Thursday, September 5, 2013

Some not so brief reflections on my year in Poland as a Fulbright Scholar

One year ago, I got on a plane to Poland.  I had a one-way ticket and little idea of what I was going to do, where I would live, who I would meet, and mostly how I would change.  With a million questions and no certainty (even about simple things like housing!), I arrived in Warsaw and eventually settled in Gdansk.

After almost two months of being home, I've had some time to really reflect on this experience and identify key areas of my life, both professional and personal, that my Fulbright experience really helped me grow.

Personal change in a foreign setting is rapid, violent, and painful at times, even more so in a different language.  There were days when I wanted to quit and come home.  Days where I didn't understand WHY things had to be so hard.   I cried in the bathroom of a mall on multiple occasions, especially when I was camped out stealing McDonald's internet in my apartment search.

Great lows bring incredible highs though...I loved when my students were engaged in a class discussion (and hated when I had to end it).  There were days I imagined a permanent move to Poland, working within the education system and teaching students American culture.  There were days that I was able to help out another American struggling with grocery shopping or transportation.  There were days of serious happiness where I didn't really miss home that much.

So what did I learn?

Fear of the unknown is useless
I was flexible before, but Fulbright forced me to adapt to the unknown.  There were so many unknown variables in my life when I moved...what am I teaching, where am I living?  I stressed out and it was hard.  I literally worried myself sick upon arriving in Gdansk Towards the end of the Fulbright, I learned to embrace the unknown.  Missed a train?  Find a new adventure.

This played out noticeably in my travel plans.  My first trip to Prague was planned out with specific sights, the best routes to see them, and places to eat.  My last trip to Barcelona was the opposite.  I found opportunities for awesomeness on the fly and adapted my plans to fit them.

Public speaking isn't so bad
If you know me, you know I love to talk.  It might surprise you to know that public speaking terrified me.  My brain works so fast that sometimes stupid things come out of my mouth.  In a friendly conversation, it doesn't matter.  In class, I have time to contemplate.  In front of a group of 100 strangers, nerves make me talk more and faster and stupid things come out.

Well, teaching university classes forces you to get over  With four classes a week for 1 1/2 hours, I was in the limelight quite a bit.  After I adapted to the university, I started volunteering in high schools as a cultural ambassador.  At the end of the year, I could give an extemporaneous speech (aka without notes) about a variety of issues.  My favorite talk by far was called "The Legacy of the U.S. Constitution: The Role of the Founding Fathers in Modern Debate."  It traced the current political debates (abortion, gay marriage, drone strikes, etc) back to amendments in the constitution and explored the various interpretive camps.

"I don't know" isn't a bad word
Stemming from the fear of saying stupid things and hate of public speaking is the dreaded unanswerable question.  I don't really remember exactly which date the 19th Amendment was passed...or which one repealed prohibition.  I learned that the kids didn't care.  Saying "I don't know" was an acceptable form because they could recognize that I was knowledgeable on the issue based on my presentation, that I was interested and passionate.  And (unfortunately sometimes) human knowledge is finite.

In the classroom, people were usually concerned with the bigger picture.  Why did prohibition fail?  What led to the federal government granting women suffrage?  What is the state of women in American politics today (a fascinating lecture I gave at the American Corner for Women's History Month!)?

Self-knowledge is the most important thing in the world
How much do I miss the hours I had each week of quiet, alone time?  I don't think it's even quantifiable!  The self-realization and actualization that comes from having time alone is incredible.  While I was teaching full time, there wasn't much else for me to do during the day since most of my friends worked and went to school.  So I had hours each day to think and read books that I was interested in.  I wrote Catholic blog posts and really discovered where I want God in my life.

There was so much me-time that sometimes I thought it sucked.  I was lonely, didn't have a huge group of friends, and most of all I missed Central.    In retrospect, the amount of time I was able to invest last year into discovering my hopes, dreams, and fears is probably the most wonderful aspect of my year abroad.  I figured out who I am (at least right now).

I've instituted a 10 minute quiet time every day when I get home.  It doesn't matter what homework I have or how hungry I am.  When I get home, I turn off my phone, ignore my computer, lay on  the ground with my eyes closed and just absorb the quiet.  This might be come the best part of each day...quiet to delve into my spirit and see where I need to grow and what I need to refresh.

My faith is really important to me
This might seem like a duh to my close friends.  However without a serious support system, I really started to rely on serious prayer to get me through the tough days.  When I said there were days I wanted to quit, I mean it.  Some days, I'd come home from class totally mentally and emotionally drained, with no happiness, and sit on my bed and cry.  Dealing with a limited knowledge of Polish, a crazy bureaucratic education system, family issues miles away and less than engaged students would take everything out of me.

In those moments of despair, I never lost hope.  There was always God and boy did He get a lot of talking to this past year!  In terms of learning myself, I really grasped how Catholicism is an integrated part of my life.  And I've made a serious commitment to exploring how that faith will translate in real world actions.  The details will surely take another future blog post.

There is nothing in the world like a hug
My first half of the Fulbright was lonelier than the second half, but right before Christmas I experienced a Christmas dinner with a student group.  I called it my "Christmas Miracle".  Amid all these strangers, I found acceptance and love...and it was an incredible experience to be hugged!

Not to mention the tears that surfaced when my brother hugged me in the Gdansk airport in April!

My family is absolutely incredible

My family was awesome during the whole year.  They sent cards and care packages (peanut butter!); skyped me in for major sporting events (GO BLUE!); put up with my crazy moods some day; but most of all, they let me go.   There were some days I'd text a million times, Skype for three hours, and send a dozen Facebook messages.  Other days (or multiple days in a row), they wouldn't hear from me except a "Good night, I'm alive".  Some days they wouldn't even get that.  I know it was the hardest thing my mom's done in a long time, but they did good with accepting my big move.  Mom didn't even cry (at least in front of me!).

I don't know if they know how awesome they were during this time.  After a major confrontation happened with some friends, I called home and since mom had to go to work, dad talked me down.  My dad doesn't really DO crying girls...especially his daughters.  But he was so patient and awesome with me that I eventually calmed down.

So a year after arriving in Poland, I can confidently say I'm a different person.  I'd like to think I'm a better person.  The challenges of life abroad, especially teaching abroad, were hard even seemingly insurmountable at times, but I did it.  And I might not have accomplished everything perfectly or with the most logical solution or in the most efficient thought processes, but I did it.

Today, I talked with my advisor and officially decided to leave my MA program in Russian and Eastern European Studies.  While I love Poland and the Fulbright helped me cultivate my knowledge of their culture and language, my love is a personal hobby.  I don't forsee becoming an academic in the near future or joining the foreign services.  Actually, after a year abroad, I don't think I ever want to join the foreign services.  While jumping the foreign hurdles makes you feel accomplished, it's exhausting and wears you down.  I don't think I'll be ready for that again anytime soon.

That being said, I'm eagerly looking forward to 2016 when Pope Francis hosts World Youth Day in Krakow.  Hopefully, I'll be able to put my Polish skills to good use in a group of American pilgrims!

1 comment:

  1. You made me cry! You have grown into a wonderful young lady and I'm proud to call you my daughter! Thank you for making such good choices in life, I know they are not always the most popular ones!