Reflections, part 2: “Uncomfortable, but not paralyzed”

So, I just submitted my Fulbright final report. I thought you might like to see my reflections on what the experience has meant for me, on a personal and professional level. If you do, read on.

My Fulbright experience has already transformed my personal and professional life, and I expect it to continue to do so in the years to come. A professor I know writes on his syllabus that he wants to make his students “uncomfortable but not paralyzed.” I found this to be a great summation of how we learn through challenging ourselves, and I have subsequently used it with my own students. It also provides an apt summary of my Fulbright experience in Hungary.

On a personal level, living and working in a foreign country for almost six months has been both challenging and transformative. I have traveled quite a bit internationally in the past ten years or so, but I quickly found out that living in a foreign country is a very different thing than a two-week tourist visit. I had not quite anticipated the depth of loneliness of living among people whose first language is not your own. I went a few weeks early to get settled in Szeged before I had to start teaching, and the first weeks seeing the sights and finding my way around were not so different from my previous experiences. The Fulbright orientation in Budapest was wonderful, and I got to meet the other Fulbright scholars, but of course none of them were living in my town. After this the loneliness of missing family and friends set in. My colleagues were wonderful and helpful, but they were busy and didn’t have as much time to socialize as I did. I spent my time preparing for class and teaching, but that wasn’t sufficient to fill my time. This forced me to find ways to keep busy and learn more about Hungary and its culture. I attended lectures by visiting scholars, and made contacts (which in some cases led to later speaking invitations). I also started attending a couple of Hungarian language courses, to try to learn more of this difficult language, and I also sat in on a cultural geography course. Although I could only attend the classes sporadically, they did help me to feel somewhat more comfortable. I hit a low point after a visit from my sister about six weeks in; I don’t think I have ever felt quite as homesick as when she left. Amazingly, however, after a couple of days, it passed.

Having surmounted this hurdle, I began to enjoy the rest of my time even more. I made more overtures to colleagues and made a few good friends, whom I will continue to correspond with and visit. I sought out and took on speaking engagements, both to university audiences and to high school (and even middle school) students. I kept myself busy preparing for classes and for invited lectures, and I got to travel a bit around the country and the region. The outings sponsored by the Hungarian Fulbright Commission were great occasions to see more of the country and visit with the other Fulbrighters. I spent some time in Budapest, one of my absolute favorite cities. I came to love walking to work through the city of Szeged, and to take for granted the magnificent architecture I passed daily. Did I become fluent in Hungarian? Of course not. Did I never feel lonely again? No. But I learned enough Hungarian to manage, and I became comfortable living in Szeged. I came to appreciate the warmth of the Hungarian people, who are some of the most hospitable I’ve met, and I made a few very good friends along the way, which is saying a lot. In October I was glad that I hadn’t gotten the year in Hungary that I had applied for, but by the time I left I was back to wishing that I had that full year. Above all, I learned that I could meet the challenge of living in a foreign country. I certainly do not intend this to be my last time doing so, nor do I expect it to be my last time in Hungary.

The Fulbright has been just as transformative for my professional life. I anticipated forming some sort of partnership between my university and the University of Szeged, and I believe this will happen. I have already begun working with my International Education Director, and my colleagues in Szeged have been working on their end. We are working towards developing a Memorandum of Understanding between the two universities, which could also include some faculty exchanges. In addition to semester or year long study abroad experiences, I intend to develop a short term summer course that will bring students to the University of Szeged (with a trip to Budapest) to study Hungarian culture, particularly focusing perhaps on its amazing architecture. I have already begun working on this as well. Beyond these institutional activities, the Fulbright experience will have an impact on my teaching and research. I revamped my lectures for the undergraduate course, focusing particularly on fuller explanation of American historical context for the holidays I was teaching about. Given the varying backgrounds of Fredonia students, including the increasing number of international students there, I believe the techniques I have learned will be useful for improving my instruction in this and other introductory level courses at Fredonia. My experience in Hungary introduced me as well to a very different university system and policies than that of the United States, particularly when it comes to teaching hours, grading, and examination schedules. This taught me to be more flexible as an instructor. I came to understand the value of oral examinations, although I also have a newfound appreciation for U.S. examination scheduling!

Although it is far from my area of research expertise, I am also drawing on my experience in Hungary for a paper for an upcoming conference in Latin American Studies. Living in Hungary during the height of the migrant crisis last fall, I was struck by parallels between Hungarian and American attitudes toward immigrants and refugees, as well as border protection (particularly on the U.S./Mexican border). I will be presenting a paper in Cartagena, Colombia in March that considers some of these parallels and what they suggest about national responses to global mass migrations. Despite my lack of expertise, I felt compelled to wrestle with this question. If the paper is well received, it will perhaps lead to a publication. So once again, the Fulbright experience has forced me to move outside my comfort level.

In conclusion, I am so grateful to have received this Fulbright scholarship. I hope to become a Fulbright scholar again one day, whether as an “expert” or as a teaching scholar. I am already on a mission to push both colleagues and students to apply for Fulbrights. I have suggested it to several students, including members of my extended family as well as a former student who is in graduate school. A good number of Fredonia faculty members have been Fulbright scholars, but I am not sure that any students have. I plan to become a strong advocate on the Fredonia campus for the program, and particularly hope to increase the number of students who apply for the scholarships. An inveterate traveler before my Fulbright, I have become a firm believer in the value of the extended intercultural exchanges the Fulbright program makes possible. I only wish that I had applied for my first Fulbright earlier in my career, but I am comforted by the knowledge that one can still apply after retiring, too!

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