When Carina Spiro first decided to apply to the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Program in 2016 as a senior in college, a particular phrase caught her eye. “In the description of Malaysia, the program said applicants must have ‘a sense of adventure,’” she said. “I thought, that’s me, sign me up.”
The renowned cultural exchange program operates out of an arm of the U.S. State Department to send groups of American young people and scholars abroad each year. Spiro applied to the English teaching component and was accepted to the 2018 Malaysia Fulbright year. She did not realize that her adventure in Malaysia would be connected with the oil and gas industry.
Spiro was assigned to work at a rural school in Sabah, a state on the northern part of the island of Borneo. One day, she and her fellow English teaching assistants—ETAs, in Fulbright-speak—were invited to what she called a “corporate luncheon” in the capital of Kuala Lumpur. Their lunch date was held in an office in the city’s iconic Petronas Twin Towers, which are named after Malaysia’s national oil and gas company. There, over a meal with executives from ConocoPhillips, the ETAs learned that it wasn’t the U.S. or Malaysian governments that would be paying for their year abroad. Rather, ConocoPhillips was picking up the whole tab for ETAs in Sabah—and, the ETAs learned, the oil and gas company was making even more money available for extra learning camps, special programming, and other activities for students. (A spokesperson from ConocoPhillips confirmed in an email that ETAs “have been invited to our office premises in our efforts to get to know them, and during the visit we present to them an overview on ConocoPhillips business and our community program here in Malaysia.”)
“No one told us [about the ConocoPhillips funding] before we went to this corporate lunch meeting,” Spiro said. “I think a lot of people were really uncomfortable with that, myself included.”
In interviews with four former Fulbright ETAs who taught in Malaysia, Earther has learned that at least three big American oil companies—Hess, ConocoPhillips, and Exxon—were major financial contributors to the Fulbright Program. Contributions from the companies ranged from funds earmarked for special events to paying altogether for some Fulbright ETAs to teach for the whole year. The ETAs estimate that these three companies gave at least 710,000 ringgit—the equivalent of $170,202—for supplies, programming, and stipends for the 2018 ETA program (although without full access to internal Fulbright budgets, they said it could be more). All the young people we spoke to said they were not told about the oil and gas funding before they decided to apply for their Fulbright.
Earther sent several questions about oil and gas funding to the Fulbright Malaysia program as well as the State Department, including specific questions about the financing numbers the ETAs referenced in their letter. A State Department official told us in a short response that both the private sector and Fulbright alumni add to the contributions of the U.S. and partner governments, which supports grants and other initiatives. They did not respond specifically to questions about oil and gas funding.
“I thought going in that public diplomacy programs would be funded by the U.S. government and the host government,” said Rachel Jacoby, another ETA who worked in Malaysia in 2019. “I don’t think anyone knew oil companies would be funding our grants. These companies are using Fulbright to essentially launder their image. They’re positioning themselves as indispensable to the U.S. government, which, in my opinion, shouldn’t be beholden to corporations, especially in public diplomacy programs.”
Spiro is currently a public school teacher at a middle school outside of Boston. She had worked in outdoor education and was thinking about teaching as a career when she entered the program. She and I share an alma mater: Bowdoin College, a small liberal arts school in Maine. As a senior trying to figure out what to do after graduation, I remember browsing Fulbright ETA opportunities, armed with only a vague sense that it’s something you could do to help people and see the world. (In Bowdoin’s press release on graduates who had been accepted to Fulbright this year, a director at the school is quoted as saying that students accepted to the ETA program “will have the opportunity to draw upon the best of their Bowdoin education and contribute to the common good as cultural ambassadors in their host countries.”)
Spiro, who graduated some years after me, had the same perception. “Coming from Bowdoin, it was this thing that was seen as, it’s got this great name recognition, it’s a great thing to put on a resume, everyone was pushing people hard towards it,” she said. “I hadn’t thought much about the connections to the State Department and how there’s in some ways an agenda behind this. I learned a lot of that on the job as I was starting, and realized more and more what was expected of the role.”
The program was initially proposed in a 1945 bill by Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright; in the aftermath of two world wars, Fulbright wanted to create a program that would, in the language of the original bill, promote “international goodwill through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture and science.” Fulbright proposed funding this program with the sales of surplus war property abroad back to their original governments, essentially allowing the U.S. to recoup better value on some of the investments they had made while enabling a cultural exchange. The first Fulbright scholars were sent on exchange to China in 1948.
By the late 1950s, sales of U.S.-owned surpluses abroad were drying up, and the program needed a financial pivot. In 1961, the Fulbright-Hays Act both established funding for the Fulbright Program in the Congressional budget and allowed “foreign governments, international organizations and private individuals, firms, associations, agencies, and other groups” to contribute financially.
