It’s hard for me to believe, but this month marks five years from when Tucker and I first embarked on a long term, overseas adventure. It’s hard to say when exactly we decided that life abroad was something we wanted for our future, but I do remember asking if we could just stay in Finland indefinitely when we took our first international trip, just after our wedding/university graduation. I was immediately hooked on the adventure, but for Tucker, I think having a set plan and an entire, relatively stable year of not only living but also working in another country gave him the insight he needed, which ended up shifting our life plan pretty drastically.
At both Dalton State and Georgia State we had wanted to study abroad, but it was just way too expensive, even with scholarship help. However, in grad school I learned about Fulbright. An exchange program that provides grants for individual research projects, or in the case of the ETA program, specifically assigned teaching posts. It was obviously an amazing opportunity to not only experience another culture, life abroad, professional development, etc. but to also make money in the process – something extremely valuable to those graduating with student loans. However, before you can apply for a highly competitive Fulbright grant, you first have to choose a country/placement that interests you (and that will hopefully give you a good chance of success). For us, this was another easy choice and an incredible opportunity; we chose Poland.
My heritage ties, solid grades, and excellent letters of recommendation (thanks again mentors!) eventually pushed us across the almost year long application/waiting process. We got the “congratulations” email in March, with a departure date in September. It was our first experience with a State Department exchange program, and it made a lasting impression. Meeting my fellow Fulbrighters, the Fulbright Commission staff in Warsaw, and eventually my mentor and colleagues at the University of Łódź completely solidified my respect for cultural exchange and soft diplomacy. I learned so much about Poland, the United States, history, politics, teaching, you name it, but I think what surprised me most was how much I learned about myself.
Being in a completely new environment always shifts one’s focus, and I would argue that living in a new environment (such as in a new country/culture) shifts it permanently. I absolutely loved that every day was an adventure. Going to the bank, setting up our internet connection, grocery shopping: it was all exciting and gave us new insights into everything from security and privacy to historical ties and familial influence. For problem-solvers like me and Tucker, it was a constant string of puzzles and challenges to work through often with the most amusing results and exciting successes. It also allowed for exceptional personal growth – interpersonal skills, patience, dealing with ambiguity. These skills I now cherish were addressed and honed day after day as an expat.
Then there is everything we learned about Poland and about my family and my heritage. Seeing some of the “quirks” of my family represented by an entire culture, experiencing the long-lasting effects of World War II, celebrating Wigilia with new friends, eating as many pierogi and kopytka as humanly possible – we tried to soak in as much as we could. In fact, there are many habits we picked up in Poland that are still a part of our everyday lives. I discovered my love of both herbata (tea) and piwo (beer) in Poland. Tucker and I developed an interest in history and politics that we didn’t really have before. We saw firsthand how important fresh, wholesome food is and we learned how to shed some of our homegrown laziness, both of which have influenced our daily lives ever since.
Another unexpected gain from my time with Fulbright was a shift from a strong interest in teaching language (an obvious passion of mine) to an even stronger passion of teaching and discussing culture as well. After Fulbright I learned about the English Language Fellow Program, which allowed me to continue this combined effort of teaching English/language skills while at the same time learning from each other as our mutual understanding and friendships grew. Tucker and I are now considering taking this idea one step further and potentially joining the foreign service in order to continue developing meaningful intercultural relationships with people from all over the world. Fulbright gave us a glimpse into the many incredibly powerful things exchange programs can do.
Looking back at this seemingly small part of my academic/professional career, it’s clear to see it definitely had a huge impact on my life. It changed the way I view myself and my culture as well as how I see the world. From Fulbright 2015-2016 right up to the craziness that is 2020 and hopefully beyond, I plan to continue sharing my experiences in exchanging culture and shifting perspectives, whether with the help of specially designed programs like Fulbright, through my online teaching of international students, or throughout my life as an expat anywhere in the world. These five years have absolutely flown by, but I will forever be grateful for every step along the way. Thank you, Fulbright, and dziękujemy, Poland.