My Fulbright Journey Thus Far

fulbright.jpg

Are you thinking of applying for a Fulbright? Or, alternatively, are you just generally interested in what goes into applying for one? Do you find the idea spending several months pouring your heart into something, sending it off, waiting, getting an answer, waiting some more, and then (hopefully) getting a final answer to be thrilling and enjoyable? If so, read on! 

As mentioned in my previous post, I wanted to take some time to recount my experience applying for the Fulbright. I realize this may not interest everyone, but I know when I was in the process of applying, I actively sought out as much information as possible about what to expect while applying and if I were to be selected. Obviously I can only account for the experience up to receiving a school placement right now (and my experience is specific to applying for an ETA grant to Germany), but I still hope it will be helpful or interesting to others thinking of or in the midst of applying.

A forewarning to anyone thinking of applying: the biggest thing you should know about applying for a Fulbright is that this is NOT a fast or efficient process. It was nearly a year from when I began my application to when I received final word that I would be heading for Germany. I was a little better off than others who applied because I had a job, so if I didn't receive a Fulbright, I would have just kept going along as though nothing had happened. But for people applying during their senior year of college or in the midst of other studies, know that it's possible you won't know whether you've received an award until as late as May or June -- perhaps even later if you are initially named an alternate. I know that among this year's crop of applicants there were plenty of people who effectively felt like their lives were on hold until they found out one way or the other, not knowing if they should accept that job offer or commit to a grad school with the possibility they might receive a Fulbright instead hanging over their heads.

The point is, be prepared to be put in a position where you have to a) turn down an otherwise desirable offer to continue waiting for word on your Fulbright, b) make a commitment that you may later have to break due to receiving a Fulbright, or c) effectively place your life on hold only to find out that you didn't receive an award and now have no idea what you're doing. That last option is bleak, but it's an unavoidable reality. Better to face it early rather than be caught unawares when it will be harder for you to recoup your losses.

Applying 

I actually originally wanted to apply for a Fulbright during my senior year, after I had just returned from my semester abroad in Germany. I didn't have a strong idea yet what I wanted to do, but, I figured, I had a couple months to sort it out. No pressure. Except I really had no idea what the application process was like. I returned the United States in July (2011) and came back to Marquette in August. I fired off an e-mail to the campus Fulbright advisor asking how I might apply and was not prepared for the response I received back -- there was NO way I would be applying for the 2012-2013 cycle. Even though applications weren't due to Fulbright until mid-October, Marquette's campus deadline was in September, and it simply wasn't feasible to think that I could throw together a passable application in a month.

At first, I was devastated. Coming off an amazing five-month study abroad in Germany, I wanted desperately to return and was scared that I had lost my only chance. I wasn't planning on applying to grad school straight out of college, and what little I knew of Fulbright grants suggested it would be harder for me to apply independent of my university. But, Marquette's Fulbright advisor told me to get in contact with her at a later date if I was interested in applying for the 2013-2014 cycle, so I kept it in my back pocket and began pondering a possible application over the next few months.

In hindsight, I'm relieved I didn't try and apply for a Fulbright during my senior year. Not only would that have been an extremely stressful addition to an already-stressful year,  but I think having the extra time to unpack my experiences from my study abroad and to grow as a person over the course of my senior year made all the difference in the application I eventually submitted. My letters of recommendation would not have been as strong, my essays would not have been so thoughtful and my overall passion for getting this grant would not have been as great. That extra time was critical for me and my personal growth, and I'm glad I didn't rush the process.

In hindsight, I’m relieved I didn’t try and apply for a Fulbright during my senior year.

In spring of 2012, I met with Dr. Knox, Marquette's Fulbright advisor. At this point, I knew I wanted to apply for a grant to Germany, but I wasn't sure what type of grant I wanted or really what to expect. One piece of good news I got out of this initial meeting was that even though I would be graduating before the application was due, I could still apply through Marquette and receive assistance from her on my application. One of my major fears was having to navigate this process alone and unguided, so that was a tremendous burden lifted.

The next major step for me was deciding what type of grant I wanted to apply for: a research grant or an English teaching grant. This was a difficult decision initially. I had ideas for research projects I might want to pursue in Germany, but I had never attempted to plan or execute a research project, so the idea of designing my own  was daunting. But, I had no teaching background and had never really been interested in that path, so I wasn't sure if that would be the right fit for me, or if I could even put together a compelling application lacking these experiences.

After much reflection, I decided the research grant just didn't feel right to me. I felt like I was being forced to manufacture a research passion that had never previously existed -- it didn't feel like a recipe for success. My real interest in going to Germany was not rooted in any sort of specific academic goal. In reality, what I wanted most was to soak up the cultural exchange, to have as many opportunities as possible to interact with Germans and learn more about their language and culture. Although I feared my lack of teaching qualifications might hurt my chances, it seemed a better fit for me.

With that decision made, I transitioned into the next phase -- essay writing. This was an iterative, sometimes painful process that lasted from May to September. My first few drafts were rough, but Dr. Knox was ever-patient, reviewing each version and sending it back to me with critiques so I could start anew. Around mid-summer, I finally started to hit my stride and the revisions became easier. I started to feel like my essays were becoming truer portraits of myself and why I wanted this grant, and my excitement for this potential opportunity grew stronger every day.

In September I submitted my application to Marquette and participated in an on-campus interview with three different professors. It was fairly informal, more of a chance for me to discuss my application and receive feedback on how I might improve it. At this point, a new Fulbright advisor was in place at Marquette, meaning that between my three letters of recommendation, my language evaluator and my two Fulbright advisors, no fewer than six different professors played an integral role in my application coming together. This was a humbling realization -- six different professors contributed their time and efforts to help me succeed, and I am so grateful to have had such tremendous support at Marquette.

