It was only spring of my senior year at Lafayette College, but I could already feel the sun beating down my neck, my best friend and I quickly regretted the trip to check our mailboxes, but chatted as we walked. I was happy to have accepted a job offer, but told my friend that a part of me still felt unsettled about life after graduation. After all, we were about to say goodbye to our home for the past four years. This was as obvious and as painful as the sun stinging our eyes, but neither of us spoke about it. When we arrived at our mailboxes, I reached into mine and unexpectedly discovered a thin manila envelope. It contained a letter congratulating me on being offered a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in Madrid, Spain.
If someone came up to me a few years ago and told me that I would one day become a Fulbrighter, I would have laughed. The Fulbright Program was something that I had heard about in presentations, but not something I imagined myself doing. The first time I heard about the program, I was attending a Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO) college retreat. Fulbright Alumni Ambassadors talked about their overseas experiences and the application process. Liking what I heard, I decided to apply, never thinking that I would be awarded a grant.
I am grateful to have had an opportunity to participate in the Fulbright Program. It is not every day that someone has the chance to work with students in another country. Through my assistant teaching experiences, my students’ perspectives on the United States changed as well as my own. My presence in the classroom allowed my students to experience another culture, as I made sure to give presentations on American holidays and traditions. While my students learned about Thanksgiving, I learned about Spanish traditions. I started a pen pal program between my students in Spain and a group in Texas. This project not only helped with students’ language acquisition, it also created a format for cultural exchange. Through my Fulbright experiences, I learned that I do not want to be just a teacher; I also want to be a student. Living in Spain created a desire within me to learn about other cultures and gain different perspectives.
Looking back, if I hadn’t received a Fulbright grant, I still wouldn’t have regretted applying. The application was hard work, but putting it together has prepared me for applying to other competitive programs I might pursue in the future.
If I could give future applicants any advice, it would be the following: Don’t just know why you want to receive a Fulbright grant, know what you can do in your selected country. It is important to research the country in which you would like to carry out your grant. Remember that the Fulbright Program is about cultural exchange. It is not just about how you will change as a result of your Fulbright experiences, it also involves asking how you’ll have an impact on those you’ll meet. You are applying to become a cultural ambassador. It is a big responsibility, but one that I enjoyed every minute of.
Photo: Mildred Gonzalez, 2011-2012, Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to Spain (far right), with her first year high school students at IES Al-Satt in Madrid, Spain