A Beginner’s Guide to the Fulbright Experience
Congratulations! You’ve just received the great news of being accepted into the Fulbright Program, and you’re probably experiencing a rollercoaster of emotions. I will not talk to you about how prestigious this scholarship is and how privileged you are to have received it — you already know that. I will also not tell you how this experience will set you on the path towards achieving your long-term goals, because, it will. I will simply share a little bit of my personal experience and offer some advice.
I’ll admit that I’ve watched many YouTube videos, and read many articles and blogs about life in Chicago — where I was going to school to pursue a Masters in Construction Engineering and Management at Illinois Institute of Technology — to try and prepare myself for this experience. I’ll be honest –my vigorous research didn’t prepare me for the first time I saw the blue of Lake Michigan, or for being drenched in the rain (yes, in August!) while attempting to navigate the subway system on my first day, or for how my life here would immensely make me a braver, stronger and, hopefully, better person.
The level of education I received at IIT was great. While I was very impressed with how high-tech everything was, I was even more impressed with the simplicity that was employed to do extraordinary things. IIT embodies Einstein’s idea of making things as simple as possible, but not simpler. I had the privilege of knowing great and genuinely humble professors, who aimed to both help me and challenge me. There were many opportunities on campus, and I wanted to take advantage of them. I volunteered my time to help with research on possible applications of augmented reality in construction, and was later offered a teaching assistantship that further deepened my understanding of the material and helped me view education from an educator’s perspective. I took advantage of my school’s library and my local library, and rented audio books for my commute.
I went to parks, and museums, and galleries, and street festivals, and there were so many of them. I decided I’d do all the touristy things early on and then become a local- learning about Chicago’s history and architecture, the local slang (ex: pop for soda), the local way of doing things (never put ketchup on a Chicago hot dog), how to orient myself in reference to the lake, and to talk about locations by street intersections. A couple of months after first arriving in the city, someone asked me for directions on the street and I could help them without consulting my phone — it was a proud moment.
I went to baseball games, and basketball games, and ice hockey games, and (American) football games, and learned what a “touchdown” is and what a “home run” is, and indulged my friends and called football “soccer” — compromising a little.
I ate ALL the food because I had a chance to experience food from all over the world. I couldn’t find proper Palestinian food at restaurants, so I attempted to cook my food for my friends, and had them cook their food for me. I learned how to make chili and developed unhealthy obsessions with avocados and burgers and brunch. I picked a favorite café and defended their overpriced lattes religiously.
I had so many firsts: first Halloween, Thanksgiving, Super Bowl, and Fourth of July. I learned to speak in Fahrenheit and miles and feet, learned to stop converting the prices of things to my local currency for comparison, and attempted (and failed) to understand how American taxes work.
I was fortunate enough to run the Chicago Marathon twice during my time here with a charity I believe in. The Chicago Marathon is one of the six World Marathon Majors and is the fourth largest marathon in the world by number of finishers — around 45,000 people run it every year, and I was one of them! I ran a half marathon in a very rough heat wave, and 15k in freezing November weather, and a 50k in the spring to sweat winter away.
I traveled whenever I could, visiting 15 states and regretting not being able to see more. I took a stroll in Central Park in New York City, breathing in the crisp winter air, ran up and down the Rocky Steps in Philadelphia, singing “Eye of the Tiger” in my head, walked The Freedom Trail in Boston and thought about how people make their own destinies. I also visited the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta and learned about the Civil Rights movement, lounged on the beach in Miami in January and contemplated how I’ve been freezing in Chicago just the night before, listened to live music in Austin, marveled at the Antelope Canyon in Arizona, hiked near Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin in the golden colors of fall, walked through corn fields in Indiana, and walked the hilly colorful streets of San Francisco.
Now two years later, it is almost time to go home, and here is my advice to you:
Know your city, know your professors, your classmates, and your neighbors. Talk to strangers on the train, talk to strangers at the park, talk to your Uber driver. Pay attention to local news, finally learn what the “electoral college” means, become familiar with popular culture and familiar with the U.S. Constitution. Make sure to have opinions and share them, hear different opinions and understand them. Experience everything with an open heart and an open mind. Take advantage of opportunities and step out of your comfort zone. Always ask for help when you need it. If you don’t understand something, try again. If you don’t like something, speak up. If you think you’ve unintentionally offended someone, apologize.
Truth is, I can write volumes on things you end up figuring out on your own, probably after embarrassing yourself a couple of times (ex: on an escalator, stand on the right, move on the left) but there would still be millions of other things I’ll never be able to describe — you’ll have to experience them yourself. Like your first major holiday away from home, walking out of your apartment on the first warm day after a harsh winter, sharing a knowing smile with a stranger on the train after a humorous incident, a long road trip, family coming to visit and then leaving, and your first night in your new apartment, alone and lying in bed listening to the constant noise of the unfamiliar city — strange people and cars and sirens, and then, two years later, sitting in aforementioned favorite café drinking the aforementioned overpriced latte, surrounded by the same noises, and thinking about how strangers become family and unfamiliar cities become home.
Tala is graduating with a Master’s in Construction Engineering and Management from Illinois Institute of Technology- Chicago. She is from the Palestinian Territories.