Four years ago, was the first time I travelled to the USA with a Fulbright scholarship. I had just graduated from high school and was very enthusiastic about the path that laid ahead of me. It was also the first time I gained confidence in myself and my abilities because I was surrounded by 24 other scholars from all over Germany with whom I spent four weeks at the University of Kentucky for a summer school program.
It is cliché to say that it changed my life and the way I perceived myself and my position in this world. But the four weeks were very enriching and enhanced my desire to study for a longer period at an US-American University. This time around I’m in San Francisco by myself pursuing my Master’s. I guess it’s right what they say: once a Fulbrighter, always a Fulbrighter.
Being a Fulbrighter means that you will eventually meet hundreds of other Fulbrighters along your Fulbright journey at one or another Fulbright event. This is the crucial and very spirit of Fulbright that comes with it: you learn how to Network.
I soon realized that being part of a very large program is going to force me to come out of my comfort zone and interact with many people who are part of the same network as I am. Beyond the small-talk, the Fulbright program puts great emphasis on building a network with fellow scholars from diverse backgrounds and field of studies. Not only do I have a great network on my disposal, but I have found long-lasting friendships through the program.
The networking abilities have helped me in my stay in San Francisco, where I have spent the past eight months. In a short amount of time I can say that I have created my own little life in the city, where I am involved in different activities such as being a Teaching Assistant.
- Shifting perspectives
Meeting other Fulbrighters from around the world who study and research in different professional fields, made me realize that regardless of my study focus, it is important to keep an open mind on different topics. Studying International Relations from the U.S. perspective gives me a unique and interesting insight on understanding complex geopolitical issues. Not only am I being challenged in my own world views, but for the past academic year I have learned a lot on approaching political and economic issues from a different lens than I would have been able to do if I was in Europe. I am more than grateful to be in class with people from a range of nationalities whose different backgrounds shape their opinions in classroom discussions. The learning experience is beyond textbooks and teachings but it takes place through cultural exchange and sharing our experiences.
The cultural exchange is one of the vital aspects that comes with the Fulbright program and if not the main reason for the existence of the program besides academic exchange. I live with three other Americans in an apartment and there, we don’t only share a common living space, but we share our life experiences as well as differences of our countries. In conversations we realize how akin our cultures are and the similar ways in which our societies work. We are also surprised about different ways of lives from the other countries and always fascinated about them. My American friends for example can’t grasp the fact that I can basically study from free in Germany or that barely anyone has small talks in public spaces with complete strangers, as it is the case in California. At the same time, I will never understand how someone can work four jobs before finding ‘the right opportunity’ and still struggles to survive while claiming his freedom of choice. I guess I will still be appalled after seeing the gun collection of a friend and his readiness to use it ‘in case of an emergency’.
We may not see eye to eye on certain issues and not fully understand other cultures, but that is not the point of it all. The only important thing is having this conversations that I have been having with people in this country as well as other Fulbrighters from around the globe. Through these conversations we shape understanding and learn to perceive other cultures with an open mind while being critical to our own.
- We are all actually not that different
The Fulbright spirit is a special sentiment that I always embrace when I’m around fellow Fulbrighters. From the first moment of being in the environment I have felt that no matter of my national background, I do matter and so does my story. The diversity of people and numbers of nationalities in a room is always astonishing. Diversity is a key aspect of the Fulbright spirit which makes the program so special. One thing I learned profoundly from being a Fulbrighter is that our national and geographical differences do not divide us and are not the reason for our differences. I love the fact that I always get to meet people from every corner of the globe and find that we all have so much in common that we don’t have time to focus on what makes us different. This is how I have developed many great friendships within the program, since I can always have casual and deep conversations with people from the other side of the world.
I also realized there are many people with the same mindset as me. A characterizing image I still have from the time in Kentucky back then and the Enrichment seminar in Philadelphia this year is that I was both times hanging out in one of my friend’s hotel room and their roommate was in the room praying. Despite our presence, they felt safe and comfortable enough in that environment to do their daily prayer while we were hanging around enjoying the company. For me this image is so powerful because we all felt comfortable in each other’s presence regardless of our different religious beliefs, which are at the end of the day unimportant.
- Giving back
Most importantly, in this journey I realized that it is not only about me. I have reevaluated my role and obligation in society. My Fulbright journey is supposed to impact people in my host country, which is the US and the experiences I have gained should inspire me to help shape my community back home. Community service has been emphasized by Fulbright many times during my stay in San Francisco. I was inspired to give back to the community that is hosting me, which is why I have found a few times to volunteer in meal serving opportunities for the less fortunate in San Francisco. In Philadelphia, I participated in an Art preparation project for migrant children.
My journey and achievements are not about me which is why I am part of something bigger to inspire individuals around me to be more empathetic towards people from other nations and their cultures.