My fall semester was smooth, without a serious hiccup, trip to the doctor, or serious dose of homesickness (thanks to 5 months living in Argentina, 1 in England, and 2 in Spain to get me ready for 10 Fulbright months). 1/2 of September, October, November, 2/3 of December? Easy.
A Fulbright year, like any given year, has high and low points. The difference is that when the highs come, they are extraordinary moments of cross cultural exchange in amazing places, and when the lows come, they must be faced alone, or nearly alone with a new support system in tow.
When I arrived back in Ourense in January, I knew I would not be returning home again until June. I had a sick dog in Omaha (RIP Scout), friends that were starting to feel distant, and less excitement to travel and be abroad than initially. In the last months, mostly April and May, I have faced some real obstacles that showed me why being far away from home really makes a difference.
Because I want to be genuine and honest about what it really means to embark on a Fulbright year, I want to share a little about how these moments came to be and how I dealt with them. I feel lucky because the hard moments have been few and far between, and despite the occasional bumps, I wouldn’t trade my year for anything.
Sickness & Insurance
In March, I became ill for the first time all year, I made an appointment at a private hospital and was prescribed antibiotics after a $150 consultation with a specialist (I had to pay in cash, and I received a hand written receipt). Turns out the antibiotic that I was prescribed made me really sick (without taking a stomach protectant first), and within a few hours, I was hardly able to stand because I had such severe nausea and abdominal pain.
As someone who doesn’t like to lean on others too much for help, I called myself a taxi at midnight and dragged myself downstairs. When I got to the hospital, I could barely stand, so I sat on the ground of the emergency room, until someone could help me. Within an hour, there had been blood tests and I had an IV delivering fluids and pain medication to me. I was mostly back to normal by this point. However, the pain in my right abdomen had remained, and the doctor wanted me to spend the night so that they could check on my appendix.
Once I learned that my appendix was a potential issue, I started to contact friends and family in Ourense and at home, in the case that there would be a serious procedure. I sent texts home to my mother, texted the other Fulbrights in Ourense so they knew which hospital I was at, and then texted my bilingual coordinator José Luis.
Spanish Fulbrights are not allowed to use the public healthcare system, instead we are supposed to use private insurance. I spent an hour on the phone with my U.S. insurance trying to get them to send a guarantee of benefits to the hospital. It was in these frustrating moments, at 2:00 a.m., that I really couldn’t hold it together anymore. Teary eyed, I persevered, and I had all payment guaranteed before I allowed the nurses to put me into a hospital room for the night.
Long story short, my appendix was no where to be found on the sonogram, and I went home just in time to pack and fly off to Rome (reiterating my first point: the highs are high, and the lows are low). My antibiotics struggles have continued up until the present moment, unfortunately another horrible reaction left me very ill just last weekend. But, I think that I am finally on the other side and done with antibiotics!
Being sick with no one to drive you to the doctor, pick up your antibiotics, and hang out in bed and watch movies all day sucks. I really missed my family and friends in these moments, more so than I had all year. It is really hard to put down new roots and to trust others to fulfill these roles. My bilingual coordinator has been an absolute saint through it all. He has taken calls from the hospital arguing with them about my insurance, came to visit me FOUR times during the ONE day I was in the hospital, sent SIX other teachers to come visit me at intervals all day long, made sure every student and teacher wished me well, AND brought me homemade squash and veggie soup. I really have found a great friend/family contact here in José Luis, and I’ve learned to lean on him when I’m unable to do it all myself.
Sickness and insurance have been the most daunting moments of my Fulbright year so far. I am still jumping through hoops with insurance, so fingers crossed that all my insurance claims are processed successfully!!
Looking for the Next Great Thing
I have secured for myself a place in the University of Michigan Law Class of 2021. This meant that I spent A LOT of time in October and November perfecting my resume, personal statement, and supplemental essays for a handful of highly competitive institutions. In those moments, my mind was not in Ourense. It was dreaming of places like Ann Arbor, Washington D.C., Charlottesville, and Chicago.
In the end, it paid off, because I am attending my dream law school in the fall. But with my sights set on the next great thing, there have been many days when I have wished away my time in Spain so that I can begin this next chapter of life.
This desire to be somewhere that I am not brings disappointment and sometimes sadness. Just last year, winning a Fulbright to Spain was the next great accomplishment that I desired. In some ways, it is wonderful because it means reaching goals and setting my sights on new mountains to conquer. But then again, I like to remember the words of the great Billy Joel:
Slow down, you crazy childVienna, Billy Joel
You’re so ambitious for a juvenile
But then if you’re so smart, tell me
Why are you still so afraid?
Where’s the fire, what’s the hurry about?
You’d better cool it off before you burn it out
You’ve got so much to do and
Only so many hours in a day
But you know that when the truth is told..
