Rebecca Cobby

Senior Programme Manager | US-UK Fulbright Commission 

CV in brief     Years of experience:  7   Current position:  Senior Programme Manager (UK Scholars) at the US-UK Fulbright Commission.    Previous Positions:  Programme Coordinator (US Scholars and Special Programmes) at US-UK Fulbright Commission. Digital Archivist at US-UK Fulbright Commission. School Administrator at Nottingham Trent University   education:  University of Nottingham, BA in American Studies and English, MA in American Studies and PhD in African American Visual Culture. One year of undergraduate study spent at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.   Find Rebecca online:  LinkedIn     EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW BY Clara Martinez, january 2018

CV in brief

Years of experience: 7

Current position: Senior Programme Manager (UK Scholars) at the US-UK Fulbright Commission. 

Previous Positions: Programme Coordinator (US Scholars and Special Programmes) at US-UK Fulbright Commission. Digital Archivist at US-UK Fulbright Commission. School Administrator at Nottingham Trent University

education: University of Nottingham, BA in American Studies and English, MA in American Studies and PhD in African American Visual Culture. One year of undergraduate study spent at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. 

Find Rebecca online: LinkedIn 

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW BY Clara Martinez, january 2018

You are currently Senior Program Manager at the US-UK Fulbright Commission. Tell us about what you do, and describe a typical day.

In a nutshell, I manage the US-UK Fulbright Commission awards program for UK scholars, which are designed for British academics and professionals. They are scholars within my remit looking to travel to the United States and engage in periods of research, teaching or professional development. In terms of what it means to manage the program, it’s everything from marketing the program, promoting it around the UK, running the interview process, reading and assessing applications, shortlisting people for interviews, inviting shortlisted candidates to interview and meeting with them to hear about their work and plans for their time in the US, and then selecting those lucky few who are selected for the program. After the selection process, I focus on preparing the scholars to travel to the US, which includes working with the Institute for International Education and the Council for the International Exchange of Scholars headquartered in Washington, DC to help prepare visa documents, prepare them to attend their visa appointments at the US Embassy in London.

In addition, we run a series of cultural events and programming for the UK scholars. We organize a three-day orientation program in the summer. Upon returning from their Fulbright, we host a debrief session in December, and we hear about their experience in the US and what the impact of their work has been.

My role varies and I do everything from photocopying documents for interviews and filing to organizing a large summer reception every year. In previous year’s we’ve held this at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or Winfield House, which is the ambassador’s house in London. Since joining, I have worked in various capacities within the Commission, and the UK scholars award program is the third program I’ve worked on. I worked with the Fulbright Summer Institutes Program, which brings American undergraduates to the UK. I have also worked on the US scholars program, which helps to bring American academics over to the UK for research and teaching. Over the years, I have worn many hats at the Commission. 

There are two main types of a typical day for me, depending on whether I am inside or outside the office. In the office, I correspond extensively with numerous stakeholders, which involves emailing the academics going overseas as Fulbrighters, the US Embassy in London, and the US Department of State. We have several sponsors for different Fulbright awards that might be UK-based research charities or American universities and I work with them, too. My time is taken up communicating with these stakeholders and keeping everyone up-to-date with details of the program and answering any questions.

My other administrative tasks depend on the upcoming events in the calendar. For example, I help to prepare for the orientation event, which includes arranging accommodation, having catering at the reception, answering questions about the contents of the day, and preparing handouts. With the interview process, I work on spreadsheets, moving people around and scheduling, attending frequent meetings with members of the Fulbright team and with stakeholders.

Every now and then, I will need to do some troubleshooting if one of my scholars has an issue. For example, there might be a scholar out in the states who might injure themselves and ask for information about what they should do, and what to do about insurance. Troubleshooting these sorts of difficulties and helping scholars through it might come up during the day. A typical day outside the office usually involves doing interviews off-site or hosting an event, and those are always exciting and busy days. I get to meet a lot of different people, and I like having a balance between those quieter office-based days and those days I am out meeting people. If you had too much time out doing exciting things, then it would be easy to get burned out. It is nice to come back to the office and have that quiet time as well.  

What is the biggest challenge in your work?

My biggest challenge has been a mix of personal and professional. It is the change that has come since I had children and the effect it had on my working life, and wanting to be involved in a sector that is demanding, very busy, and has several day-to-day challenges.

Before I had children, I was working full-time in my capacity at Fulbright. I was lucky, after I had children, to come back part-time. One thing I have learned from this transition is that you can do both things, it is possible to have a work-life balance. It took some getting used to, and I had to rethink my approach to work. Prior to having more commitments at home, if I needed to work a couple of extra hours in the evening or come into the office early, then I could just do it. I did not have any restrictions, but now with a family, I need to take that into account. It has made me sit down and think about how I manage and organize my time, and make sure that I am not neglecting any aspects of my role.

