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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Rynek

Adapting to my new home is an ongoing process and each day brings a little more comfort and self assurance that I haven’t jumped into the metaphorical deep end and forgotten how to swim. Wrocław is full of hidden gems, whether you’re looking for a quiet café, bustling nightlife, or a casual visit to the city zoo. Of all of the sights that the city of gnomes and bridges has to offer, however, my favorite has to be the Rynek. Translated literally, the term means “market” and to say that Wrocław is the only city in Poland that has a rynek district would be untrue, but here the Ryenk is so much more than just a market square; it’s a barometer of culture and community unity. The journey to my favorite Polish site begins by descending the front steps of Dwudziestoaltka, my student dormitory that my friends and I have resorted to calling “the one that starts with ‘d’,” as none of us have quite mastered its pronunciation. I then await the traffic light as the bustling traffic careens through the crowded “rondo Ronalda Reagana” (Ronald Reagan Roundabout). It is here I will board the tram that will take me away from whatever has been stressing me on any given day, so long as I board one that is taking the correct route, but that’s a story for another time.

When the silence of the train ride is finally broken by a disembodied voice bellowing, “Świdnicka!”signifying my stop, I disembark the tram in time to see the large weekend crowd begin to flood the cobblestone square that is my beloved Rynek. Some are students, making their way to the various pubs and discos that has come to symbolize Erasmus (the European equivalent of study abroad) life, while others are locals seeking a release from a long week. Performers begin to fill the street, attempting to captivate an audience long enough to earn a couple extra Złote. One man sings the Foo Fighter’s “Everlong” to those passing by, another juggles fire in the air precariously, and an elderly woman begins setting up her night market, consisting primarily of flowers, mushroom caps, and other seasonal goodies. It never ceases to amaze me how so many activities can be undertaken in the embrace of the Ryenk, surrounded by the pastel shaded baroque buildings, whose lights begin to flicker as night falls and the autumn temperatures plummet to a brisk 40 degrees. Plates piled high with Kielbasa sausages, pierogi, and other traditional Polish foods are delivered to diners eagerly awaiting their meals followed by the utterance of, “Smacznego!” (Bon Appetite).

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Music from the discos and pubs fills the streets, some of which is surprisingly familiar. A band in the Irish pub across the square plays Johnny Cash, a popular student venue blares anything from the top American hits to Jennifer Lopez’s “Jenny from the Block,” causing me to smirk to myself as I venture further into the methodical madness that is the Wrocław Rynek. Long after the chaos of the night has subsided, though, the Rynek demonstrates its calmer side as dawn breaks and the nightly regulars shuffle home and, in their place, the morning shift takes over. The cafes that had been shuttered for the evening again come alive offering croissants and espresso, usually to be enjoyed outside in the crisp morning air as the temperature now begins to make its gentle rise to the daily high of 65 degrees. Construction workers return to continue maintenance on this historic district and expand the jewel of Wrocław.

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The Rynek takes many forms and moods, its versatility being one the characteristics I love so dearly about it. No matter your mood, you can find something here that suits you. For me, though, this place is so much more. It’s not simply a commercial district, but a place where I get to share memories and experiences with the people I met only weeks ago, and now couldn’t imagine my life without. It’s where I experienced my first meal in Poland, discussed cinema, politics, and cultural similarities with numerous acquaintances that grew into friends, and where celebrated my first birthday outside of the United States, will see my first Christmas markets, and take my family when they come to visit me in my home away from home. The Rynek is the heart of Wrocław and a piece of me will stay here long after my studies finish in June.

 

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The Stereotype: Own It. Share It.

Everyone knows that one person whose life was changed so much by studying abroad that they can’t stop talking about it, sharing their pictures, and relating everything back to their international experience… even though it was years ago. If you have studied abroad, you are probably one of the people adding to this stereotype. But don’t stop! Hearing about how influential, eye-opening, and amazing your personal experience was helps to motivate those that may not have considered an international education before.

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As a Gilman Scholar I spent two semesters living and studying in Lyon, France (plus a summer travel spree to visit new friends around Europe, because I couldn’t bare to return home before my Visa absolutely made me). Was moving to France scary and overwhelming? Yes. Did I speak French? No. Did I survive and thrive? You betcha! And the entire time I kept thinking to my self “Other students don’t know what they are missing!” The connections I was making were priceless, the education I was receiving was top notch, and the cultural competencies that I was gaining will help me in every part of my life moving forward.

So how do you share this with the world? Talk people’s ears off, share your photos, and attribute your success stories to your time abroad. Being a Gilman Scholar is about so much more than just receiving a one-time scholarship. It is a chance to go somewhere new, learn something new, and reap the amazing benefits in your future life and career. It’s also your duty to share this with others.

