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