Going Abroad After Gilman: An Alumna’s Fulbright Experience

I owe everything in regards to my academic and professional careers abroad to my alma mater’s Office of National Scholarships. While studying in Moscow on my Gilman scholarship in the summer of 2013, I received an email from a mentor of said office that encouraged me to apply for a Fulbright grant. At the time, I didn’t even know what the Fulbright was! Oh, how that little email would change my life forever…

I returned to the U.S. and took a leap of faith, throwing myself into the Fulbright application process. Applying for a Fulbright was surprisingly similar in requirements to the Gilman. Both the Gilman scholarship and the Fulbright grant called for the e-filing of basic paperwork items, the writing of essays that expressed who I was as a person and that laid out a solid plan for study/work, and the attainment of letters of recommendation. 

As I had just graduated with a B.S. in music education and a B.A. in English, I chose to specifically pursue a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (ETA). I knew that if I were to be accepted this time around, I would be the teacher, and not the student. I also knew that my time abroad with the Fulbright would be significantly longer than that of the Gilman. For the latter, I only spent six weeks abroad. Now, I was preparing to be away from home for an entire academic year. Knowing that I would be taking my husband with me for that reason, I had to select a country that allowed and paid for dependent travel. I also needed to make sure to pick a nation that would allow me to build on my Russian language acquisitions from my Gilman. My choice…Moldova!

After months of waiting, I was initially designated as an alternate for the country of Moldova. At the time, there was extreme tension in the neighboring country of Ukraine  due to the presence of Russian forces. At the same time, Moldova was (and still is) actively pursuing accession into the EU. With extra funding granted, I was upgraded to a grantee and sent to a small town in Gagauzia, Moldova. Gagauzia is a Russian-speaking region in the south of the country whose population is largely wary of forming relationships with the EU. My mission was to teach grade-school English while also making sincere relationships with as many people as possible in order to help change the area’s negative perceptions of America and the EU.

The weight of that social responsibility, and the lasting effects it might have on the future security and well-being of both the U.S. and Moldova, was keenly felt all throughout my Fulbright grant term. While studying abroad in Russia on the Gilman, I also felt the need to represent America in positive ways, but not nearly to such a serious degree. My main focus during my Gilman scholarship was studying the Russian language at Moscow State University and developing an appreciation for Russian culture via scheduled, chaperoned excursions to landmarks, galleries, churches, and theaters. I also had lots of spare time to explore Moscow on my own and live the wanderlust life of a nearly carefree traveler.

In Moldova on the Fulbright, however, I was expected to not only plan and lead English classes for several grave levels, but also use my spare time to form those lasting relationships that will hopefully inspire positive change within the country. I accomplished this by creating Spanish, English tutoring, and American film clubs at my local American Corner and by leading an all-girl, touring group of singer-activists who dedicated performances to female empowerment and interculturalism. Very little time was left over for sight-seeing and leisure.

In addition to purpose, living situations and quality of life were also very different. With the Gilman, I stayed in a shared dorm suite with another American from my university. Native Russian scholars also lived on the same floor, and we would spend some evenings practicing our Russian with them and getting to know more about them (and them us!). Anything we could possibly need could be found at the local 24 hour supermarket, which was a ten minute walk down beautiful, tree and monument-lined roads.

In Moldova, my husband and I rented a portion of a private home that was a twenty five minute walk away from an outdoor bazaar that was only open until 4:00pm. To get to the bazaar, we had to traverse dirt roads that changed with the seasons from the thick, sticky mud of spring to winter’s slippery ice. Eventually, we would reach the main road, once paved long ago, but now a stretch of endless potholes due to decades of neglect. In fact, major roads in Moldova are so out of order that travel time anywhere in the country is guaranteed to be very long and very bumpy. So drastic is the difference between the marshrutka (bus) rides in Moldova and travel in most other developed countries that our return to the U.S. saw my husband and I literally gasping over the smoothness of the asphalt of the highways!

Relationships were different as well. We had neighbors all around us in Gagauzia, and we made very deep friendships with two families who, in contrast to the Russian university students, spoke hardly any English. Despite this hurdle, my husband and I formed deep bonds with these neighbors, and will forever consider them to be our lifelong friends. While I made acquaintances in Russia on my Gilman, I wasn’t there long enough to forge the kind of connections that are possible only with time. In Moldova, such time was granted to me to share with some of the kindest people anyone could ever hope to meet. Whenever anyone asks me to tell them about what makes Moldova special, I always mention the people and their warmth first.

I would never be able to speak about Moldova and its people at all though, had it not been for the Gilman. The scholarship was significant in that it helped me prepare for my Fulbright by providing the monetary means to study and experience the language and culture of Russia and its surrounding countries by proxy. With the Gilman, I was able to afford to have a study abroad experience that provided a powerful foundation upon which to construct my Fulbright goals.

So positive have my experiences been with the Gilman and the Fulbright that it is now my hope and dream to continue serving my country abroad through foreign service. I am currently weighing my options for entry, and it is with great excitement that I very proudly serve as a Gilman Alumni Ambassador in the interim! 

P.P.S. To read more about my Fulbright application process and experiences, check out my Fulbright blog at https://fulbrightmoldova.wordpress.com

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