Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Happy New Year!

New Year’s Eve in Copenhagen is vaguely reminiscent of what being an extra in Apocalypse Now or Saving Private Ryan must have been like – exciting, but loud and uncertain, with the slightest chance that you might not make it out alive. Unlike in Pennsylvania, people here can purchase full-size fireworks. As much as I love the Danes, their ability to put away large quantities of alcohol already scares me a bit. Adding large explosive objects is maybe not the best idea? Come New Year’s Eve, my street was full of revelers in tuxedos and sparkly dresses, setting off fireworks in the bike lanes and allowing me to see fireworks from 100 meters away. Was it beautiful and wonderful? Yes. Was I convinced a firework was going to come flying through my window? Yes. Happy 2012!

Entries about my Fulbright project and Christmas trip to Paris are coming tomorrow, but for now I wanted to post something I wrote a while back about the meaning of the Fulbright program. Funding is under threat of being cut in the United States. Did you know that the Danish government provides more than half of my grant money? Thank you, Denmark, but I don’t think that’s quite fair to you. You may agree or disagree with some of the things I say here, but I just wanted to express my opinion about the value of my experience – it is more than just being an “academic tourist,” as some have critiqued it. I’d also like to add that the sum of my experience is far more nuanced and complicated than what I’m describing here. It would honestly take me days to try and fully explain what I’ve learned and gained from my time in Copenhagen.

I’ll try to elaborate on this more later. In the meantime, something that I am better coming to understand is that a Fulbright experience is not always something clear cut – one cannot always say: today I accomplished this, I learned this, I resolved this. What I do here in Denmark is not necessarily something that will be completed in 10 months, although that is not to say I do not plan and hope to have something concrete to show from my time here.

The purpose of the Fulbright program is to foster understanding between Americans and citizens of foreign countries. I don’t believe that the need for Americans to connect with people from other countries has lessened in the years since the program was created, although the reason for fostering those relationships may have evolved with the times. Some might ask why Congress should continue to fund the Fulbright Program if America is no longer concerned about going to war with Europe? This is why.

Americans are told that they live in an increasingly interconnected world – and while this may be true digitally and even personally for some Americans, many of us will never have the opportunity to truly interact with people from around the globe. Ironically, we live in a nation whose actions have the ability to impact the entire world. For that reason, it is vital for Americans to try to understand and relate to our international neighbors.

And this is where the Fulbright program makes an important contribution. Upon the completion of their grant periods, Fulbright recipients bring back a level of understanding and experience within their host country that you would not be able to gain through a year of simply travelling. Depending upon their project, Fulbright scholars learn, teach, and work in the institutions of their host country, interacting with the native people and other international scholars in ways that a tourist could never hope to achieve.

Not only do Fulbright scholars bring back understanding of other cultures, but also an understanding of how those other cultures can influence America for the better. Fulbright scholars also have the potential to help the citizens of other countries understand what knowledge Americans can bring to the figurative table, in both a more personal manner and a less intrusive one than our government has often taken in the past. It is part of our role to put a face to America while abroad, or conversely, give our fellow Americans stories and images that illustrate our host country on multiple levels.

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