the UK. As Alan Pifer recalled many years later, “it was a miserable time to be in England. The winter of '46 had been particularly tough, and food was very scarce. However, I loved being in England…”   

The response from the Public Affairs Officer was positive as they were looking for someone to help negotiate the treaty between the US and the UK governments that would establish the US-UK Fulbright Programme. And that is how Alan Pifer, then in his mid-20s, became the first executive secretary of our commission, selecting, among others, the future diplomat and senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and the future president of the University of Chicago Hanna Holborn Gray to study at UK universities on Fulbright grants.  

Pifer would go on to be an influential leader in education and philanthropy, serving as president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York for 15 years. Paying tribute to him in their obituary essay in 2005, colleagues at the Corporation highlighted his commitment to promoting social justice, strengthening the rights of the disadvantaged and, in particular, “preventing educational disadvantage, promoting educational opportunity and broadening opportunities in higher education.”   

Seventy-five years after “falling into a job” he “very much enjoyed,” Alan Pifer might find much of the work that the Commission is doing in 2023 familiar. What he would be surprised and delighted by, I think, is the sheer volume of applications we are dealing with. This reality is particularly evident at the beginning of every calendar year. 

January is the month when colleagues on the Fulbright Awards team start interviewing finalists for the Fulbright Student and Scholars awards. To give you a sense of the scale, a total of 105 Americans applied for US Scholar Awards of whom 91 were recommended by our partners in the US, the Institute of International Education. Of that number, 48 are having individual interviews for a total of 23 places. In addition, we are also interviewing 35 UK scholars for American-bound grants and anticipate over 100 interviews with US students (representing fewer than 15% of the total number of applicants). And in case you are wondering, our selection process for UK postgraduate students takes place in the spring.  

In parallel to this selection process, colleagues on the Sutton Trust US Programme – the scheme we run in partnership with the social mobility charity the Sutton Trust to support bright state school students from across the UK to apply to and secure funding at top US universities – are in the process of evaluating around one thousand applications for 150 places. Coming up, we have the competition for the very popular UK Summer Institutes programme for American undergraduates which Katharina Becker wrote about in our newsletter. 

For each of our awards, the selection process is – as it should be – painstaking and intensive work. It also relies on our Fulbright community of alumni, commissioners and other supporters to serve as readers and interview panellists. We could not do this without you: thank you!  

Which brings me back to our 75th anniversary, an occasion to celebrate the transformational experience of a Fulbright exchange and the impact our Fulbright community has had on the world. In the near future we will be publishing the results of research we have been doing into how the Fulbright programme changes lives and advances knowledge. We also want to engage with you to look forward, towards how we can continue to widen participation in Fulbright programming to reflect the diversity – in all its dimensions -- of our two countries and how we as a commission and a wider community can contribute to the tackling of global challenges.  

As part of our celebrations, we’ll be working with key partners to deliver a programme of anniversary events throughout 2023.  First up, we’ll be hosting our annual Forum event in Belfast at the end of March in partnership with Queens University Belfast and University of Ulster. Themed on the issue of reconciliation and building trust in the lead-up to the Good Friday agreement 25th anniversary commemorations, it’s an opportunity to bring current grantees, alumni, academics and civic leaders together to forge discussion, connections and collaborations – the signature dynamics of the Fulbright Commission’s mission.  For more information and to hear about our calendar of future events, stay tuned to our newsletter and social media channels or drop us a line at with your feedback and suggestions. 

Maria Balinska, Executive Director, US-UK Fulbright Commission