That you can get what you want or you could just get old
You’re gonna kick off before you even
Get halfway through, ooooh
When will you realize, Vienna waits for you?
With about five weeks left of my current “next big thing,” I’m going to hold onto it, and the joy that Ourense and the people here have shared with me. Although Spain can seem glamorous from the outside, life here is pretty normal most days. Because I have a lot of downtime, it takes a lot of intentionality to really use my time to the fullest and constantly stay stimulated. I am trying my best to live in the present moment.
Growing & Healing
On January 14th, I felt an overwhelming pressure to confront all the feelings I was having. I marched myself straight to a bookstore and found a new black Moleskine notebook. I cracked it open and wrote:
January 14, 2019
hey journal, i’ve been thinking i might have needed you for a couple weeks now, and today i crumbled. i knew i needed to do this: decompress, validate my emotions, process why i am currently stuck.secrets from Emma’s journal
Even though I had been able to come home for Christmas, I wished for nothing more than to get back on that plane headed towards Omaha when I blew out my 23rd birthday candles on January 18th. I threw a birthday party in my apartment, to forget about all the feelings and went on back to back trips leaving me little time to think alone. But I brought my journal in tow, and continued processing always!
Embarking on a Fulbright alone at 23-years-old for a year means facing yourself, defining your independence, and putting in some work on who you are, what you stand for, and what good you can be putting out into this world.
I invested in growing in so many ways when I arrived here. Everyday that I stand in front of my students, I feel purpose. I see their faces as they react towards my teaching, and I work to share important messages about love and kindness through topics like ending violence against women, honoring indigenous peoples, ending gun violence, protecting the plant etc. There is growth, and I see it in my students and in myself. I am so proud of it now, but it has been built day by day, writing lesson plans, sweating as I perform to teach in front of sometimes critical students and coworkers. But wow, the growth is so rewarding now!
And then there is the healing. Healing the parts of myself that weren’t whole when I arrived in Spain in September. Healing the parts of myself that broke a little while I was here. These are trying moments, when no one is here to hold my hand (shout out to all the Fulbrights who bring significant others along or end up with a close placement to their lifelong besties).
But if I can share a piece of advice, it would be my momma’s motto for Annie and me: You can cry, but you can’t quit. So cry your eyes out, write in your journal, watch a sad movie, but then pick yourself up and get back out there. You have a job to do, and a short amount of time to get it done!
Sickness (the kind about Home)
If you’re an experienced world traveler, the tough kind, who struts through airports because once you’ve been to a dozen you’ve pretty much been to them all. You might feel the same with metros and buses (especially if you’ve conquered Buenos Aires, you can ride ANYWHERE), etc… If you’re this kind of traveler, you don’t like to admit when you miss home.
Instead, like me, you might go to the grocery store and search for something that you can cook that will bring you home. For me, it was the Bánh Mí, my grandma’s beef, tomato, & noodle soup, chocolate chip cookies, Christmas cookies, poke bowls, shrimp tacos. If I couldn’t fly home, I could get there in the skillet.
Of course, I have missed friends and family. I haven’t hugged my family (expect my angel sister Annie who visited) for over four months, and we are still six weeks out. Homesickness is a reality, but honestly not really a huge issue since most Fulbrighters have spent extensive time abroad/we have jobs that keep us busier than study abroad semesters do! I invested my time in reading books, cooking, and blogging when I am not working, traveling, or with friends, always stay focused on some intentional task (and FaceTime home A LOT!! shhhh)
Shout out to my momma, grandma **MVP Cathy who is retired is always available**, and sis for taking my FaceTime calls when I need to talk. Kudos to myself for being a fabulous dinner date, *table for one please! And finally to my girlfriends who are there for me always (shout out to Laurel for texting me back everyday and Lauren for writing me long email chains).
One Final Grievance
I have sworn that I will not be roommates with a man again until I’m in love/getting married/etc., after this year of living with two boys. One of my roommates Austin is so kind, and we have become great friends chatting in the kitchen and grabbing dinner with the other Fulbrights in Ourense. My other roommate doesn’t speak to me, so that has been really unfortunate!! EEK! A warning to other Fulbrights, don’t trust that all Fulbrights are kindhearted people, maybe do a background check before agreeing to live together. lol, not to be dramatic, but he hasn’t talked to me in months. Also boys shed in a way girls don’t and won’t clean even after you’ve asked five times!
Living abroad for a year is a huge blessing in a million ways; however, it does bring a lot of moments for self discovery and some of those might hit you when you are feeling weak, ill, or sad. That’s life! Remember that you can cry, but you can’t quit! I am striving to make the most out of this year abroad, and even with a few bumps in the road, it has still blown my expectations out of the water!
Thank you so much for reading about my “halfbright” experience, more fun travel and day in the life blogs to come soon! Until next time, Ciao!