Lost and Found

When I found out I had received a Fulbright grant for 2011-2012, I was thrilled, of course - who wouldn't be? Not only did I have the promise of funding; "name-dropping" the award opened doors that had been, if not entirely shut, at least only very tentatively ajar, and I now had a whole new support system to help me navigate the application process and, later on, prepare to move to the US.

And so I ended up - ironically, some have said - from one cold place to another. Ann Arbor, MI, is no New York City, but there are moments when I can't deny its homey charm and yes, the comfort of a familiar climate. I was quickly swept up by the hectic pace of graduate studies at the University of Michigan and was secretly almost grateful the Michigan Fulbright chapter organizes events at a steady but not-too-frequent rate.

Little did I know that dragging my tired and stressed-out self to a couple of Fulbright events would turn out to teach me more about the organization than all the information sessions I'd participated in and all the websites I'd pored over.

The first one was a Thanksgiving party organized by the local Fulbright chapter. My first reaction on arrival was of naïve shock: there's so many of us! Our party took place in a large barn-looking building that I was assured used to function as a meeting place for farming communities. As we paired up for an enthusiastic albeit chaotic attempt at line dancing, we filled up the entire building. I had imagined I was one of few foreigners choosing the Midwest over warmer climes, but I was proven sorely mistaken. In the terrible clatter of our feet hitting the floor all to a different beat - I told you we were hopeless - there was a more comforting undertone: here we were, all a little bit lost but willing to give it our best effort. In a way, this is how I'd felt for much of the year, and sharing this moment reminded me that I'm not alone in this beautiful, strange state where people hold up their hand like a mitten to show you where they're from and lemonade is called "paahp".

My second realization of the true value of Fulbright came at an Enrichment Seminar in Nashville. Again, I was amazed by our sheer numbers but was a bit more prepared this time. The three days blur into a pleasant haze of meeting people, learning about US politics and visiting culturally significant places (including a honky-tonk bar!). What stands out, however, are a couple of moments. I started talking with a fellow grantee from a little country he was convinced I wouldn't be able to locate on the map. He turned out to be right (although I came pretty close), and I will keep the place a secret. For what he told me next made me appreciate Fulbright more than any and all info sessions, approving nods from professors, or smooth visa application processes ever could. He told me that in his home country, Fulbright was the only grant that was not for sale by corrupt administrators. For someone without connections or wealth, it was the only opportunity to get funding for international studies. For him, a Fulbright was a unique opportunity in the absolute, truest, most literal sense of the word.

Later on that night, we heard a moving speech by John Seigenthaler. He told us of his little grandson and telling him that it doesn't matter what we look like, who we love, or who we pray to - and the heartbreak of having to tell the boy he had been lying: no matter how he wished it wasn't so, all these things still do matter. As he said this, I heard someone behind me whisper a feverish, "Yes!" In that moment, bittersweet but tinged with hope, I finally truly understood the value of Fulbright and its mission.

Elina Salminen
ASLA-Fulbright Graduate Grantee 2011-2012

 

Published in the Fulbright Center News 1/2012