Currently, funding for Fulbright is a mix between that Congressional budget, which provides a base 65% of money for the program, contributions from participating governments, and money from the private sector; in 2017, private sector funding from U.S. companies contributed nearly $38 million to the overall $415 million program. In addition to the ETA program, Fulbright also offers an open study award for students and scholars from the U.S. to do research abroad, as well as foreign scholars to study in the U.S. Special grants are also available for specific areas of study.
The administration of the Fulbright Program varies by country, meaning specific information about corporate sponsorships like the ones in Malaysia is pretty much nonexistent on the official State Department website. In 50 countries, including Malaysia, the program is administered by a binational Fulbright commission, which makes decisions on details like funding from the private sector for specific programs. On the website of the Malaysian Fulbright commission, there’s no mention of either of the three oil companies ETAs said helped to pay for the program.
“They’re very hush-hush about it,” Jacoby said. “They’re not like, ‘come to Malaysia for a year and teach English, and you get to accept money from Big Oil!’”
The program may keep its Big Oil ties under wraps, but that hasn’t stopped the oil and gas companies funding Malaysia’s Fulbright from bragging about their involvement. In 2019, ConocoPhillips issued a press release announcing its sponsorship of the Fulbright ETA program in Sabah, the state where Spiro worked. “ConocoPhillips is a very important U.S. company in Sabah, and it takes seriously its corporate social responsibility to help the communities and the young people of Sabah,” then-ambassador to Malaysia, Kamala Shirin Lakhdhir, is quoted as saying in the press release.
Fulbright events sponsored by Exxon in the state of Terengganu have been written up in local newspapers. (The company operates a major crude oil terminal located in Terengganu.) Hess, meanwhile, has posted about its continued support of the ETA program on Facebook. Hess’s funding of the ETA program, to the tune of a $375,000 grant over “several years” to support ETA work in the province of Kelantan, even won recognition from the American-Malaysian Chamber of Commerce. The group declared Hess to be “one of the top corporate citizens in the country” in 2018.
“ConocoPhillips prides itself on being a responsible corporate citizen, and we strive to make a positive impact across our operations and in the communities in which we operate,” a representative from ConocoPhillips said in an email sent to Earther in response to questions we sent about this story. “The ETA program is strongly aligned with ConocoPhillips’ CSR commitment towards education as it focuses on invigorating student learning through skills development and mastering the English language through activities.” (Neither Exxon nor Hess responded to requests for comment on this story.)
American oil and gas companies have an interest in building up their public profile in Malaysia. In 2019, the country was the second-largest oil and gas producer in Southeast Asia and the fifth-largest exporter of liquefied natural gas in the world. The industry contributes about 35% of the government’s overall budget, mostly through Petronas, which has controlled most of the country’s resources since its founding in the early 1970s but partners with other international companies for upstream production. Climate change—driven by human fossil fuel use—is, in turn, hitting Malaysia hard: some cities have recorded temperature increases of up to 12 degrees Fahrenheit (6.7 degrees Celsius) since 1998, while sea level rise is projected to greatly affect at least 9 states by 2050.
A focus of the ETAs’ experience while in Malaysia was putting on what were known as English camps, events that could range from half a day to several days long to provide English-immersive experiences for students. “A personal relationship I have with a student is, from what I can tell, more impactful to that students’ overall experience than one afternoon at a camp,” Charlie Junkins, an ETA who worked in the state of Kelantan, said. “But [camps] are very deliverable events, and expose ETAs to more students than they might otherwise meet.”
Funding for these camps could come from several sources—including oil and gas money. Junkins took advantage of some Hess money to put on an English camp for his students; the only stipulation from the company, he said, was that he put the Hess logo on any T-shirts and banners he created. As a busy ETA juggling multiple responsibilities and financial squeezes, he said the easy availability of the Hess money was a welcome change.
“I just remember being grateful I didn’t have to keep receipts [for the Hess grant],” he said. “For the U.S. embassy grants, you have to itemize everything on your budget and provide receipts. The government money makes you stay much more accountable.” (Junkins said that Hess also took him and other Kelantan ETAs on a tour of its warehouse and treated them to a lunch with some local executives, where they were given a presentation on Hess’s role in the local community.)
Hess wasn’t the only company mandating visibility in return for its support. “If you were making t-shirts for your kids, the t-shirts needed to have the ConocoPhillips logo on it,” Jacoby, who had access to oil and gas grants like the ones Junkins used, said.
For Spiro and other ETAs, accepting this money was a moral quandary of how best to serve the people they were there to help.