As a Gilman Ambassador (for life, as I will never want to stop talking about the Gilman), I aim to share and inspire people to go abroad in any way that I can. While most people have heard of the Fulbright, the Gilman needs a little extra push into popularity. Have you spoken with someone who is concerned about the financial aspect of studying abroad? Recommend the Gilman! Their Home University doesn’t have a large international learning office and they need extra information and support? Recommend the Gilman! They want to study an amazing but rare topic that traditional department scholarships don’t cover? Recommend the Gilman. Tell them that the possibilities with the Gilman are endless, and watch their eyes get wide with excitement.

Not only do I want to share  how the Gilman provides an opportunity to study abroad, I also try to focus on how it provides a vast network of alumni, resources, and experiences upon your return. If there is one absolute takeaway that I can highlight from my experience, it’s the ability to network. You have to make new friends abroad, interact with your professors, meet locals, etc. These are all things that increase your ability to network, and let me tell you, life is all about your ability to network. You never know who you will meet and how they will propel your life forward. The ability to confidently approach a new person, make a connection, and maintain a relationship will help in your personal and professional life immensely. I landed my first Job in the private sector of Washington D.C. a month before graduation by attending an absolutely random dinner party with a friend of a friends co-workers, and net-working my way to a job referral. Boom. Networking, just do it.

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I am still (and will forever be) one of those people that never stops raving about their time abroad, because it completely changed my life, and continues to open new doors and possibilities. Everyone deserves the opportunity to study internationally, and if my ranting and raving inspires even one more person to pursue studying abroad, then the stereotype has done some good.

Cheers and happy travels!

Eris

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Playing Lady Capulet

If I could only give one piece of advice to those studying abroad it would be: do what scares you.  Cliché as that sounds, when you are studying abroad it is tempting to curl up into your shell and stick to a basic routine. Whether you are dealing with culture shock or not, doing new things all the time can be exhausting. You have to remind yourself to continue pushing your boundaries and completely eliminate any comfort zone you’ve been sticking too. What that means for each person is different. For me, it meant waltzing through the doors to the theater department to audition for the fall play.

I have awful stage fright, I have since I was a young girl. Three years of speech and debate taught me how to become a public speaker, but I have never been able to transfer that same confidence to acting. Auditioning was a spur of the moment decision that left me stranded in a sea of nervousness standing in front of a slender British woman who was the image of dignity and poise. Before I knew what was happening I was reading a selection of “Romeo and Juliet” with one of the other people auditioning. I struggled to radiate confidence while simultaneously steadying my trembling hands,  somehow conveying the deep angst felt by Juliet in the balcony scene.

I left feeling proud of myself but that was only the beginning of my semester long experience. When I came back two days later to look at the final list of those that had made it, I reread the list at least three times. I had made it as Juliet’s mother, Lady Capulet.

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I didn’t know what to expect walking into the first practice. Thankfully, from the first read through, I felt immediately accepted into the fantastic group of actors and actresses. Some have more experience than others, but we all have bonded over being in the play together. Having to practice together for several hours every week we got to know one another and I finally could making friends outside of the exchange students. Dimah, an Emirati student who plays Juliet (Lady Capulet’s daughter) in the play, is now one of my closest friends here. She is my bridge to the local culture, a guide to the region and an Arabic conversation partner.

Because I took a risk and did something I would never do at university back home, I made friends in a way I never would have been able to through classes. Breaking the ice with local students is incredibly difficult, both sides are normally to nervous. Join a club, a sports team, or a drama group! Take a chance. The rewards are worth it.

 

 

 

 

 

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Three Eye-Opening Differences of Living in Japan

As cliché as it is, it’s quite true that you never know what you have until it’s gone. I knew Japan was going to be drastically different than the US, and I thought I was ready, but in reality, I wasn’t.

Here’s a list of the top three things I took for granted the most and how they have affected me in Japan.

1. COMMUNICATION ISSUES

I knew my Japanese wasn’t the best, but I’ve been studying it for two years, that’s going to get me pretty far, right? Wrong. I feel like a grown baby. Reading and writing is one thing, but speaking and listening is another. My host parents have to say every sentence slowly and clearly using grade-school-level vocabulary and grammar in order for me to understand them. Even then, it’s still a toss up whether or not I’ll be able to answer their question.

The biggest issue with communication, however,  is knowing that there are hundreds of Japanese people around me at any one time, and I can’t speak to any of them. Sure, some speak English, but they’re usually either 1) too shy to use it or 2) it’s the same level as my Japanese and gets us nowhere. The language barrier is a huge hurdle and something I underestimated coming to Japan and took for granted in the US. On the bright side, it has inspired me to work harder at learning the language so that I will, someday, be able to have a full conversation in Japanese.

2. TRANSPORATION

How could transportation be an issue? Japan is known for its extensive railway system that works by utilizing some sort of wizardry. While this is true,  a 40 minute commute to campus every day isn’t something I’ve ever experienced. In the US, I lived a 3 minute bike ride from my first class. That’s a huge change. And if 40 minutes isn’t long enough, what makes it even longer is having to stand the entire time because the train is so crowded there aren’t any seats. Not only are you standing, but if it’s during peak hours, you’re most likely pressed against five other people. Talk about lack of personal space.

