Steven A. Vickers, Jr., 2015-2016, Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to Latvia, giving a lecture on American culture at Daugavpils University, Latvia.
One of my favorite animated films tells the tale of a mouse with a dream to become a chef. Everyone thinks him crazy, but he strives towards his goal and proves to himself and those around him that anyone can, indeed, cook. My journey to becoming a 2015-2016 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) to Latvia played out much the same. I am not what many would consider the “typical” Fulbright recipient. Many, including some professors, thought me crazy to even apply for the prestigious award. Well, I sure did prove them wrong.
You see, I did not graduate high school and immediately enter a university as is expected of my generation. My family could not afford the living expenses my scholarships failed to cover, and I could not shake my intense desire to serve my country. So, my path took me to Parris Island, South Carolina and the United States Marine Corps; that path came to an abrupt conclusion when I found myself medically unfit to continue serving. At that point, I did as my father before me and entered the police force. I enjoyed being a police officer, but I always regretted not getting a degree. The demanding schedule of a police officer made attending school incredibly difficult. I decided to end my police career, worked a few random jobs, and enrolled in Faulkner State Community College at the age of twenty-seven. When I completed enough credits, I transferred to Auburn University.
Talya Lieberman, 2012-2013, Latvia (right), and her friend and accompanist Liga, after a recital for Museum Night at the Jewish Museum on May 18th, 2013 in Riga, Latvia
Not long into my Fulbright grant, I wrote down a list of concepts that I wanted to further integrate into my life—a sort of prayer, if you will, that was to be uttered as a daily reminder to center myself on my values. In it, I wrote, “May I have the courage to fall down and get back up.” I meant it metaphorically, of course, but alas, in the defining moment of my year, I got to learn what that really meant.
It’s not the story I expected to tell, and it’s probably not the most comfortable to read. Three months into my Fulbright Study/Research grant to Latvia to study Voice, I was invited to perform a recital at one of Riga’s coolest venues for Valentine’s Day – the Kalnciema Kvartals. I was really excited—it was a great opportunity that could only lead to more good things.
Then, I fell. On my way to the rehearsal, I slipped on ice, and fell. Big time. I hit my ankle against the wall, and broke it straight through. But fear not! This is a happy story, as what resulted was one of the most challenging but greatest lessons in the kindness of strangers, friends, and family, in patience, in resilience, and so much more.