How my Fulbright opened the opportunity for a PhD in the USA

Dear Friends, Fulbrighters and those interested in studying in the USA!

It’s been a while since I blogged. My Fulbright experience came to an end last May 2014, I had to say goodbye to the wonderful Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University and Peabody! With a sad heart I had to leave the new formed friendships, but my USA adventure did not come to an end at all! To answer the request of the Belgian Fulbright Program, I want to share with you how I managed to continue my academical career in the USA.

Beginning in 2014, after talks with a couple of professors at Johns Hopkins, I started to realize that my research project had the potential to be acknowledged by researchers at certain universities in the US. My year at Hopkins also taught me about the American grad-school model and I felt it suited me a lot, both intellectually and personally. What I appreciate most are the seminar system and the interdisciplinary approach. For all these reasons I decided that I wanted to make a shot at staying longer in the USA. The only way to achieve this goal was to apply for a PhD program. This was not an easy task. Applications for Grad Schools ask a lot of preparation, testing and networking. For every application I had to provide a “Statement of Purpose”, a text which describes my personal and intellectual background and the first outlines of a research project. Besides that, I had to provide 3 to 4 reference letters from professors who knew my work. I was very fortunate that my professors from the KU Leuven and Hopkins where willing to help me with these letters. On top of that I had to provide most of my applications with test scores for an English proficiency test (TOEFL) and the GRE-exam. A time and money consuming pain, but necessary.

In March the rejection and acceptance letters started to come in, and in May I decided to say “yes” to the PhD program in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emory University. One of the oldest Women’s Studies doctoral programs in the world (http://wgss.emory.edu/home/index.html)! A PhD in the USA is very different from a PhD in Belgium. First of all, it will take me op to 5 or 6 years to complete the program. The first 2 years I’ll have to go back to class, take exams and write papers. I will also be expected to be a research assistant for one of the professors of my program. By my third year, I will start teaching as a teaching assistant. That year, I will also have to do my ‘comprehensive exams’. This means that I will have to read 2 lists of about 30 books, and I will get one week to fill in a written exam about these books. The fourth year I will defend my prospectives or research project. The last 2 to 3 years I will work on my dissertation.

It is Winter break now, and my first semester is behind me. It was a hell of a ride. And I’m happy to be home with my family in Belgium to recharge. Reading complicated philosophical texts, and writing on a Grad Student level in a language that is not your own, is definitely a challenge. Sometimes I’m shy during the seminar discussions, but that is starting to go away. It is not easy and I know that I’m making a lot of sacrifices, but I keep reminding myself why I’m doing this. I believe in my project, I believe in the added value of a PhD degree. And in difficult or lonely days, I remind myself how lucky I am. This is an expensive school, we have a huge library and lot’s of resources and I got the opportunity to get paid to study about the topics that fascinate me!

If you are somebody who wants to study in the USA, go for your dream! It is possible, if you show that you have a lot of willpower and creativity. If any of you have questions about Fulbright or doing a PhD in the USA, please feel free to contact me!

Best wishes and a Happy 2015!

Stephanie Koziej

Miami, Culture Shock and the Moon

Leaving for an unknown country can be scary, but Fulbright takes care of it’s students. Before embarking for my studious life at the Johns Hopkins University, I got invited to a ‘Fulbright Gateway Orientation Seminar’ in Miami from August the 19th until August the 23th 2013. Let me tell you why this was such a valuable experience.

 

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We where a group of about 70 students, from 42 countries, specialized in all sorts of disciplines: medicine, arts, humanities, engineering, …  It was a crazy eclectic mix – as I like it the best! The professors who coordinated this seminar where welcoming and encouraging. A lot of us – like me – had never been to the U.S. before, let alone to study at one of it’s universities. Most of us where therefore scared. Scared that we wouldn’t be smart enough to get trough school, afraid that we wouldn’t fit in this new culture.  The lectures where mostly designed to reassure us that we could, by giving us some ‘tools’ to work trough these paralyzing and destructive fears.

