Preparation for Belgium and Greece

It’s a pleasure having the opportunity to chronicle my journey during the Fulbright process and share a period of professional and personal growth that I predict will be quite the formative experience in my development. As is customary with most stories, I will begin by introducing the central character. My name is Tosin Agbabiaka, and I am a restless Nigerian-American young man raised in the cities of Lagos, Nigeria and Katy, Texas. This inaugural post is my introduction of sorts: to my life, my motivations, my project, and my journey.  My intention? For this post to be a microcosm of my Fulbright project/life. Since that’s the case, the narrative is going to move in a thousand different directions (and still makes total sense…hopefully) and capture a diverse set of insights and musings on my exploits. Adequately prepared? I didn’t think so.

I began my college academic career as a mercenary of sorts, forgoing studying a traditional discipline for a “stroll in the field and pick the flowers that I desire” path, I focused my energies on reading and critiquing literature written by postcolonial authors, analyzing social stratification along racial, ethnic, and cultural lines (and incessantly fuming while doing so), studying musical performance and music theory, and writing creative non-fiction pieces. My postcolonialism studies, my immigrant background, and several bouts of a cultural identity crisis cultivated both a fiery abhorrence of social inequality and a strong interest in the contemporary conditions of populations of formerly-colonized or minorities in developed societies.

Life after college came a-knocking rather quickly, and with it came the challenge of transforming my academic diatribes against societal inequality into some “real world” impact. How would I do this? The answer completely eluded me. “Public policy” some kind soul told me (as you can tell, this kind soul is a little fuzzy in the memory bank), so I decided that understanding immigration policy in a variety of contexts would be my first order of business. That I never took a course in public policy wasn’t even the slightest deterrent. Psh.

The American society that met young ideological me was one filled with caustic language directed towards the immigrant, and the political hijacking and subsequent trivializing of the conversation on immigration. I watched in horror as some US states enacted blatantly discriminatory policies in the name of undocumented immigration control, completely disregarding Federal government and public outcry. During short stints in Ireland, Denmark and a few other European countries I observed similar conversations and legislation on immigration reach alarming, toxic levels. From observing these events, I believed that there was much I could learn about migration issues in Western contexts and that the immigration policy conversations in the US and the EU could greatly benefit from a thorough analysis of these contemporary issues. Coupling this with my insatiable wanderlust, I decided to apply for an independent research project grant through the Fulbright foundation. Thankfully, I was awarded the grant and will be working on the project in Belgium and Greece from September 2012 to June 2013 (Surprise!)

Through my project, I seek to identify effective mechanisms in the EU’s power for holding member states in compliance with human rights standards related to migration given the varying migration realities in each member state, the challenges with implementing and maintaining “federal” policy, and the contentious issue of state sovereignty. I will be working through two stellar migration-focused think tanks in Belgium and Greece. Through them I will be studying and interviewing as many influencers of the immigration conversation as I can on the EU and Greek/Belgian national levels, chronicling relevant migration policy decisions and human right standards, and analyzing EU and national actions related to violations of such policies.

If you’ve read to this point in this blog post, bravo! (And phew!) You’re among the few and the proud that hopefully understand the amount of personal and professional chewing-the-cud that led to this project. Describing the project to friends, family, and the random passer-by or two has only strengthened my belief in this: readers tend to have greater patience than listeners. As one who planned out the project meticulously and further refines it in my mind every day (and as one who struggles with a pretty significant thing called brevity) I always feel odd giving a sound bite of my project. My descriptions always feel too short to me, or too long judging from the reaction of most listeners’ faces.

The challenge is that I have had a min-max range of about 1-4 sentences to land my Fulbright rover or risk losing the listener forever. Common reactions as I describe my project include but are not limited to the following: acknowledging nods, congratulatory handshakes and words, furrowed brows, smiles so large that they border on scary, wandering eyes, dramatic large-eye syndrome, glazed over eye syndrome, 21-questions asking, “oh my goodness you’re going to spend all day on a Greek isle”-ing, and my favorite: the patronizing “there you go with that cute saving-the-world mumbo jumbo” shoulder pat. I’ve learned to bear all, and to respond with a smile and a nod—and then quickly salvage it with a trivial conversation about Belgian waffles, chocolate, and beer. People not only like to hear that, they almost want to hear that more than the heavy stuff! (Carefully note that the mention that the conversation is trivial – I wouldn’t dare trivialize three of the most popular staples of my host country-to-be! I will be consuming healthy amounts of all three in the months to come—please believe me).

Notwithstanding the hot and cold listener responses, I have been chugging along with the numerous preparations for my project.  The first half of my summer was spent reading and rereading my project proposal, seeking holes within and questions that need to be addressed that weren’t previously noted. I also spent some time refining my project’s focus and schedule with my friend/project advisor based in Belgium. Since my project is based in two countries (for greater than three months apiece) I had to apply for visas to both countries, which, surprisingly, has been quite a breeze. Midway through the summer I dusted off my Skype account and called friends who had previously conducted Fulbright projects in order to learn how to stay prepared. Besides all the important stuff they mentioned, every one of my friends reiterated this: travel–alot.  Note taken.

I’m far from done with my preparations.  I’ve mapped out several apartment choices that have peaked my interest, but I’m unwilling to close any deal without being in Brussels first. I still need to sign up for a French-language course in Brussels to clean up my “fluid” French speaking.  I have a lot more project refining to do, and I need to begin building a literature list and a list of contacts in Brussels and Athens. I also have a good amount of home cooking to scarf down, nonsensical conversations to have with close friends, Bill Simmons writing to read, and sweating-under-the-Texas-sun to do. (Also, if anyone knows of any long distance cycling opportunities in Brussels, I’d gladly listen to them. I’m hell bent on cultivating this burgeoning interest of mine).

Until then, I’ll be toiling away in Texas, eagerly awaiting the excitement that is to come.  I’ll have a great amount of exciting happenings to write about once my bags are packed and my feet land in Europe. At the moment I’m just nursing a post-Olympics hangover…I can’t believe the games are over!

Wake me up when I’m in Brussels. I’m going to Krzyzewskiville the Houston airport now.

Tosin Agbabiaka