Fifteen years after welcoming her to Finland as a U.S. Student Fulbright Grantee, the Fulbright Finland Foundation invited Professor Liesl Yamaguchi, now a 2020-21 U.S. Fulbright Core Scholar, to reflect on how the Fulbright program has impacted her professional trajectory.
"An honor can be undeserved— joy never is."

When Roland Barthes took up the newly created Chair in Literary Semiology at the Collège de France in 1977, he began his inaugural lecture rather awkwardly, seeming to stumble under the weight of the honor conferred upon him. Then he finds his way to a key distinction (which I quote in Richard Howard's translation): "an honor can be undeserved— joy never is."

The distinction between institutional approval and inalienable emotion, fallible selection process and genuine opportunity, makes it possible for Barthes to continue on despite his unwillingness to affirm, as the occasion quietly demands, that he is exceptionally deserving of the opportunity he is nonetheless eager to accept. So, he turns his gaze to joy: joy at the "enormous, almost […] unjust privilege" of being able to pursue his research and "to speak—I shall even say to dream his research aloud." 

The Fulbright Finland Foundation has made this privilege mine, twice: in my first, terrifying year after college in 2006-07, and again in this strange and disorienting year of 2020-21. Both years have felt miraculous, and both have been formative. Even my ability to appreciate Barthes' distinction is inextricable from my experience of Finnish institutions, whose values I have come to recognize, over time, as fundamentally different from those of other institutions I have known. 

What I have gained personally and professionally from my two Fulbright grants is so great that accounting for it here would be impossible. It would also run the risk of suggesting that my puzzling zig-zag of a professional trajectory cuts a path that could be followed, which I cannot imagine to be the case. There have been too many wildly inadvisable leaps, close shaves, imprudent decisions, and instances of sheer luck.

But I can say that for students, artists, and scholars who do not deem paths particularly necessary—and who have the vision and confidence to aim for things that might not yet exist—the Fulbright Finland Foundation is a source of extraordinary opportunity. For me, it has certainly been a source of joy. 

Headshot of Liesl Yamaguchi
Liesl Yamaguchi
2020-21 U.S. Fulbright Core Scholar, University of Helsinki
2006-07 U.S. Fulbright Fellow, University of Helsinki

Liesl Yamaguchi is Assistant Professor of French at Boston College and the translator of Väinö Linna's Tuntematon sotilas (Unknown Soldiers, Penguin Classics, 2015). She is currently a Visiting Researcher with CALLIOPE, an ERC StG-funded project based at the University of Helsinki.