a big beautiful mess

Should You Fulbright?

I’ve recently been asked from a few different corners about my Fulbright experience, and I feel I have enough distance from it now to make some broad generalizations about the experience. Deciding whether or not to apply for a Fulbright is a big decision in itself. Here are my two cents.

I don’t recommend the Fulbright unconditionally. It was right for me, but it is definitely not right for everyone. I decided to apply for the Fulbright because I fell in love with Moscow, and I knew I had to go back. I was in Moscow for 5 weeks in the summer of 2009 for an intensive language program and I fell hard for the crazy mishmash of history and art and language and sour cream. I’ve been to St. Petersburg a few times, but in the Americans-in-Russia community, whichever capital you visit first is the one that gets your heart, and that is definitely true for me and Moscow.

For my year of teaching, I was in the city of Arkhangelsk, way up north, about a day by train from Petersburg and Moscow. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but also one of the best. My Russian improved dramatically. I had the dubious distinction of being the only American in the whole city (of 400,000 people) most of the time. I got to see the Northern Lights. I became best friends with my Polish roommate who didn’t speak any English. I got to teach a group of students who were the stars of the English department, and help them apply for grad programs in Norway and Germany, and see them graduate. I got to mentor high school students who were getting ready to spend a year as exchange students in America. I spent two weeks teaching at a summer camp in Siberia. I was invited to interpret at an international geological conference.

The Fulbright is an exceptionally well-organized program; you get a lot of institutional support, and you get to meet amazing people who are doing awesome things. If your goals are learning Russian, getting into international education, community-building, immersive acculturation, and if you’re okay with the responsibility/duty of representing America as a “grassroots diplomat” and dealing with all the political mumbo-jumbo at orientation, then there’s no better program than the Fulbright.

I think that you get a truly unique experience, living alone in the provinces: you talk to people you wouldn’t talk to otherwise, you get to enjoy a certain status within the community and get invited to all kinds of crazy things. But it’s also extremely lonely. Everybody wants you to be part of their event, but few people are really interested in being your friend. You have to have certain emotional survival skills. You have to be able to keep your frustration under wraps and laugh at your own foibles.

I also studied abroad while I was at Smith College, but not in Russia. I went to Spain for the spring semester of my junior year. I was in Madrid, which is kind of like the Moscow of Spain (while Barcelona is the St. Petersburg– it’s a loose analogy, I know). I had a really shitty semester. I was lonely and didn’t really have any goals for my time there. I spent all my time with the other American students on my program (which was run by Boston University). I loved getting to know Madrid, and getting to travel all over Spain, and I had the opportunity to do a translation internship and tutor some kids in English. But I felt socially isolated because I didn’t really click with the people on the program. I was pretty depressed.

When I went back to Russia on the Fulbright, it was a different kind of isolation, because I had so few English-speakers to talk to. On the other hand, there¬†was¬†a small expat community there of other language teachers, and I became close with them. I mentioned my Polish roommate– he didn’t speak English, but we spoke Russian together, and that helped both of us improve a huge deal. He didn’t even know the Russian alphabet when he showed up, but I guess Polish is similar enough to Russian that he could just pronounce Polish funny and people would understand him? So he had a better vocabulary than I did, but I had way better grammar. It was like a two stooges skit every time we went shopping.

There was also a Norwegian teacher and her boyfriend; her English was immaculate, and his was decent. And a Dutch teacher from the Netherlands, who spoke English fluently and would brag about all the languages he spoke (Dutch, English, German, Russian……). Even though you might be one of very few Americans, there will always be other people around. Having these Europeans to debrief with after a day of the Russian rollercoaster was cathartic– they weren’t Americans, but they were more culturally similar to me than many of the Russians, and they also could pick out those subtle differences.

Truthfully, any study abroad experience is lonely. You’re lonely for your homeland, for your culture– even if the culture seems at first superficially similar, as you stay longer and longer, you go deeper and deeper and realize all the crazy tiny differences and they grate at you and weigh you down. You’re lonely for mental rest, for not having to work to go grocery shopping and ride the bus. Loneliness is what you make of it. If you have the get-up-and-go to get out and work to find those people who really do care, who genuinely want to get to know you, you’ll find them. I made the mistake of getting comfortable in my loneliness, and just sort of staying at home, hanging out with my roommate, talking to my friends back home on skype. It was only at the end of my 10 months that I started spending more time with two teachers who were really sweet and genuine and would have made good friends if I’d taken the time to get to know them earlier. I regret that. But the way I dealt with my loneliness, I learned so much about myself. And I made a few friends who I’ll have for life. And I don’t regret that.

Also, FYI, almost anything you do after graduating is going to be lonely at first. I returned from Russia a year ago, and after a few months of job hunting, took a sales position at a cell phone store, and moved to the city 45 minutes from where my parents live. So I’m still “home” pretty much, close to my family and my remaining high school friends, but finding new friends in the city has been a slow process, and in some ways I feel that loneliness of adaptation all over again.

So, as first years after college go, I do recommend the Fulbright. It gives you the support that you probably need as a recent graduate in a foreign country, but also the flexibility to pursue your interests while you’re there, whether they be research or teaching or community organization or language-learning or libraries or translation. The Fulbright is only a vehicle, a structure. Once you’re there, and the orientation is over, the Fulbright is what you make of it.


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