“Adventure is worthwhile in itself.” Amelia Erhart (1897–1939)
… and so is the Fulbright adventure.
About nine months you’re preparing yourself for this adventure. The nearer your departure comes, the more you think about the things you must still do or finish. Like making sure you get to see all the important people one last time before you start your adventure, making sure all open tasks are completed before you hop on the plane and you’re gone for about nine months.
You probably start writing a list of what kind of clothes to bring—your favorite t-shirt, scarf, and shoes get the first spot in your luggage because you want to feel comfortable on all your many adventure trips—and other items to take with you:
Your best friend’s travel gift (a fluffy toy whitepink unicorn called Mimi)
A travel diary and a travel backpack because you might need it
A book to read on the flight to either calm yourself down when you realize that you’ll be a Fulbright foreign language teaching assistant in the US for the next academic year or just to pass the time during the flight
Your new wooden watch, which was a present from all your best friends and your family when you received your Magistra’s degree and which always reminds you of them when you look at the time while in a different time zone…
And so your luggage gets filled... But thank goodness, you manage to keep your luggage under 23 kilos when you check its weight one last time the day before your leave.
And then you do have the backpack reserved for your laptop, where you installed the latest Skype and Whatsapp updates to stay in contact with your family and friends, where you have a photo album full of memories—it will be nice to look at some photos, just in general or even more when you miss home and your people there so much. Of course, you put all relevant documents for Fulbright, IIE, and the university in a folder too, as well as some teaching material you think you could use in your classes.
And don’t forget to leave space for your passport with the J1 Visa, the DS 2019 and your international driving license, as they are also necessary items in your backpack!
Well, you’re ready to start your adventure, but if you think you’ll bring back the same items you took with you, then I need to tell you that you’re wrong.
Sure, some of these things will go back with you in nine months, but some might not. Some of the clothes might not fit anymore, or maybe your style is different now because you’re not the same person you were when you arrived in the US in August: you’ve grown, you’ve developed, your perspectives have changed, and how you see your clothes (the world) is different now.
You even might take some new clothes or other souvenirs you got during your travels (North Carolina, Colorado, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Tennessee, New York City, and Washington, DC) back with you, but you’ll also take experience, competence, knowledge, understanding, interest, happiness, gratefulness, joy, reflection, awareness, and trust.
The book you read on your flight to the US, you don’t need it anymore. So you give it either to one of the friends you made in the US—colleagues became friends, new friends became close friends, like a handpicked family—or donate it in an open library box close to the apartment where you spent the last nine months, where you experienced your own adventure—like the characters in the book.
The travel diary is not completely full yet, but every written page tells a story: a story about what you did, where and whom you traveled with, which adventures you experienced, whom you met and how it influenced you, how enriching it was and what memories you’ll keep for the rest of your life. The other pages, the blank ones, they are for future stories. Wherever your path takes you, you have to take the first step. Applying for Fulbright was one of these first steps, a first step that changed my life for the better.
Your backpack and your watch were loyal companions on all of your adventures, for example on a weekend trip to Boulder, Colorado, with another FLTA (Vanessa) or simply going grocery shopping at Walmart. They can be seen on many of the photos you have in the new “US 2019” folder on your laptop. Your DS-2019 doesn’t look the nicest anymore, but that’s okay because it tells one of your stories too: you always had to show your passport and DS-2019 at every airport security checkpoint, and you traveled a lot, have seen and experienced a lot.
Finally, Mimi. You never thought you’d leave your best friend’s gift in the US because it had accompanied you for the last 11 years. But you have the best and most beautiful reason to leave it: to let somebody—the most important person in your life—take care of it until your return.
Right, you read correctly. I played by the rules and complied with formalities in every way, but I didn’t listen to all of the advice we got about not falling in love. I did, and it was the best thing that could have happened to me during the best time of my life, and it made my Fulbright adventure even better.
I know the value of this experience and how much it changed me, my life, and my future. I’m so incredibly thankful for every moment I could experience during my time in North Carolina as well as the time from the application process to my departure for the US and the time after my academic year as an FLTA, because it will all influence my future too. Thank you, Fulbright Austria, many thanks from the bottom of my heart.
Andrea Steiner received her MA in Austrian studies from the University of Vienna. During the 2018–19 program year, she lived and worked in North Carolina as an Austrian Fulbright foreign language teaching assistant.