“My job is to help build community and teach English to people who have not had access to resources and specifically money, and if a company gives us money to help do a thing, that’s good,” she said. “But seeing so much of the optics and the PR piece behind it of ConocoPhillips specifically left all their branding on stuff, kids wearing T-shirts that read ConocoPhillips. … For my students in this moment, having this money and this ability to do things is a positive, but zooming out to this bigger picture, it’s like, what is best for people in a country with such a long history of colonialism? As a white person to be saying, this is good, or this is bad—is it my place to say what that should be?”
Still, many ETAs decided to address the issue head-on to see if the program would be open to change. Near the end of their Fulbright experience, more than 100 ETAs from the 2019 cohort as well as previous years signed on to a letter addressed to Fulbright Malaysia staff, higher-ups at the State Department, and stakeholders, expressing their concern over continued oil and gas funding and asking the program to refuse it. They presented this letter to Fulbright Malaysia staff at a gathering held in October of 2019 to mark the end of the program.
“As American ETAs, we are benefiting from the exact companies that cause continued and violent harm to the country that we have called home for the last ten months,” they wrote. The letter goes on to describe how the climate crisis is already impacting Malaysia, including the deadly floods of the winter of 2014-15. Students in programs taught by ETAs, the letter states, “have already expressed climate-related concerns to us including: the cancellation of school activities due to heat waves, lack of water at schools due to drought, fear of extreme flooding events that cause the destruction of homes, poor water quality, and the loss of generational livelihoods.”
The group received no response from either the State Department or the Malaysian commission, despite repeated follow-ups. That doesn’t mean, however, that the higher-ups didn’t take note of the letter—and worry about the message it might send to future people interested in Fulbright. In a letter sent to ETAs accepted for the 2020 Fulbright year, Lakhdhir disclosed that ConocoPhillips and Hess were providing funds to Fulbright as part of their corporate social responsibility programs.
“I believe in the power of the program to make a meaningful impact in the development of Malaysian students and that the program is strengthened by having private sector partners,” she wrote. “I understand that some former ETAs have voiced concerns about the association with oil and gas companies. … I do want to assure you that all private sector funding received for the ETA program comes without any conditions or stipulations. It is for the sole benefit of the ETA program and is not part of any marketing campaign.”
For Spiro, that explanation falls flat. “Maybe I’m just jaded towards capitalism, but it’s all for a reason,” Spiro said.
Funds used to back the ETA program may not have had explicit stipulations, as Lakhdhir asserted in her letter. But it’s a total misunderstanding of the long history of oil and gas companies manipulating the public trust through branding. As Exxon discovered when it revolutionized advertising in the 1970s, a company doesn’t have to be directly selling a product in order to benefit from a campaign; rather, simply building its public image through associations with positive actions and programs is often enough. Exxon may not have had any “explicit stipulations” when it began sponsoring episodes of PBS’s Masterpiece Theater during the 1970s oil crisis, but it knew that viewers would have a positive association with the company’s brand during a tumultuous time for the industry. Similarly, ConocoPhillips, Exxon, and Hess building school programs through a U.S. program with an internationally recognized name in a powerful oil and gas hub cannot be divorced from the companies’ goals.
Funding cultural exchange like Fulbright that bases itself in scholarship is just another installment in the industry’s long history of using education to push its messaging. Like oil and gas companies’ successful venture into higher education, programs like Fulbright represent yet another avenue to ensure oil companies continue to make themselves appear to be an essential part of our daily lives. And kids in Malaysia seeing fossil fuel branding and sponsorship of events like English camps is similar to how companies have indoctrinated kids of similar ages in the U.S.
It remains to be seen how the oil and gas funding will continue in Malaysia. The pandemic cut the 2020 Fulbright Program short, and ETAs were sent home that March; the State Department official told us that the program remains suspended. Lakhdhir left her position to become the executive secretary of the Department of State in January 2021 when President Joe Biden took office. The ConocoPhillips spokesperson, which said that the company does not fund Fulbrights in any other country, said the company is “committed to working with the US Embassy should they resurrect the Program.”
Even with the pause, many young Americans still want to be part of the Fulbright Program, lured by its long history and the possibilities it opens to make a difference in the world. Spiro said she’s regularly put in contact with students from Bowdoin who are interested in or who have already applied to the Fulbright to ask about her experience.
“I’ve been trying not to scare people about it, but also being real and saying pretty much everything is unexpected,” Spiro said. “It’s not just the State Department funding you to go spend a year abroad because they think that might be fun for you. People have an agenda in this, and you will potentially get caught up in other people’s agendas.”