This is a photo of Shinjuku Station in Shinjuku, a special ward in central Tokyo, at 4pm. It’s not even rush hour, yet there’s tons of people.

3. FOOD

I came to Japan knowing that I was extremely picky when it comes to food. If you live on your own, this won’t be an issue, since you can get just about every type of food here; however, I chose to live with a host family for my first semester. That means I have to eat all kinds of food, even if I don’t like it. Not only do I not want to be rude, but I genuinely do want to try every type of food I can, and while there have been a few meals I could have done without, most have been delicious. Still, I wish I could walk three minutes to the dining hall to get a burger and fries.

This is what a typical dinner looks like, little brother’s arm included.

Even though these difficulties have risen since arriving here exactly one month ago, there are even more fantastic things I love about Japan. I’ve gotten to meet a lot of great people from around the world, and have become close friends with many of the students in my program.

This is a photo of most of the students in my program during our day trip to Kamakura.

In addition to this, having a campus in the middle of one of the largest cities in the world is absolutely incredible. The campus isn’t very large, but the buildings are tall and allow for excellent views like this:

This is a view from a sixth floor terrace. This is my favorite place thus far to study or hang out.

These three difficulties have had a great impact on me since I arrived, but I’m adapting as time passes. Japan has been amazing so far, but as with any great change in life, there are both ups and downs. I’m greatly looking forward to riding this roller coaster for the next 10 months.

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Chance in Japan – Gilman Introduction

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For the Adventure of Being Alive!

“I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love—for your dreams—for the adventure of being alive” – Oriah Mountain Dreamer

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For the adventure of being alive!

As a person, I’m someone who thrives on adventure and change. In my friend group, I’m the one who suggests spontaneous trips to unusual places or signs us all up for lessons from a West-African drumming ensemble. Why live a boring life when you can live an exciting one? Why stick with the familiar when you can experience something new?

And it is this driving curiosity and love of life that drove me to pack my solitary blue suitcase and go study in St. Petersburg, Russia for the fall semester of my senior year.

Upon first arrival, everything was in some shape or form of “Wow!” The pastel colored buildings, the lump of loose coins you receive in change after buying a bottle of water, the intimidatingly beautiful Russian women speed walking long distances in towering stilettos, the stray dogs who wander the city and bark at things… Every moment and every step felt empowering from being able to talk about my day with my host mom to negotiating a cell phone contract in Russian.

Of course there are the demoralizing moments as well like trying to buy theater tickets for a show that you are convinced is in August but is actually in September or when you mix up your words so badly in Russian that the store attendant mutters “иностранцы” (foreigners) and literally just gives up on you. But, I think the embarrassing experiences are also just as empowering as the good ones because they, as a mother might say to an unwilling child, “build character.”

After lying on the floor of my acting class pretending to be a glue monster in front of twenty Russian students or being yelled at by a security guard after accidentally walking in through the exit of the metro, I’m pretty sure my sense of self can survive anything.

There’s still a constant feeling that no matter what you do, you’re probably doing something wrong, which can be paralyzing, but then at the same time—freeing.

Mistakes are ok.

Mistakes are ok.

Mistakes are ok.

This is the mantra my perfectionist self has been muttering to itself throughout college, and I think there is no better and immediate way to realize this statement than through study abroad. One month into my study abroad adventure, I realize that it’s very easy to stay at home, settle into your routine, do what is comfortable, and avoid the uncomfortable. Here, in Russia, often times necessity thrusts you into the uncomfortable. You can’t just go without water or completely avoid public transport, and thus you take a deep breath, gather the few words you know, and try your best.

Talking to my friends who are also in the study abroad group, I think we all are experiencing culture shock similarly but in stride. As one friend said, “all the things I miss are easily rectifiable.” No public trash cans? Re-use and throw away less stuff. Can’t drink the tap water? Head to the store or fill a bottle from home. Feeling overwhelmed by the city? Take the электричка (a train that goes to the suburbs) out of the city and stroll around a park.

Thus, I think those of us who are adjusting best are perhaps the ones who come in with the least amount of expectations. Life just is and you never know what will happen next.

This past week, we celebrated our one month of living here quietly, as in we didn’t even realize one month went by until our host moms pointed it out to us at dinner.

“I feel like I can get around and do what I need to do.”

“I feel like I live here now.”

“I feel like my vocabulary has doubled.”

“I finally have Russian friends.”

These are all things we can say now as we successfully navigate parts of the city without Google Maps or order food with no “surprise” words or requests from the waiters or converse freely with our host parents and 1-month in, hey, I guess that’s pretty good!

There’s still so many things left to do—I still have to go to the Hermitage, buy my balalaika and figure out some folk tunes, learn to cook blini, and hunt for mushrooms at my host mother’s dacha but those things will come. One month in, I have the confidence and the perspective to be able to pursue my goals and experience my upcoming life in Russia to its fullest extent.

Adventure is my spirit, and I look forward to see where the ball rolls next.

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