This blog post admittedly has a slightly dramatic title. Nevertheless, when I took the plane across the Atlantic after my Fulbright-Schuman experience had come to the end, it certainly felt like that. Now I feel like it is finally time to say goodbye to my grand adventure.
When I was only embarking on my Fulbright journey, I did not feel like some great explorer. Frankly, I was slightly sceptical about the whole thing, and especially about the promised life-changing impact we were all told about in our home country orientations. I had moved across borders, changed countries, regions, and time zones already before. While I did believe that the United States will bring new insights and new experiences, I was not so sure about the life-changing and ground-breaking aspect of it. I could not have been more wrong! It was truly life-changing time in a way only my fellow Fulbrighters returning back home could understand.
While this blog post does not suffice for recounting the many ways Fulbright-Schuman experience has affected my life and career for the better, here I will recount the four aspects one should be prepared to embrace, enjoy and appreciate as a Fulbright-Schuman grantee:
I met some of the most inspiring and amazing people because of my Fulbright-Schuman experience. Some I will meet again soon on this side of the ocean, some maybe not; but they all have left a mark in my life in incredible ways. The professors I had the honour to work with in the United Stated both at Rutgers and at Yale left contributed to my research process. In fact, my PhD would be a very different one, if I had not been given the chance to profit from insightful discussions with them. The seminars I took in the United States will serve as an inspiring example for how I want to teach my students one day.
People beyond academia – my friends, housemates, and fellow travellers – they all made my Fulbright experience into what it was. I wish I had more time to spend with each of them. My advice is to be open not just to experiences but also to people and to take all the opportunities to meet people not only in your academic field, but also in other areas outside your daily path and outside your usual circles; those unusual connections I made are likely the closest ones to my heart.
Academia in the United States greatly surprised and impressed me; it kept on challenging the way I think and not just in a scientific sense but also in terms of values and beliefs. My advice is to take it all in and not to feel intimidated by the very different (at least from the Continental Europe) relationship among students and among professors in the US. There was less hierarchy and more openness in the faculties I stayed in. It was a privilege to audit seminars with very small groups (about 10 people). At first it seemed very intimidating to discuss the leading book in the field with its author himself or herself; but exactly those opportunities made for the best and most challenging discussions. Grasping such opportunities when one is struggling with research deadlines also seemed impossible at times but, at the end of the day, going to that one famous lecture or attending that one seminar slightly out of my field but with a world-known speaker, was the usually the best decision I made that week.
Stereotypes and variety
We have many stereotypes about Americans in Europe and they do have an equal amount about us, Europeans. It would be cliché to simply tell that they are not true. In fact, many are very true. A car is something one cannot comfortably live without in the United States besides in some bigger cities like New York or Chicago. The portions and, actually, everything is somewhat bigger than in Europe. They do use red cups in College parties. And, for law students, ‘bluebooking’ remains an important nightmare.
One can find everything in the Unites States and for each stereotype that seems true all the time, there are many exceptions. At the end of the day the United States is one of the most diverse countries in the world. The differences in customs, lifestyles, characters, cuisine, architecture, living standards, and language are immense. Starting with the most amazing gluten-free burgers at 5am, barre classes, yoga to 70s rock-and-roll music, and chewing gum with bacon flavour; one can truly find it all! I think finding the right balance between given expectations and open mind was one of my biggest challenges. There was comfort in knowing that some of the things are exactly how I imagined them, while at the same time one has to be up finding all out-of-the-box things life in the United States offers.
United States is huge. And when I mean huge, I mean really, really huge. It has so much to give, so much to offer and so much to explore. In terms of geographical diversity, it is almost incomparable! I travelled quite a lot while in the US. I covered the main points on both East and West coast and some areas in the middle. My advice would be to plan time to travel and even if you don’t have any time, make it! Travelling gave me respite from the hectic rhythm of American universities. It allows spending time outside the academic bubble and seeing places that should be on everyone’s must-do-before-you-die list. My favourite places, however, ended up being completely random little bits and little towns or diners on the road, so one should definitely go off the tourist path and take a detour whenever the mood strikes. To travel and to be open to change the planned route is my last tip.
In general, Fulbright-Schuman experience opened new doors, revealed new horizons and new perspectives. This was not just a grant. It was much more. Besides giving an opportunity to research, to work, to explore, to grow in a country that, for someone born behind the iron curtain, years ago seemed unattainable and more imaginary than real, it also afforded a chance to become a part of community recognised wherever you go.
Fulbright experience marks one forever in a way that brings hope for more understanding, acceptance, tolerance and friendship across the many borders of the world. It allows wishing for a world where those borders, be they physical, cultural, linguistic or social, could be seen as an opportunity rather than a limit, as a chance and challenge rather than a dead-end. The Fulbright community and people one meets along the way inspire to go out there and change the world for the better. And that determination is the one thing I wish to keep from this experience for the rest of my life.
PhD candidate in Law
European University Institute
Visiting Researcher (Fulbright-Schuman)
Yale Law School
New Haven, United States