We all assume that living abroad challenges you on a physical level, since you are moving yourself to a new country, but the mental challenges are often forgotten. Aside from the expected such as language barriers or apartment searching, any identities you have in your home country can clash at any moment whether it’s gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. Sometimes you’ll be yearning for that siesta! For me, navigating spaces as a black woman and an American were second-nature. To add “Fulbright English Teaching Assistant” and “U.S Cultural Ambassador” was challenging when interacting with Spaniards and Americans alike.
The Fulbright Program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and was created to enhance mutual understanding between Americans and societies in over 160 partner countries around the world. For Teaching Assistants (TAs) in Spain there’s a long application process. It encompasses writing a Personal Statement, Statement of Grant Purpose, collecting 3 Letters of Recommendation, a Foreign Language Evaluation and your Transcripts. The deadline is in October with a notification of acceptance divided into two rounds: the semi-finalists who are chosen in January and the finalists who are chosen between February and June. They make you work and wait for it!
Once accepted in March and situated in my new life by September, life changed. I was stared and pointed at on the bus every day. I had to explain the meaning and cultural importance of the N-word to my classes. I participated in a session about diversity and inclusion in our host countries at a Fulbright conference, when there wasn’t much diversity present amongst ourselves. When talking to Spanish strangers on the street I was assigned an African country of origin because they couldn’t believe I was born in the U.S. My afro and Marley twists were touched and questioned one too many times, though somehow the Spaniards and White Americans with Senegalese twists and box braids were not. And American auxiliaries from Spain’s TA program thought all Fulbright TAs were stuck up, which some are, but unfortunately they didn’t associate with us because of it.
I never thought I was going to receive, or even apply, for a Fulbright. I didn’t attend a university known for producing Fulbrighters and outside of gender where 65% of grantees are female, I didn’t quite fit the mold. Roughly 5% of grantees identify as black and while they are recruiting for more diverse representation, there is room for improvement. From race to class to ability, they are not only missing the physical beauty and variety of cultures that has given the U.S its “melting pot” persona, but the mental support and preparation for TAs to succeed inside and outside the classroom. After studying abroad in Granada, a city accustomed to foreigners due to tourism, going to a more rural town like Logroño luckily provided a more authentic Spanish experience where I was immersed in the Spanish language and culture. However, the daily curiosity and questions about my background, and having to translate them to Spanish, was mentally draining after teaching all day. And while I couldn’t have been prepared for everything, the orientation on how to acknowledge these cultural differences and comments missed the mark.
Don’t get me wrong: Fulbright is a one-of-a-kind organization and I encourage more people of color to apply. Some of the best change is done from the inside. Fulbright even heard my cohort’s feedback and created a mentor position for La Rioja to ease the transition for this year’s grantees. I loved the school where I taught, traveled extensively, ate well, and drank the best Spanish wine in the world. I met some intelligent strangers who became my Fulbright family and interacted with students I’ll never forget. I took a chance on Fulbright and they chose me; for that I am forever thankful.
That said, I advise anyone who decides to live abroad and take on these titles to be prepared because you now represent yourself and a country (seriously!). Carrying these identities can be overwhelming and it’s important to protect your peace by talking to someone, journaling, taking a walk, or listening to music when you feel isolated or misunderstood. As this year ignited my passion to work in international and multicultural education to create solutions for these issues, I hope your time abroad will be just as inspiring. You’ll live, learn and be led to the next chapter of your journey.
Enjoy and good luck.
Disclaimer: This is not an official Department of State website or blog, and the views and information presented are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program of the U.S. Department of State or any of it organizations and affiliates.
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