What it’s like to live the Fulbright-Schuman experience in California

The Fulbright-Schuman Program offered me the extraordinary opportunity of working on my research project in California, collaborating with other researchers and students in one of the best cognitive science labs of the U.S., which has been very worthy for my professional career. I spent 5 months as a predoctoral visitor student in UC Merced researching on human voice and on the detection of some disorders with the analysis of speech signal. Through the next lines, I would like to introduce the reader into the awesome experience of Fulbright-Schuman.

My journey started by the end of October traveling from Madrid to L.A. where I took another plane to Merced. The beginning was not so easy because my suitcase did not arrive on time and there was a small issue with my arrival documents. However, both things were quickly fixed the next day and I was given a very warm welcome by the students and staff of UC Merced. The work environment was very motivating with two seminar talks on Monday and lab talks on Wednesday. For a visitor Ph.D. student, this situation was very valuable because it allowed me to know other investigations and to live in an environment where the scientific discussion was encouraged. During January a hiring process took place in the department where I was working and I saw all the processes from the inside. Being on the other side of the selection process helps you think about your own strengths and weaknesses.

Elections, wildfires, turkey and Washington D.C.

The first month was especially exciting with several remarkable events. First, I had the chance of experiencing the presidential elections and being immersed in the political American culture. It was undoubtedly an opportunity to discuss and compare differences and similarities with the European political systems. It took place just a week after arriving and I shared the afternoon following the electoral recount with other staff and students. I have to admit that sometimes I was totally disoriented by the dissimilarities of the system.

Each autumn, due to several causes and boosted by climate change, wildfires in California are becoming sadly famous. 2018 was the worst wildfire session in history with a high peak in mid-November. It was shockingly sad to see how the schools and university closed by pollution caused by huge wildfires that were 300km away. The dimension of the disaster is difficult to imagine without being been there.

Visiting the UN in NYC

Also during November Fulbright-Schuman offered me the opportunity of traveling to Washington D.C. for celebrating the 70th anniversary of the program. I met again other Fulbrighters and we shared our projects and our experiences in different host cities. I also spent some time visiting the magnificent institutional area of Washington D.C. and a few more days in the world-famous Big Apple.

Finally, during that month probably the most U.S. traditional celebration took place: Thanksgiving. I learned how to cook a 7kg turkey after defrosting it for a day and marinating for another 24 hours. Hence, the situation was complicated by a water cut that took place on just the day before cooking it. Despite all the difficulties, the final result was deliciously tasty.

Cooking turkey during Thanksgiving

Fulbright Enrichment Seminars

Fulbright Enrichment Seminar in Utah

One big highlight of the experience was undoubtedly the Fulbright Enrichment Seminar on Technology, Startups, and Entrepreneurship that took place in Salt Lake City. During those days I build a social network with grantees from all countries in the world that were studying or researching amazing projects. In addition to the interesting talks, there were three big key items: a family dinner with a local host, the community work and a visit to a local tech company. The dinner took place in the house of a magistrate where we discussed during a nice dinner about the professional and personal American life. During community work, we helped to clean a host house for families traveling to the city for medical reasons. Within the options to visit companies I chose to visit a famous company of robots. Those three events were very valuable and I could hardly know and experience this local culture outside of the Fulbright program.

Personal life and final thoughts

Learning new activities

Last but not least, I would like to share some of my personal experiences and impressions. California and surroundings offer you as many opportunities as you want to take. I visited Yosemite and (the amazing) Sequoia park, I did a road trip through the coast of California stopping at natural beaches, I visited the very most famous tech companies at Silicon Valley, I tasted the wines of central Valley and I also spend some days in the Grand Canyon and Vegas, among other experiences. All those places are world famous due to the innumerable films, documentaries, and TV-series that are broadcasted. We tried to emulate those movies traveling by a rental car through those straight roads via the desert and stopping at Peggy Sue’s before arriving at the big Casinos of Vegas. And you know, what happens in Vegas stays…

My impression of people is that they are very friendly and ready to share their activities with you. I would like to highlight the many cultures and ethnic groups that live and work together. This culturally enriching situation is not so easy to find in my home country and it opens your mind to new experiences and other points of view. However, there are also some difficulties and moments when you are feeling blue because of living in a culture so different from yours and far away from your previous social and family circle. These moments teach you to empathize with the difficulty of being a migrant but it’s part of positive learning.

Thanks to the Fulbright-Schuman Program I have returned to Europe with improved professional skills, with a wider professional and social network and especially with a much deeper knowledge of American culture that I could not have acquired in any other way.

Training with B. Corral at Venice Beach

Ivan Gonzalez Torre is a 2018-2019 Fulbright Visiting Student Researcher in Physics at the University of California, Merced who recently returned to Spain.

Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State.