In mid October, I was satisfied that my application was as perfect as it was ever going to be. I uploaded final versions of my essays, double and triple checked everything, and, finally, clicked submit. After 5 1/2 months, it was finally out of my hands.

And thus began the waiting.

The Waiting Game 

If there is one common thread amongst all Fulbright applicants, it is the agonizing wait we must all endure to first know whether we have even passed the first round, then to know whether we will actually receive an award.

I knew based on years passed that I could expect to hear if I made it past the first round sometime in January. The application has two main checkpoints -- first, you must be approved by the U.S.-based branch of the program. This is referred to as being recommended. It means they think you are qualified for an award, but they don't make the final decision. If you are recommended, you are passed on to the individual country's committee, which will decide who receives an award, who is marked as an alternate and who is simply not selected.

At this point I was a fairly active participant on a Fulbright-specific board on the GradCafe forums. My early searches for as much Fulbright insider knowledge as possible led me here. Every year, hundreds of students applying for Fulbrights participate in the board, sharing knowledge from years past as well as tidbits they've gleaned from conversations with representatives of the program. They also maintain an impressive spreadsheet listing who is applying for which countries and when people heard back as to whether they were recommended or selected for a grant. It was an amazing community and an incredible repository of information and advice. 

Because of these forums and the sharing of information, I eventually knew with relatively high certainly which day the recommendations were coming out. That was a particularly agonizing (and unproductive) day at work, checking my e-mail every few minutes to see if I had received anything yet. Finally, in the afternoon, the e-mail arrived, telling me I had been recommended for further consideration for the Fulbright.

I eventually knew with relatively high certainly which day the recommendations were coming out. That was a particularly agonizing (and unproductive) day at work...

Finding this out was incredibly exciting, but the luster soon faded with the reality that there would be another sizable wait ahead of me. I found out I was recommended in mid-January, but the final decisions for awards wouldn't come out until March at the earliest, In years past, Germany has tended to notify its applicants in mid-to-late March, so I figured I had about a 2 1/2 month wait ahead of me.

One good thing this year is that Germany did away with the secondary application for its ETA applicants. In previous years, applicants had to submit a second application directly to the PAD, the German agency that oversees placement for the TAs; this application would basically be some administrative forms and translations of the essays you wrote. Not having to do this gave me one last thing to stress about -- it was all out of my hands; I just had to sit and wait. 

2 1/2 months later... 

I finally got word on my status at the beginning of April. This was fortuitous for me, because i happened to be in Germany when I finally got the news! I was laying on my bed in a hostel in Hamburg, taking a break from a day of sightseeing, when I happened to check my e-mail -- and there it was, a message from the Fulbright program telling me I had been selected for an English Teaching Assistant grant to Germany for 2013/2014. Reading that triggered an incredible flood of emotions. Probably the strongest was just the realization was that I was in Germany at that moment... and in 4 months or so, I'd be back. It was such an amazing feeling to be able to say not just that I would be coming back to Germany some day, but that I would be coming back that fall -- I could say exactly when I would be returning. All the things I felt like I still needed to see and do in Germany? There would be time to do all of that and more.

At this point, the waiting was far from over since I still needed to know where I would be placed, but the worst of it was past. I began filling out necessary paper work and waiting anxiously for word on my placement.  After I was recommended for the award in January, I filled out an online form listing my top 3 choices for which Bundesland (state) I'd like to be placed in. My choices were Hessen, Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony) and Hamburg (in that order). In general I had heard they try to respect your top three choices, but this isn't always possible. Obviously at some level you're happy just to know you're going to Germany no matter what, but I was a little worried by the prospect of being placed in some part of Germany I knew nothing about, far from all of my friends there (which for my purposes basically means anywhere in the East). Hessen was my first choice both because it was the state I studied abroad in and because I wanted to be near Frankfurt -- it's extremely easy to get anywhere in Germany or Europe from Frankfurt, and it's also easy to find flights between Frankfurt and the US, many direct.

It was such an amazing feeling to be able to say not just that I would be coming back to Germany some day, but that I would be coming back that fall — I could say exactly when I would be returning.

April dragged into May, and there was still no word on my placement. I had joined a Facebook group for other grantees to Germany, and the first person in our group to find out was notified via e-mail the second week of May. I hoped this signaled the floodgates opening, but no such luck. It soon became clear each state was notifying grantees on their own schedule (because communication was coming from the states we were placed in, not from the Fulbright-Kommission in Germany), and not all were using e-mail. I was beginning to be somewhat stressed, because the Kommission expected us to book flight by the end of May, which would be hard to do if you're not yet sure where you're going.

Finally, after several days of waiting expectantly, on May 18th I received two letters in the mail. The first was from the PAD (Pädagogischer Austauschdienst, the German organization that oversees teaching assistants), which informed me of by Bundesland (Hessen). The second was a letter from the state of Hessen, telling me exactly where I would be placed -- a high school in Fulda! Finding this out was a huge relief in that I at least finally knew exactly where I would be, but also that it was a town in my first-choice state that is only about an hour from Frankurt. Fulda is small (around 65,000 residents), but not unbearably so, and it has solid train connections to other parts of Germany. Basically, I got everything I could reasonably hope for in a school placement, and thus I am extremely pleased with how things played out.

The journey continues on, of course. As of now I have made contact with my Betreuungslehrerin (effectively my mentor at the school), and I also seem to have found a solid apartment (hurrah!). So things continue to progress, but of course, everything will really start moving once I get to Germany in a couple months. There are still a lot of unknowns and much to be discovered, but the worst part of it all is over -- now it's just a countdown to departure!