Fulbright exchange in the U.S. with children: some things you should know

Coming across the Atlantic with a family requires creativity, the endurance to fill out a big pile of forms, and a truckload of patience. But based on my so-far very short experience in the States, it is definitely worth it. In this blog post, I want to share a few things that our family has learned along the way for the benefit of those considering whether to apply for a Fulbright exchange with kid(s) or not.

With smaller kids, you should check the age in which school starts in the state of your prospective university. Public schools are free, apart from the expenses coming from school snacks and lunches, school materials etc. On the other hand, daycare for small kids can be expensive (which is why in many families, one parent stays at home or the family hires an au pair). A place in a private school usually comes with a hefty price tag, too.

This being said, there are enormous differences in the quality of public schools. Coming from a country with a relatively comprehensive and equal public educational and childcare system, it was a new experience for me to do research on the school districts in order to find a public school that I could trust.

There is no silver bullet for finding the schools that are good and those that are not. Different websites offer some statistics, and there seems to be a lot of discussion going on in the city-data.com website and other forums. However, as usual, the best option is to try to find someone who has some experience from a particular school.

At least here in Connecticut, some public schools are so-called “magnet” schools that gather students from a wider area. A place in these schools is often highly competitive, but you also have to apply several months before the start date, and this can only be done after moving to the States. So these are not an option for most of the families coming for a short-term exchange.

Finding a place to live can also be more complicated than for someone coming without a family. A good real estate agent can be a real treasure. They know the in and outs of the local housing markets and neighborhoods. And in most cases, the landlord pays their fee, so there are no expenses for the tenant.

I even know someone who rented a house based on a good experience from a colleague of a particular real estate agent. Personally, I had the privilege to visit our new hometown two months prior to the exchange and with help of a realtor; I managed to see more than 10 houses in just two days.

Coming with a family is expensive: therefore, you should do your homework on the price level in the potential university towns. If you cannot afford to go to a particular university, you might want to explore further for other academically interesting locations with cheaper living expenses.

If your desired school district is in a sub-urban area, you probably also need a car. Still, it can be much cheaper than paying the rent in a big city.

After arrival, there are several practical things that need to be arranged beyond the obvious things such as buying furniture (in which craigslist, thrift stores and university buy-and-sell email lists can help to save a lot of money).

Requirements for opening a broadband, signing a utilities contract or buying a car vary, and obtaining many of these can be difficult without a local ID and/or social security number. So, if you want to prepare well, it will be really helpful to find out beforehand what documents different agencies and companies need.

As far as I know, you cannot get a social security number if your income comes from a grant, but you will be required to apply for a tax number (ITIN) after your arrival. You might want to check whether that would help in signing utilities contracts etc. However, it will take some time after the application before the ITIN is delivered to you.

Many places also want to see your lease agreement and a piece of mail (an envelope with your name, address and a recent mail stamp on it) directed to you to your new address as a proof of residence. For this purpose, it can be helpful to send yourself a letter to your US address before departure, as silly as this sounds.

Moreover, the immunization requirements for the schools can be different from your home country, and it saves some trouble in the States if you can take care of these before arrival.

But don’t get me wrong – it’s not just extra work and trouble. On the contrary, travelling with family is a great opportunity for all family members, not least to the kids. The hospitality in our neighborhood and elsewhere has been overwhelming, and we have already made new acquaintances that would not have been possible in a different life situation.

In a way of a summary: do your homework, calculate the expenses, and just go ahead and apply for the grant!

– Matti Ylönen
2015-2016 Fulbright-Schuman visiting research student at Yale University