My Fulbright year at Emory University
Now, three weeks after returning back to Austria, my emotional distance finally seems to have caught up to my geographical distance from Atlanta, Georgia—my home for the past year—and allows for a cautious first recapitulation of my time there.
I spent my Fulbright year teaching German at Emory University. When I think back on the day I learned of that specific university being my host institution, I remember both the exaltation and the dread I was feeling.
Exaltation—because my adventure was under way; I could start planning, I could get myself in an American state of mind, I could go back to this country that had been the focus of my personal longing as well as my professional studies. Having spent a semester abroad in Oregon during my studies, I was somewhat acquainted with at least that specific part of the Union, and my position in Atlanta was enough to get my passions riled up and ready to explore the rest of the continent like a reverse Lewis and Clark, with all the idealism and naïve hopefulness that goes along with that.
Dread—because my adventure was under way; there was no turning back. Whether or not I thought I was ready, whether or not I thought I could live up to the expectations of both Fulbright Austria and Emory University as well as the eminent reputation they carry, whether or not I thought that my single year of teaching German and English was sufficient to bring about the same positive results in this highly competitive American university atmosphere as I had observed in my school in Austria.
These two warring emotions kept on depriving me of some much-needed sleep up until the very end. In fact, even as the plane was about to set down on the Atlanta tarmac, having turned all but liquid in the August heat, I was thinking, “What did I get myself into here?”
As soon as there was American ground under my feet, all these fears belonged to a distant past. I am still not sure where this sudden spring of optimism came from (I like to think that I am generally prone to violent and pronounced mood swings), but I kept thinking of this amazing opportunity I had been granted: to grow not only professionally, but personally. To learn to deal with this situation that I knew would demand everything I had of me, but that would reward me invaluably if I stuck to it, if I trusted in my own abilities and the faith that Fulbright Austria had put in me.
The experience at the university itself was amazing. I loved the university and its awe-inspiring history (I got to meet former US president Jimmy Carter, which I will forever regard as one of the greater privileges in my life). I loved my colleagues, who treated me like family. I loved my students, who treated me like one of their own (except where it was important for me to be a person of authority, of course). The city of Atlanta and the great state of Georgia treated me with everything ranging from light hostility (me being a stranger to its hot and humid summer climate) to unconditional kindness (I will forever keep the city of Savannah in the fall and spring in my heart). Looking back now, I see a blur of joyful moments and sudden spurts of growth—as a teacher dealing with difficult situations in the classroom, but also as a person dealing with the same outside of class, laughing, crying, giving and receiving advice from every direction. I could make a list of all these moments—were I not convinced that this list would not differ greatly from every single list from my esteemed Fulbright colleagues, at home and abroad.
Toward the end of my stay at Emory University, I was looking forward to going home. I was excited to see my friends and family and excited to get the next chapter of my life started (I say “life” because I no longer think in terms of a “career”; my Fulbright experience was much too profound to fit into that narrow term). Now, three weeks later, on the verge of yet another new phase in my development as a teacher and as a person, I am finally able to start thinking back on all that time and evaluate it neutrally, unemotionally—and, in doing so, to be overcome by my emotions.
You can take the teacher out of the Fulbright Program, but you can never take the Fulbright Program out of the teacher. In fact, you cannot even fully achieve the former—the bond that unites all recipients of this wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime experience is much too strong. And to think that I will always be part of this wonderful community gives me joy and strength for all that life may throw at me in the future.
I will tell of that experience, now and always, every chance that I get.
Florian Hladin completed his Magister in a teacher training program at the University of Graz. He spent the 2018–19 academic year as a foreign language teaching assistant at Emory University. Photo courtesy of Florian Hladin.