Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist takes a break from deadlines

Right after I participated in a panel discussion with other education writers, many college public relations officers in the audience approached me and the other panelists. Most shared business cards and chatted about possible stories on their campuses.

But one woman from an organization unfamiliar to me had something completely different to say.

“You ever think about being a Fulbright Scholar?” she asked. I hadn’t, but didn’t want to sound negative, so I muttered something inconclusive.

That was about eight years ago, in Philadelphia. I kept her business card, from the Center for the International Exchange of Scholars (CIES), and thought over her question many times.

I was covering national education issues for the Washington Post, but I had just returned from a posting in India, so it didn’t seem like a good time to take a leave. My next job was as national editor of the Boston Globe, a demanding position that didn’t offer that kind of flexibility, either. Then in 2005, I was out of a job after the Globe abolished my department in a budget cutback.

Now is the time, I thought. I set my sights on a Fulbright. I decided on Egypt, which I had visited in 2004 to participate in a forum between American and Arab journalists. I didn’t have experience teaching college courses to be eligible for a lecturing grant, so I drafted a proposal for a research project on Egyptian newspapers.

The application process takes a while, but you can do it all online at It’s competitive, but I think it’s stiffer for academics than professionals. Most professionals don’t even know they’re eligible for the prestigious Fulbright; almost every academic wants one.

Last spring, I was awarded a grant to spend this semester in Egypt. So here I am in Cairo, affiliated with Cairo University and its massive enrollment of 250,000.

Kenneth J. Cooper
Cooper’s attention is attracted by the metal products of a shop in Khan el-Khalili, in the shadow of Cairo’s ancient architecture, much of it built in medieval times.

The Fulbright Program was established in 1946 and named for its congressional sponsor, Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, who was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The exchange program, funded through the State Department, is designed to “increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.”

More than 280,000 scholars, professionals and post-graduate students have participated in the program. Statistics are not kept on the number of African American “Fulbrighters,” though I’ve known about more than a few, including Paul Delaney, a former editor at the New York Times who went to Spain.

Spelman College is one historically black school that has done a good job of encouraging its graduates to apply for a Fulbright. For two years in a row, the Chronicle of Higher Education has named Spelman one of the “top producers” of Fulbright grantees among liberal arts colleges. The women’s college in Atlanta had five in 2006-07, and four this academic year.

Chantal James, class of 2007, is in Morocco right now. Niambi Young, the other African American Fulbrighter here in Cairo, is a 2006 graduate. Currently a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University, Young, 23, is researching Egyptian rap, and how rap music can be used in public diplomacy.

So far, being a Fulbright Scholar is like going to graduate school. My research project, technically a “content analysis,” will compare the domestic news published in the established, state-run daily Al-Ahram (“The Pyramids”) to the content in two newer, privately owned and politically independent papers, the Daily News and Al-Masry Al-Youm (“The Daily Egyptian”).

Before I left Boston in January, I asked a friend who is a journalism professor for some background information on conducting a content analysis. She recommended a journalism textbook that has guided my research’s design.

From that text, I learned what is considered a valid sample of a daily newspaper’s editions. Trying to find a way to create such a sample led me online, where I found out how to do something I would have never imagined I could.

Back when I was in college, creating the kind of random sample the text recommended was a mysterious function of mainframe computers. Personal computers were way in the future. What to do? Ah. Google it — “how to draw random sample.”

After one false start with a confusing program, I found free, simple software called the “Random Number Generator” that I could add to my Microsoft Excel spreadsheet program.

Within 15 minutes, I had the five-week sample I needed for the two-and-a-half years of newspapers in my study.

From background reading and interviews, I have learned much about Egyptian newspapers and the laws that restrict what they can print. Newspaper editors and bloggers here get locked up on vague charges for offending an authoritarian regime that has ruled for 26 years. To write about the country’s military or quote someone who “insults” President Hosni Mubarak or his family is to risk imprisonment.

Just as in college, I’m learning a lot away from my academic work — in this case, about Egypt, its people, culture and history. Making those constant discoveries is much like being a journalist, except more in-depth.

My first job as a journalist, more than 30 years ago, was at the St. Louis American, a black-owned weekly. I remember its longtime editor, the late Bennie G. Rodgers, who was old enough to be my grandfather, saying one thing over and over.

“If I don’t learn something everyday, I’m not doing my job,” he used to say. And he was in his 60s then.

I’ve concluded so it should be with living, no matter how old you are.

Kenneth J. Cooper, a Pulitzer Prize winner who lives in Boston, is a Fulbright Scholar at Cairo University in Egypt.