2017-18 Europeans in the USA

Brief Reflections on my Fulbright-Schuman Fellowship at Yale University

From September 2016 to April 2017, thanks to the Fulbright Schuman grant, I spent eight months at Yale University as a pre-doctoral research fellow. During this time, I had the chance to finalize my PhD project ‘The business of state-building: How business associations shaped the performance of local governments in Bosnia and Herzegovina’. Having recently defended my thesis at my home institution (the European University Institute), I feel that this is an opportune time to reflect on how my time at Yale, and the US more broadly, sharpened my research skills and expanded my cultural experiences.  While I left New Haven with dozens of fond memories in my bags, in what follows I focus on my academic activities at Yale, everyday life in New England, and my travels across the country.

Joining Yale’s rich intellectual community has been an inspiring experience. Upon arrival I became embedded in the Political Science Department’s graduate program on Order, Conflict and Violence (OCV). The program that is dedicated to the study of civil wars and their aftermath, is sponsored by internationally renowned scholars and draws talented PhD candidates from across the globe. As part of this diverse group I was systematically exposed to multiple theoretical and methodological traditions and cutting-edge interdisciplinary work, which pushed me to approach my own project from fresh angles and to experiment with new analytical tools.

As a Fulbright-Schuman grantee, I also had the chance to audit classes and expand my knowledge basis on subjects pertinent to my broader academic interests. Yale is a huge international hub for scholars, policy makers, activists and artists. This gave me the unique opportunity to attend a series of exciting seminars, speeches, panel discussions and conferences on literally every discipline under the sun – from 19th century music to astronomy. The excellent quality of the university’s infrastructure and its top-notch services were unquestionably two other important highlights of my fellowship. On top of all that, however, was Yale’s beautiful campus – home to a multi-cultural body of students, a hotbed for activism, and a beehive of cultural and academic activity.

I can think of few other environments equally accommodating to learning and research. As an aspiring scholar and young professional, I benefited greatly from the time I spent at Yale. Not only was I able to improve the quality of my work but I also received invaluable career advice. From practicing job talks and learning how to draft a competitive grant proposal, to polishing academic articles and pitching book ideas to editors, Yale has been an outstanding learning and training ground for me.

While not without its challenges, New Haven is a good place to live and work. This small city combines New England charm and global cosmopolitanism. The presence of Yale University adds to its charms, as it grants area residents easy access to museums, art galleries, theatres, music venues, and college sports. The region is also known for its cuisine, with high-end restaurants rubbing elbows with traditional pizza joints and Asian food trucks. Apart from unlimited access to recreation and entertainment, another big plus of New Haven is its excellent location along the East Coast, and the fast access it grants to the Boston and New York metropolitan areas.

What excited my partner and me the most, however, was the area’s natural beauty. Coming from a highly congested urban city in Northern Greece, we were both stunned by how much in tune New Haven residents are with the change of seasons. Fall foliage is a marvel to behold. Come winter, and snow storms are always lurking just around the corner. Spring, on the other hand, is experienced as a true reawakening. Either snowed in or basking under the sun in one of the city’s parks and green spaces, we found life in New Haven genuinely enjoyable.

During the eight months I spent in the US as a Fulbright-Schuman fellow, I had many opportunities to travel beyond New England. The key purpose of my travels was to present my work to major political science conferences. Considering the networking opportunities and the quality of feedback offered to me, traveling for work has been a worthy investment. This is even more so because traveling also gave me the chance to explore different parts of the country and to appreciate its often breath-taking beauty.

Interestingly, while diverse in terms of geography, climate, architectural landscape and cultural traditions, a common thread across the US is the friendliness of its people. From the concrete maze of Manhattan and downtown Washington D.C., to the swamps of Mississippi and the forests of Virginia, I found Americans to be welcoming and neighbourly. Contrary to my expectations, I met few rude New Yorkers – most were ready to help, chat, laugh and share stories. While traveling in New Orleans, my partner and I met an Uber driver who offered to give us a free tour of the city. When he found out we used to live in Italy, he took us to an Italian-owned dinner to get “real coffee”. And guess what…It was the best coffee I had in eight months!

In fact, I have come to believe that Americans manage to combine and balance two seemingly contradicting elements, both of which appear to be equally entrenched in their psyche: individualism and collectivism. While the pursue of happiness still lies firmly with the individual, the spirit of community, volunteering, sharing and collective action, is still going strong across the nation – partly supplementing for the absence of a fully developed welfare state. As peculiar as this synthesis may be, I believe that it is precisely what makes (and has always made) America great.

Despina Karamperidou is a 2016-2017 Fulbright-Schuman Visiting Student Researcher to Yale University. A doctoral student at the European University Institute, Despina has spent the past year conducting research on “The Business of State-Building” at the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale University. 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.