 

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One of those tools was making us familiar with what are called The 4 Stages of Cultural Adjustment. Put briefly: First you are exhilarated, excited and fascinated with everything new. You are so grateful for this new adventure that you want to say ‘yes’ to everything, engage yourself in every opportunity that presents itself to you: you want to take EVERY class that looks interesting, read EVERY book your prof mentions, be in EVERY student organization, go to EVERY party or concert, get to know EVERY new person you meet. You are in the Honeymoon Stage. But slowly you shift into a darker stage: you where too enthusiastic, now the limits of time are creeping up on you, and you start disappointing others and yourself; you realize you need twice as much time as your fellow students to read this book, you need twice as much time to prepare a paper; the limits of your language skills start to show; your professors may think you’re lazy, when in fact your trying to be respectful, humble and polite; you feel misunderstood. You’re in the Hostility Stage. It’s rough, you feel alone and weak. You miss home, but you don’t want to allow it. The feeling that you NEED to enjoy every moment, because you should be grateful for this opportunity, only makes it worst. When you stop punishing yourself with high expectations, you start to tumble in the Acceptance and Integration Stage. Trough trial and error you are figuring out how this U.S. (academic) culture functions, you’ve learned the unwritten rules of how to interact with your professors, peers, bus-drivers and banker. You give your first presentation and the professor is impressed. Your fellow students tell you how much they like your questions in class. You ask professors for help about finding your way in the chaotic jungle of grad school applications, and they invite you in their office, take you out for a beer or sit with you outside on a bench in a park. You push yourself to ask them for recommendation letters, and you get them. You apply for graduate school without compromising your research interests, and you get accepted! Slowly you enter the last stage, the Home Stage. You discover how your housemates became a new family, you go to the conservatory and make music, you create and flourish, you discover and develop aspects of your personality that you couldn’t develop in your home country, you make life-lasting friends, you’re truly and deeply happy!

When this theory got presented to me, these where only words and I was skeptical. If I had written this blog-entry at the time of the conference, what was the beginning of my stay here in the U.S., I probably wouldn’t even have mentioned it. Now, 8 months later, I can say that I crawled, struggled, walked and danced trough all these stages. When it got difficult it helped me to believe that I wasn’t alone, that I wasn’t weak or weird, but that a lot of people go through these ‘stages’ and that they aren’t permanent.

 

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But let me return to my Gateway Orientation Seminar. I have a lot of beautiful memories about that trip, but what stayed the closest with me is the evening when we went to Nikki Beach, where we had American BBQ and swam under the full moon! I felt so small in that big ocean, under the huge moon. Although we where all so different, came from so many different corners of the world, spoke so many different languages, we were all full of similar expectations and dreams. We where all driven by the similar belief that continuing our education in the U.S. would bring us closer to our goals.

After the weekend we all went our different ways, but tomorrow I will meet some of them again, at another Fulbright seminar in Philadelphia. I am curious to hear about their story!

 

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[please feel free to leave a comment bellow, Dutch or English, it doesn’t matter]

In my mansarde*

In my previous post I shared the story of how The Rosenthal Family welcomed me into their home. But this was of course only a temporary solution. It was necessary for me to find a permanent home, and I found it in the cozy and green neighborhood near my Campus: Oakenshaw.

When it comes to making important decision, I am a very anxious person. Deciding where to live for one whole year, knowing that it will influence my every day life in this once in a life time America-experience, would normally have paralyzed me. But when Rolande opened the door of her house for me, and showed me around, I knew right away that I could be happy here. The house is a typical Baltimore house. It has a little garden and wooden porch in the front of the house. I would live on the top-floor, under the roof. I always wanted to live in a mansarde*, closer to the moon!

Rolande is an artist from Paris, who moved to the US in the 70-ies. She decorated her house in authentic bohemian style; carpets, sofa’s, artwork, books and pictures make it warm and incredibly homy.  The old-fashioned kitchen reminded me of my grandmothers place, and the basement is used as a laundry room and sewing-studio. Before she retired, Rolande was a costume designer. She worked for the Centre Stage – Baltimore’s own Theatre – and later on became the personal costume designer for all John Waters’ movies, starting from Hairspray. She worked with Johnny Depp, Tom Cruise, Richard Gere and Julia Roberts (only to mention a couple). She also designed the costumes for other movies, like Runaway Bride or Minority Report. Right now she works on a graphic novel of Walter Benjamin. She transformed one of the rooms into an art-studio, where she draws pictures and writes about his life.

