Have you ever watched the TV show “Portlandia?” If you have, you’ll know what makes this city so special. For many people, Portland is the city of roses, food carts, beer, and coffee lovers, but it’s also the cycling capital of the United States. Riding my bike around Portland during my year as a Fulbright Foreign Student made me a part of one of the city’s most interesting subcultures. Besides getting to know the Portland area better than many locals, bike racing took me to places as far away as Idaho and Montana, but most importantly, it helped me gain a true cultural experience.
When it comes to cycling, Portlanders have come close to achieving their semi-official goal of “Keeping Portland Weird.” From riding unicycles, to the “World Naked Bike Ride,” cycling is much more than a means of commuting; it is a way of life. Thus, Portland State University (PSU) was a perfect match for me. With my Fulbright grant, I studied political science focusing on American foreign policy. In addition, I worked for the PSU mentor program, which partnered me with a university sophomore to teach general study skills and promote collaborative learning. This experience also gave me an opportunity to meet new people and interact with my fellow mentors.
But my Fulbright year was not just about academics. Having raced bikes for years in Trier, Germany, I wanted to continue racing during my exchange, and I was fortunate to join PSU’s bike racing team. PSU competes in the Northwest Collegiate Cycling Conference (NWCCC) with member schools from Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. On eight consecutive weekends, the states’ colleges and universities host the teams and organize races. By driving to the races, I was also able to see the Pacific Northwest’s stunning landscapes, an experience that I will never forget. Last but not least, for the first time ever, my team won the conference! Our hard work (and many long training rides in the Portland winter rain) was finally rewarded.
Most importantly, racing for PSU was much more than participating in the sport I love. I am thankful for having had the chance to meet many people and to make friends. Long drives, sharing a room with several teammates, and supporting each other in the races gave us a strong sense of community that made our team unique. In spite of being the only non-American, I was always fully accepted as a team member. It was fascinating to see how different personalities put their egos aside to help the team win. I will never forget the race in Montana when we were hit by a snow storm and rushed to pick up freezing riders from the side of the road. Moreover, this feeling of community went beyond my own team and I made friends with many riders from other colleges. Believe it or not, I met another German exchange student with the same first name racing for Oregon State University! The world is small.
In summation, my year at PSU truly represents the Fulbright experience. Besides my studies at PSU, bike racing provided me with the opportunity to experience a piece of American culture first hand. The friendships I made will endure, and I will always look back at the 2012-2013 academic year with great joy. When back in Germany, I plan on beginning teacher preparation to teach high school level English and politics using much of the information and experience that I gained during my Fulbright year. It is said that sports bring people together, and in my experience, that is completely true. I’m sure that my cultural experiences, both academic and extracurricular, will serve me well in the future.