WASHINGTON — When Veronica Gonzalez received word last fall that the U.S. Education Department had rejected her application for a prestigious fellowship to conduct her doctoral research overseas, she scoured the feedback on her application looking for what she did wrong.
In every section, the reviewers heaped praise on the academic aptitude of the student and her rigorously researched proposal to study intimate partner violence in rural Mexico. And they assigned her near-perfect scores in every category, except one — language proficiency — where she was shocked to find she got none.
But it wasn’t because Ms. Gonzalez, a social ecology Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Irvine, lacked the language skills to conduct her research in Spanish. The assessors concluded the experiences outlined in her eight-page résumé had more than prepared her. The problem was that she had identified herself as a native speaker of the language, having grown up speaking Spanish with her parents who emigrated from Mexico to Santa Maria, Calif., where she was born.
“At first, I was just in disbelief,” Ms. Gonzalez recalled in an interview. “Then I was incensed.”
Ms. Gonzalez’s application suffered from a decades-old regulation — now in the process of a rewrite — that led the Education Department to withhold points from applicants of the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Fellowship if they grew up exposed to or speaking the language of the country in which they propose to conduct research.
The rule comes from a 1998 regulatory update to the Fulbright-Hays award programs, which have been run by the Education Department since the 1960s. The goal of the awards — the domestic counterpart to the State Department’s Fulbright exchange programs — is to promote research and foreign language proficiency among aspiring teachers and professors.
In making the rule, department officials sought to eliminate a perceived unfair advantage to people who grew up with non-English language skills in vying for the fellowship, which awards tens of thousands of dollars per year to doctoral students and is widely seen as a coveted research project in one of the most competitive doctoral programs in the country.
In past years, when students have proposed to conduct research in a language they already know, the department has required them to identify as either a “native” speaker or a “heritage” speaker. It defines a native speaker as an applicant who has “spoken the language in question from earliest childhood and remains fluent” and defines a heritage speaker as a student “raised in a home where a non-English language is spoken” who “lacks native-level fluency.”
Before recent rule modifications, students who identified as such were disqualified from receiving as many as 15 points in language proficiency because of the department’s goal of having applicants — including native English speakers — enhance their skills in a language that is not their own.
A national civil rights group is challenging the department’s interpretation as discriminatory, arguing that it targets students based on their national origin, particularly applicants who are immigrants from non-English speaking countries, or children born to such immigrants.
In a pair of lawsuits filed over the past year, the New Civil Liberties Alliance, a nonpartisan nonprofit legal group, represents students who they say have been robbed of their competitive advantage and constitutional right to equal protection under the department’s foreign language criteria.
The group argued that the regulation’s language, which included discussion of “non-native-born United States citizens or resident aliens,” has proved to be a decisive disadvantage against students like Ms. Gonzalez, who proudly identified as a native speaker in her application. She is the oldest of six children raised by agricultural laborers who did not make it past elementary school, spoke little English and never dreamed of sending their children to college.
Ms. Gonzalez, 39, embarked upon college later in life as she sought to establish a new identity after a troubled relationship.
Her lineage was as important to her in demonstrating the “sufficient foreign language skills” the program favors, as other credentials, such as taking Spanish classes and completing an internship in Mexico. Over the years, Ms. Gonzalez was relentless in pursuing experiences — including more than 10 other research assistantships, in addition to fellowships and internships — to prepare her for her dream project studying the Indigenous communities that shaped her family, but about which she knew little.
Had she received the 15 points, Ms. Gonzalez’s scores would have been 101 and 97 — applications are reviewed and scored separately by two people — which are both above scores that secured the fellowship in previous years.
“I had taken all these steps to ensure that I was going to do ethnically sound research, and give back to my community,” Ms. Gonzalez said. “Basically they’re telling us that some stranger can come to our home countries and the countries of our parents and study us and tell our stories, but we cannot.”
In its most recent lawsuit, filed in January on behalf of Ms. Gonzalez, the New Civil Liberties Alliance wrote that the department held an “indefensible belief that immigrants and their children are incapable of receiving training in their native language from U.S. schools because they have already ‘acquired’ that language from family.”
