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My brief encounter with the American dream

Gabriela Misca on her Fulbright year in the USA.

01 February 2017

Last July I returned from a 10-month Fulbright research fellowship in the US. I was one of the 'chosen' five British 'all disciplines scholars' awarded Fulbright grants in 2015/16 to further our own research and 'the mutual cultural understanding between the UK and US'.

The Fulbright programme, one of the most prestigious and selective scholarship programmes operating worldwide, was conceived by Senator J. William Fulbright in the aftermath of World War II to promote leadership, learning and empathy between nations. It is hoped that award recipients will be the future leaders and support the 'special relationship' between the US and UK.

It has been a long-held dream of mine to become acquainted with American academia, a sort of 'American academic dream', to get closer to what American academic powerhouses are about. Fulbright stands for high-calibre international scholarship, as illustrated by its notable alumni list over the years. We were often told during various induction events that 'Fulbright is much more than a grant – we offer scholars the opportunity to have a transformative cultural and educational experience'. I have, indeed, come back home feeling transformed.

Like any dream-come-true, it was a couple of years in the making. The first task was finding 'the idea'. In pure academic fashion it all starts with a proposal of a programme of research, teaching or a combination of both. But the proposal needs to justify the cross-country mobility. In other words, how will the research benefit from me being in the US? What are the benefits for the UK – and for the US?

My idea was rooted in the heightened interest over recent years around the wellbeing of military personnel and veterans, in light of post-9/11 conflicts, and the need to support their transition and resettlement into civilian life. As an applied developmental psychologist, I became intrigued by the distinctive gap in UK research on the impact of this transition on the children and partners of those military personnel. Most of the research in this area came from the US, providing an ideal opportunity for knowledge transfer from the US to the UK (benefiting the UK mainly), as well as collaborative cross-cultural research (benefiting both the US and the UK). My proposed programme of research employed a combination of realist review methodology, an active networking portfolio, and, importantly, collaborations with both practice agencies and academic research partners in the US involved in working with military families to share best practice and assess its cultural transferability.

The second task was finding an academic host. I needed an academic base that would help me make contacts with the academic powerhouses and the relevant practice agencies, such as Veteran Administration hospitals, military bases, and so on. Via pre-established relations and contacts, my academic home for the Fulbright became the William James College in Boston, Massachusetts. The Boston area is an exciting academic hub, and William James College hosts the Military and Veteran Psychology Area of Emphasis – a coordinated array of efforts to train culturally competent mental health professionals to provide services to military service members, veterans and their families. William James College is also approved as an Institution of Higher Learning under the Yellow Ribbon Program of the US Department of Veterans Affairs and hosts the 'Train Vets to Treat Vets' initiative, recruiting ex-military personnel and veterans to train as mental health professionals.

The UK–US Fulbright Commission selects scholars through a rigorous application and interview process. In making these awards, they look not only for academic excellence but also for a focused application, a range of extracurricular and community activities, demonstrated ambassadorial skills, and a plan to give back to the recipient's home country upon returning. Only a select proportion of paper applications make it to the interview stage, which is conducted by a panel of experts, Fulbright alumni and Fulbright Commission representatives.

Four months after submitting the paper application I got the email telling me that I was nominated as principal candidate for a Fulbright scholar award. I remember the exact day and time, the feel of the rays of sun coming through my office window in the late February afternoon, and the ensuing racing of feelings: elation that my American academic dream was coming true, followed by the 'oh-my-God, what do I pack for 10 months living abroad??'

The months until my September departure were a jubilant whirlwind. Fulbright knows how to celebrate their new additions to what it calls the 'Fulbright family'. I recall fleeting but glorious moments of a preparatory workshop and the excitement of meeting fellow awardees from across the range of programmes; congratulations and press releases both at home and in the host universities; culminating with a grand reception hosted at Lancaster House, followed by the most cordial visa application day at the US Embassy (as far as visa visits to any embassy can go!). The Fulbright family spirit kicked in, excellently supported by the UK Fulbright Commission staff – the outgoing Fulbrighters received news of those already arrived in the US, as well as practical tips on living arrangements (everything from mobile phones to insurance and banking in the US).

Outward flight booked, time ticking, slight moments of doubt – all this upheaval had better be worth it. Let house, sell car, say goodbyes to close friends; rent house, buy car, say hello to strangers. Of course not all goes smoothly all the time… but we were quickly welcomed into the Massachusetts Fulbright chapter, meeting with Fulbrighters from across the world as we were taken into a variety of cultural activities (from 'chat and chowder' debates to baseball games and whale-watching excursions).

As I reflect back, what I am left with are images of beautiful fall colours in New England; sunrises and sunsets on the Oceans shore; vastness of the blue skies and warmth of neighbours in Newburyport – my base for the 10-months. I never ceased to be amazed at how Fulbright opens doors in America, so my 10 months were intertwined with travels through the depth and breadth of the US, speaking, lecturing, and linking with academics, practitioners and newly found friends! All in the quest of pursuing my Fulbright mission, that my research will lead to a greater understanding in the UK of the challenges faced by children whose parents serve in the armed forces. These include regular relocations and school moves, coping with having a parent away for extended periods, and sometimes the effects of the loss or injury of a parent during service.

They say 'you can't go home again'. Aside from coming home to a post-Brexit England, beyond the cliché the truth of the life-changing experience remains. I am not who I was before I left, and I'm still learning to cope with the reverse cultural shock upon my return. The opportunity to pursue my research immersed in a context of mutual exchanges at cultural, intellectual and community levels was transformative. And productive as well: I completed a book (published in January 2017) and secured a contract for a new book; co-edited a special issue of an academic journal, published articles and delivered invited talks. The work I started during my Fulbright year is continuing, both in the UK and US, and wherever I go there is a tacit understanding of the international recognition Fulbright brings. This continues to open doors and make new collaborations possible. 'Once a Fulbrighter, always a Fulbrighter.'

- Dr Gabriela Misca is Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Worcester, [email protected].