In the last couple of years, trying to maintain a work-life balance and still achieve everything I want to achieve has been difficult, but my manager has been incredibly helpful. Being able to sit back, and be good at time management, and prioritize everything I need to do has helped me to overcome the struggle in finding that balance. I hope to have managed to get a healthy balance between home and professional life. My life is better because home and work are integrated. My workplace is very supportive. Fulbright is signed up to the idea of flexible working. I have been able to set my hours and work around my childcare commitments. I am very lucky, and I know not all women have that opportunity. Working for a supportive organization is important to me because it means that I can carry on my career, and work at the level that I want to work, but do not need to compromise my home life that much, which is great.    

When did your interests in international exchange become clear to you?

My first interest in the idea of living abroad, and particularly regarding America, goes back a long way. When I was 13 years old, I remember having a conversation with a friend at school, and we decided to one day travel to America. We did not know what we were going to do when we got there, or how we were going to get there, but we loved American culture, and especially American television and music. Our dream was to one day live in America. When deciding to go to university, I could make that happen for myself. I chose to pursue a degree in American studies, and it had a year abroad component at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. I knew this was my chance to go live in America, and fulfill that dream that I had wanted for so long. A childhood dream sparked my interest in other cultures and wanting to live abroad and experience another culture.

When I returned from studying abroad, I went back into academia in the UK. I pursued a PhD and was on track to become an academic, but towards the end of my PhD program, I decided it was not what I wanted to do. My passions were not aligned with teaching at a UK university. I started thinking about international exchange and education. I looked around for internship opportunities that might get me back into that world, and Fulbright was the first opportunity I came across. I applied and was given a three-week internship. I loved it. I thought what a wonderful organization that affords young and older people to live in, and learn from, another country, but also enables them to bring aspects of their own culture and education to that country, too. The idea of mutual exchange of education and culture is what Fulbright stands for, and I wanted to be part of it. While I was finishing up my PhD, a position came up at the Commission, and I joined the team.  

I feel fortunate to advance Fulbright’s mission. The Commission was set up at the end of World War II with the idea of bringing people together from different nations and trying to avoid another world war catastrophe. We promote a message that continues to be incredibly relevant. We are entering our 70th anniversary and believe wholeheartedly in that mission. It has been a long journey from being 13 years old and wanting to live in America to fulfilling these aims and make life-changing experiences happen for other people.

You mentioned studying abroad in the US at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. What did you study, and how was your experience? 

It was such a wonderful year, I had an amazing time and met so many new friends. In the UK, a similar experience would have been possible, but I would not have felt the impetus to get outside my comfort zone and try new things. At that point in time, traveling overseas helped me find a sense of self-confidence. 

In terms of the coursework, it was a continuation of what I was doing back at home. We had to take modules that were related to our degree program. I took several American literature and history modules, but I could take courses outside these topics. A large state university in the US offered many more modules than my home university at Nottingham. It was fantastic to be able to pick and choose modules and expand my knowledge.

The real value of studying abroad happened outside of academia. I got involved in several extracurricular activities. For example, I joined a poetry and prose journal to help edit it. I wrote and directed a short play that I entered in a festival, which I never would have done in the UK. I would not have been brave enough to do it. I also participated in an alternative spring break trip to New Mexico and volunteered with a Native American community. In New Mexico, I had a chance to see some amazing sites, which I would not have been able to do as a tourist. When I was in the US, I felt free and wanted to pursue all sorts of different things. It was really inspiring to be able to do that and then bring some of those experiences back to the UK. It was a real confidence boost for me. If anyone ever has the chance to study abroad, then do it because it is an amazing experience that you will never forget.       

What did you study at university, and does it relate to the work you do? How has graduate school helped you achieve success in your career?

My PhD was in American studies, and it is related to the work I do. However, I do not use the content of what I learned or researched during my PhD on a day to day basis. In one sense, I was on track to go down an academic route, but took a left turn and ended up doing something that is somewhat related. Having completed a PhD does have its advantages because I work with academics and understand the pressures and restrictions on their time. It has given me a language in which I can speak with them and understand them. I can anticipate what their needs might be in an administrative capacity. I also understand what their working life is like, which they seem to appreciate because they can see that I have been through that process, too. A graduate degree provides you with numerous transferable skills. If you might not use the subject you studied in your work, then you can think through the relevant skills you can bring to your role, whether its organizational skills or articulating an argument. Even if you are not directly working towards a specialized profession or studying the ideal subject matter you can apply the skills you develop from any kind of graduate study to your work.

