“Somehow Ann Arbor resembles an ordinary small city in Germany,” a professor told me merrily over lunch once. “The cultural life, the big clock tower in the center, the many cafés and restaurants, that all is actually very European,” he continued. Although this seems to be true on the surface, there are certainly many differences as well—the most striking being that this city in southern Michigan hosts the University of Michigan, one of the best-ranked public universities in the US and very likely also beyond. To be a Fulbrighter and a law student at this place is something special. Diversity, solidarity, and the public commitment of students and faculty are embraced and taken very seriously. These values also reflect the reasons why I aspired to become a part of the Fulbright Program.
The Fulbright Program helped me to get a good start into this adventure. Attending one of the Fulbright orientation seminars, I already got to know other students from my university before I arrived to Ann Arbor. This made adapting to the new environment easier and convenient. Compared to other US law schools, the number of students is very small, particularly in my LLM program. My classmates include not just students from the US, but also from very many different countries, such as Nigeria, Ethiopia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Japan, India, Afghanistan, Colombia, Brazil, Canada, Jamaica, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Lebanon, and many more. Some of them are also studying on a Fulbright grant. We came to know each other fairly well after a short amount of time. Together we have refined our pumpkin carving skills at Halloween and celebrated a traditional Thanksgiving, but we have also lit candles at the Indian holiday of Diwali and wished each other a happy Chinese New Year. I am very grateful to learn about a lot of different cultures, religions, and societies in this diverse environment.
At the same time, my European colleagues and I also try to make our classmates more familiar with Europe. This year, we founded the first Michigan European Law Organization (MELO), a project in which we work together with renowned U of M faculty to promote interest in Europe and maybe even the study of European (Union) law. In return, we gain first-hand experience in the US political system. For example, we watched with American classmates the controversial Senate confirmation hearings of the new justice of the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, followed by the midterm election and the government shutdown. But also leisure life—particularly with the biggest football stadium in the US hosting over 100,000 people each game—made this experience for me truly American.
The aspect of my stay that I have appreciated the most is the stimulating academic environment. Many different research, externship, traineeship, and fellowship opportunities are available to students. The academic debates among scholars and students take place on a high level, and the professors are more than helpful and willing to discuss theoretical or practical questions of a legal issue with students. There are also many forums to debate ideas, and I was able to take advantage of this to give two lunchtime talks about my current research projects. The reward for these presentations were stimulating discussion and new viewpoints to consider and study. I already look forward to sharing my many experiences with Austrian colleagues and carrying my understanding of US perspectives on international law, global justice, and legal history into Austrian academic discourses.
Sebastian Spitra received his Doctor iuris from the University of Vienna. He pursued an LLM at the University of Michigan as a Fulbright student during the 2018–19 academic year. Photo courtesy of Sebastian Spitra.