Next to art, the house is full of different cultures, and most importantly, warm family-like love. Since our very first conversation, Rolande became like a mother figure to me.  She is wise and lived a very interesting life. We often talk about life, art and love. Recently she told me how I am like a daughter to her. There are no stronger words to describe the love that developed between us. Now you can understand why this house became a real home to me, and I didn’t even get started about my other housemates!

During my  first semester, we shared the house with two other tenants: Amritha from India and Cetin from Turkey. Aristotle wrote that an essential feature of the highest form of friendship is living together and improving each other in this companionship. I agree completely. Our doors where always open for each other. Cetin is an intelligent politician, who always found the right words (not necessarily the easiest words) to help me trough rough times and help me make tough decisions. And Amritha is the little sister I didn’t know I wished for. She learned me about Indian ways of being in the world, she made me proud when she got a job, and told me about Sarasweti and how we don’t have to chose between knowledge and music (in my case: being a philosopher or a singer).

This second semester Pierre moved in, another Fulbrighter from Belgium, Liège. It is crazy to think about the fact that we only lived 20 minutes from each other in Belgium, but that we had to cross an ocean to meet eachother. It is good to have a bit of Belgium in the house, it makes it feel even more like home. When you live far from your family and friends, far from the life you’ve build up for 27 years, it is important to find a warm and safe environment. It influences your everyday life, your whole being and your professional achievements too. Coming back, after a long day of work to a Home, in stead of a Cold Room, makes a huge difference. For many other reasons, this year in Baltimore has been a wonderful experience, but one of the foundations is this house and it’s inhabitants. And I am grateful, everyday!

 

Some illustrations:

 

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1) a selfie with Rolande, Cetin, Amritha and me to celebrate Amritha’s job!

2)Amritha and me in Sarri

3)Our bohemian living room

4)Amritha and me making pumpkin soup

5)Ready to go to an Indian dance party in DC to celebrate Holi

6) celebration dinner when I got the news I got accepted for the Grad Program at Emory

 

[feel free to leave a comment below, in English or Dutch, it doesn’t matter!]

 

* mansarde is French for attic room

My arrival in the US – Meeting the Rosenthals!

After 8 and a half hours of flying, I arrived in Philadelphia.  A lay-over of 5 hours and a flight of 20 minutes later, I finally arrived in Baltimore.  I just came off the plane and was still looking for my suitcases – and there she was, Anne Rosenthal. Now you’ll ask me:  “Wait, you had someone to pick you up at the airport?”  Yup, let me explain you how that came about.

When I was back home in Tongeren, I started looking for housing in Baltimore.  Now we all know that Baltimore hasn’t such a great reputation when it comes to safety (cfr. The wire).  I was quit skeptical to sign a lease-contract before I had a chance to see the place and inspect the neighborhood.   But where was I going to stay the first days I would arrive?  And where did I have to go with all my stuff?

I put my neck out and posted on the official Linkedin Fulbright group that I was a girl from Belgium, looking for a place in Baltimore, and if someone could help me with some information.   Anne responded to my post.  Anne was an American Fulbrighter from Baltimore, who studied in Brussels, 2 years ago.  She offered to pick me up at the airport and to let me stay at her and her parents’ house, until I found permanent housing.

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Staying with Anne and her family was the best thing that could happen to me. I didn’t feel homesick for 1 second.  When I arrived at her place, there was a Belgian flag hanging above the room where I would sleep; there where flowers next to my bed and Belgian beer-cards.  Her parents Suzy and Dave were so incredibly warm and nice, that it was difficult to believe how they could be so hospitable towards a complete stranger like me.  The first night Suzy made us chicken, potatoes, corn and ratatouille and Anne specially bought soy-ice-cream for me, because I had told her that I was lactose intolerant.   Well, I think you all get the picture: I felt very welcome!