“The department apparently does not deem Ms. Gonzalez to be a ‘real American’ because her native language is Spanish rather than English,” the lawsuit said. “In other words, the native-language penalty is designed to be assessed against individuals whom the department perceives to be non-native born — even if they are in fact born in the United States — with the express aim of ‘encouraging’ them not to apply for the doctoral fellowship in any country that speaks their native language.”
The Education Department declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
In legal filings, the department has defended its interpretation of the 1998 regulation. In a response to Ms. Gonzalez’s lawsuit earlier this year, the agency said the regulation was “motivated by the nondiscriminatory goals of encouraging language training in American schools,” including by discouraging applications to conduct research in English. Under the rules of the fellowship, students cannot apply to study in Western Europe.
Calling the definition of foreign language “ambiguous at best,” the Education Department argued that its interpretation took into account how applicants acquired their foreign language, not their national origin.
“Of course, people can receive education in their native language from U.S. schools — and nothing in the regulation suggests otherwise,” the department wrote. “Rather, the department’s interpretation is based on the fact that advancing one’s skills in a language that they already know is not the same as acquiring a language that is ‘foreign’ to them.”
The department, which awarded an average award of $37,504 to 90 students in the last application cycle, made clear it preferred applicants who had learned a foreign language at school rather than at home. In its filing, the agency said that it had concluded that its resources for the fellowship “are best directed to promoting acquisition of language skills most likely to be acquired through American educational institutions.”
But in the face of legal challenges, the department has gone to great lengths to try to minimize the harm that critics say it has caused. The department is currently rewriting the regulation, including proposed changes on “how to consider applicants who are proficient in their native language.”
In response to another lawsuit filed last year by the civil liberties alliance on behalf of two applicants from Georgetown University who identified as “heritage” speakers, the department dropped the penalty against all applicants that year who identified as such that year.
One of the “heritage” speaker applicants represented by the alliance, Samar Ahmad, had originally lost points on her application to conduct research in Arabic because she grew up speaking the language. She was awarded the fellowship after the department changed course.
In an interview from Jordan, where she was preparing to start her Fulbright-Hays fellowship in the country her parents fled to during the 1991 Gulf War, Ms. Ahmad said that she resented the notion that she had an unfair advantage over other candidates — such as white students who were able to become fluent in a language because they had taken classes, studied abroad or traveled internationally.
Ms. Ahmad, 36, is a fourth-year history Ph.D. candidate at Georgetown University and was born in Kuwait. She has been a U.S. citizen since she was 10 and was largely educated in English-speaking schools. She grew up speaking Arabic, but also studied it in school, including at Georgetown, to be able to complete the oral history project she proposed for the fellowship.
Ms. Ahmad said she was grateful to ultimately receive the grant, but loathed being an exception. “They should just change the system altogether,” Ms. Ahmad said, “because it’s Discrimination 101.”
In response to Ms. Gonzalez’s lawsuit, the department abruptly announced last month that it would only assign one point to the language proficiency criteria this year.
The Education Department argued in a legal filing that the new point system would lessen the penalty against this year’s applicants. But the department has also argued that completely dropping the penalty would undermine its rewrite of the regulation.
The criteria change this year has done little to restore Ms. Gonzalez’s faith in the process, and does not change the score of her application last year. The department has said she can reapply, but her lawyers are asking a judge to re-evaluate her 2022 application without the penalty.
“To me, they’re saying, ‘We’re going to keep discriminating, but we hope you don’t notice,’” Ms. Gonzalez said.
In the meantime, Ms. Gonzalez said she was still deciding whether to reapply, wary of the fateful line in both of her reviews: “The applicant is a native speaker of Spanish and therefore does not qualify for points in this category.”
“If the reviewers didn’t get the project, or thought it needed work, I would have gone back to the drawing board and figured out what I needed to fix,” she said. “But I can’t fix who I am.”