I was sitting in my favorite coffee place on campus. They kept calling out drinks at the counter, “Soy Cappuccino!”, “Frozen Latte!”, “Verena!”. Yes, they did know my name there, which triggered a sense of being home every time they would utter it (embellished by a charmingly American pronunciation). At the Fulbright summer orientation in Michigan, one of the coordinators had given us the following advice: Find a place that you like and become a regular. After some time, you might make friends there. Following her advice, I did make friends there, both with the baristas and the regulars. And at the end of my stay it was partly because of them that I found it hard to leave. But why don’t we go back to where it all started?
I remember applying for a Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistantship and how thrilled I was to get the opportunity. I also remember how little I knew about the place they would send me to: Illinois (“Where is that?”,“How do you pronounce that?”). And I remember the pre-departure gathering in Vienna, during which it was emphasized that the Fulbright program promotes the mutual understanding between our nations. That sounded like quite a responsibility, but I was eager to give it my best shot and promote my heart out.
My first stop in the US was East Lansing, Michigan. This is where my summer orientation took place. And this is where I met many fellow Fulbright FLTAs for the first time. It was a magical time for us, since we were so excited to meet each other, to be prepared for our subsequent tasks and to encounter all these amazingly friendly and helpful American professors and students. Right then, the promoting of mutual understanding between many more than two nations started and the friends we found in East Lansing would accompany us for the rest of our stays.
Spreading out to our respective campuses after the summer orientation, we had to face new challenges. In my case, I had to go to a place I had never seen before and where I didn’t know anybody. I remember the first day on campus, wandering about all confused and lost. There was this other kid who seemed just as lost as me. So I went over and said hi. It turned out that his name was Omar and that he was from Jordan and new on campus, too. Quite pragmatically, we decided to become best friends. To settle the issue, we set out for our first cultural experience together that very same day –a shopping trip to Wal-Mart.
There are hundreds of other stories I could share about my Fulbright experience, e.g. stories about my frustrations, stories about miscommunications and misunderstandings. All of these made me realize what is ingrained in me and how I tend to see the world through my cultural filter. However, I also came to see that I am not determined by that filter and that I can always expand my perspectives. Some parts of my cultural identity I chose to preserve and some parts I was more than willing to question or drop. The stories I will remember most vividly, however, are those heartwarming stories of friendship, of cultural exchange, of loyalty, of joy and of love.
For instance, there was this Korean girl who was a student of mine in the first semester. She frequently came to my office hours, seeking my help for class-related tasks and more personal matters. Naturally, I was thrilled to help her and encourage her. So, in the second semester, in which she was not my student anymore, she wanted to return the favor and look after me. Every day, she would pick me up at my place to drive me to campus and bring me back home. I had gone by bike before, but she insisted on giving me lifts each and every day. There was no way of insisting back that this was too much to ask –she had made up her mind on looking after me in this and many other ways. In fact, my former student became one of my most precious teachers, clarifying some of my blurred views, teaching me about how to be more appreciative, humble and joyful. Not only did my Korean friend have a major impact on me, but I was blessed with other people like her, who were kind and inspiring and looked after me.
As for my cultural exchange with Americans, many students and friends were immensely interested in my perspectives and eager to expand theirs. Thus, the exchange that happened within my Fulbright year was vast, exciting and influential. I would never have thought that I could be of such value to people who wanted to learn German and find out more about Austrian culture. Neither would I have thought that I could learn so much from the ups and downs that guided me through my intense stay in Illinois.
Finally, it feels that I told so little in this brief summary. I left out all my travelling and teaching experiences that shaped me in so many ways. However, words do not matter as much as the actions that I wish to follow this experience. After all, now comes the time for me to prove that I was worth the opportunity I got. Now comes the time for me to share what I have learned and further promote the mutual understanding of individuals (who might happen to come from different nations).
Verena Kremsner is a graduate of the University of Graz and was a Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2012–13.