As a US Fulbright Student combined grantee, I split my time this year between conducting research, taking university courses, and working as an English teaching assistant at a technical school. Working at a school is a special opportunity because it provides a unique window into a society that shows you how it functions and what it values. Through this experience, I learned a lot about Austrian culture and the daily lives of locals while also discovering what the most commonly held views and misconceptions about the United States were. It was informative to engage in discussions about healthcare, education, gun control, and other contentious issues.
One of my favorite aspects of teaching English was attending evening classes, often composed almost entirely of students who were refugees from Afghanistan and Syria. This group asked totally different questions about the US compared to Austrian high school students and tended to know very little about what daily life was actually like in the United States. Working with these students, I felt that I was fulfilling my job as a “citizen ambassador” and able to dispel some of their misconceptions about the USA. As I got to know these students, I learned a great deal more about their countries and cultures. The experience also forced me to confront my own (often totally inaccurate) stereotypes about people from these countries.
As Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness…” Surely, the best way that we can work to break down stereotypes and mutual misunderstandings is through living abroad, experiencing other ways of life, and directly interacting with people whose backgrounds and experiences differ from our own. This is one of the reasons that the Fulbright Program is so important.
Kristina Dill received a bachelor’s degree in musicology from Lewis & Clark College. She was a combined grantee in 2017–18 and extended her position as a teaching assistant for the 2018–19 school year. Photo courtesy of Kristina Dill.