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I know that I will take a lot of great experiences back to Belgium with me, once this US adventure is over, but one of them is definitely the welcoming warmth of the Rosenthals. (And this honestly counts for most of the Americans I meet!)  I know that I will do the same one day: host international students.  Because now I know how a warm welcoming family makes you feel when you are about to embark for an unknown life, one ocean apart from al the people you know and cherish.  The Rosenthal family made me feel home, made me feel part of their family.  They prevented me from falling in a cold and black whole, because like I mentioned in my previous blog, I didn’t feel ready to leave it all behind.

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In the days to come Anne took me everywhere in her car.  We went to look for a place for me to live; we went to buy me a phone and a phone-plan; she showed me the city, the harbor and the cozy spots where students hang out… Of course she also took me to my campus: the Johns Hopkins Homewood Campus, where in 2 weeks the serious business would take place!

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[feel free to leave a comment below, in English or Dutch, it doesn’t matter!]

Leaving for the USA

More then 5 moths ago – on Tuesday March the 19th to be precise – I received an email that would drastically change my life:

Dear Ms. Koziej,

Congratulations! You were selected as a Fulbright Belgium grantee.  

For those of you who aren’t familiar, Fullbright is a scholarship that enables students or researchers from almost all over the world to experience one (or more) years of study or research at a North American university.  The university of my choice was Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, famous for it’s medical school and being the forerunner of the modern research university in the United States. I was particularly interested in their Humanities Centre and their Intellectual History program. Most American universities are horribly expensive, so you basically need a scholarship to finance this intellectual experience!  That’s why I took a shot at the Fulbright… and I couldn’t believe my eyes when I got the news.

Preparing for my American adventure was exciting. The best experience was definitely the farewell reception at the US embassy in Brussels. Here, we could exchange our questions, fears, and excitement with the other Belgian scholars who where going to the United States. We also had the opportunity to meet the Fulbright board, some Fulbright alumni, and of course the former US ambassador Howard Gutman. On that night, I realized that Fulbright is much more than a financial aid, but rather a network of people with similar goals, despite different backgrounds and fields of work. They share the belief that knowledge and education can lead to a better world. For those of you who share this dream to study in the US, I wholeheartedly advise you to apply for the scholarship. In this movie, you hear me explain why you shouldn’t be afraid to try:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KvQIKb_jbvc.

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I booked my ticket: the 13th of August was going to be the day! Before that, I had to say goodbye to my friends and family of course!  My boyfriend Oskar helped me trow a goodbye party.  It was a beautiful evening, on the hottest day of  summer.  It was a bitter-sweet night with friends, drinks, music and a lot of hugs and some tears.

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My departure came closer and closer.  I have to admit that I had a lot of troubles grasping that I would leave for one year.  I became conscious of all the “last things”: last time going to the butcher, last time eating my mom’s soup, and last time walking in my hometown’s streets.  And when it came to packing my bags or looking for housing in Baltimore, I found myself procrastinating.  Everyone around me kept mentioning my departure, but it wouldn’t get trough – I wasn’t ready.  I was afraid to leave my comfort zone, my boyfriend, friends and family.  I felt reluctant to leave this all behind and step into the unknown.  For the first time in years, I felt really at home, rooted, not restless any longer.   Was I really deliberately going to step on an airplane and leave this all behind?

The 13th came sooner than expected.  There I was, at the airport of Brussels with my 2 suitcases, leaving for my adventure.  It felt so surreal, like I wasn’t fully conscious of the reason why I was here.  My brother, mom and dad where with me and when I walked trough the gate and looked behind as they waved me goodbye, it finally hit me.  I cried briefly.  I felt frightened and alone.  But only seconds later, I sighed and said to myself, “now it’s time to proof yourself Stephanie!”  The sadness and fear made place for excitement and eagerness.  I had this “American dream” since I was 8 years old, and I was going to live it, and take everything I could out of it!

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[feel free to leave a comment below, in English or Dutch, it doesn’t matter!]