Why did you pivot from an academic track?

Two things helped me decide, which are not terribly profound, but practical. The first was that I had a go with teaching undergraduates. Although I loved the research, I did not really enjoy teaching very much or feel comfortable doing it. I began to question whether this was the right career for me and considered the possibility of being involved in academia in a different way. The second thing that solidified my decision to pivot, which is purely a practical thing, is that my husband is also an academic. He completed his PhD a year before me, and it is all he has ever wanted to do. I am aware of the difficulties involved in pursuing an academic career, and there are a lot of people coming out with PhDs, but not a great deal of jobs to go around. I knew couples who lived in different areas of the country because of the jobs available through academia, one of them might be working in Scotland and the other in Manchester and they would see each other on weekends. I decided that was not for me. I do not feel like I sacrificed my academic career to have an easier home life or so my husband could have his, that is not the reasoning behind it at all. He wanted it so much more than me. I was having doubts and it made sense for me to try and find something else that I would find more fulfilling, and fit more with my goals and skills which would also allow us to be able to get married, have kids, and live together. It has worked out that we have been able to do that. It might not have worked out, but it did. I do not regret it, and I am much happier. It would have been possible for me to stay on the academic track and I probably would have made it, but I do not know if I would have been happy. I realized that just because I can do something does not mean that I should do it or assume it is right for me. It can be scary to make those decisions, but I am glad I did.

You are proud to have finished your PhD. Aside from your PhD, what gives your work meaning?

Despite not pursuing an academic track, I am proud to have produced that body of work. It was 3 to 4 years of my life dedicated to one project and it was tough at times, but no one can take that achievement away from me. Since joining Fulbright, I feel very privileged to have such an effect on other people’s lives. We have had people come through the program who have done, and continue to do, amazing things in different academic fields whether that is in literature, creative arts, medical sciences, physics or astronomy. I feel a sense of purpose in having been a part of helping them get to where they want to be and enabling them to carry out their work, to connect them with the right people, and to drive their careers forward. The decisions I make and the work I do has this ripple effect, which has a positive impact on lives of other people. I have seen around 400 people come through Fulbright programs, and I was involved with their selection and preparation in some way and being able to see the results of that work is meaningful.

What is the career trajectory you envision for yourself in the next 3 or 5 years?

I started at the Commission in 2011 about 7 years ago. I think about the next 3 to 5 years often, and it is somewhat difficult because having a family means I am not quite ready to go back to work full-time. The Commission are great with flexible working and have bent over backwards to help me come back to work and continue working at the same level. The reality is that many organizations have not caught up, and the number of opportunities available on a full-time basis are greater than on a part-time basis. The fact that I work with a new group of scholars every year keeps the job fresh. I constantly meet and help new people to achieve their goals.

Fulbright is a small organization, and it’s uncommon to move up the ladder within the Commission itself. Many people who have left the Commission have gone to jobs at UK universities or other study abroad programs. If I decided to no longer be at the Commission, then those sorts of opportunities might be a natural step for me. My kids are young; my youngest is 2 and a half years old. Until she goes to school, I am going to be constrained by that, which is a shame. I hope that will change. I am fortunate to have a job that is flexible. In some ways, I want to hold on to that for as long as I possibly can!

What advice might you offer to young women interested in a career in international education?

Seek out the experiences for yourself, and what an international education means to you. It may not always possible for everyone, but if your high school or college education provides opportunities to study abroad then try and do it because that international exposure will go a long way when you are looking for jobs. It will help you build that passion to push you along and help you seek out those opportunities. If you are looking to help other people have similar experiences, then having been through that yourself is important. It is not always easy to get straight into a career. Interning at Fulbright played a key role in helping me get to my current position. I did not have a master’s degree in international relations or public policy, which might be the more traditional backgrounds to work in international education. With the internship, I had the chance to demonstrate my skills sets and enthusiasm for the work, which helped to convince them. If you are able, then search for internship opportunities and try to make yourself indispensable. It can go a long way in impressing employers if you do not think you have the academic background that automatically makes you fit into an organization.

In general, I recommend thinking about what it is you want. I learned from doing my PhD and not going into academia to not think too much about what people would expect you to do. For instance, people would always ask me: “Why aren’t you going into academia? You have a PhD. It’s so silly!” I responded by saying: “Well, that’s not everything I want. I could do that, but I don’t want to. I want to look for something else that’s going to make me happier, and I will be better at.” It can be difficult to cast off those expectations from other people, and pursue something that is not the most obvious choice or might be a little more difficult, but it is worth pursuing those opportunities because you do not know where you might end up.