Life is one of continuous transition. Some of them are significant: finding a mate, starting a family, beginning a new job, and the passing of a loved one for instance. Some are not so, and are part of our day to day – driving to work is a transition. But as for significant and even seminal ones I would include the Fulbright experience.
There are two transitions in Fulbright. The first is when you begin your experience. You are moving to another country, finding a place to stay, meeting new colleagues, and making new friends. Most importantly, you are getting a “feel” for your environment and adjusting to the change: reading signs in a foreign language, trying to manage cultural differences, and missing your home and family. This transition can be an emotional one. The word anxious comes to mind in both its contradictory meanings.
I want though to focus on the second transition, that is, coming back home, be it back to the U.S. or to your home country wherever that might be. This transition is a logistical as well as a psychological one. Logistically it can be daunting. You may be surprised that you are shipping more things back than you brought originally. You need to coordinate flights, end your lease, and figure out how to wind down your work. There is much to do in a short period of time.
It is also psychological. You have made friends and found new colleagues. Farewells are difficult. I recall leaving Estonia and dealing with emotions of lose – I had grown close to my Estonian and other expat friends. When you are overseas for an extended amount of time, you take on a new view of the world. Your new home – albeit a temporary one – becomes part of your new identity: you become a “national” of that country. You get used to smaller crowds (which was quite the case in Estonia), not using a vehicle (Estonia again), and enjoying cafe life (Estonia for sure).
But on a deeper level, you are worried about the future. And one aspect is your career. If you are not going back to a job you left (like a faculty Fulbrighter), you may be coming back with little financial security. You now have to figure out how to leverage your experience into a career. This is not so easy and can be overwhelming.
Transitions are generally disrupting and come with doubt, speculation, and hope. If your Fulbright was a positive experience, you are coming back euphoric and optimistic. If your Fulbright did not live up to your expectations, you might be dealing with some uncertainty.
During this transitional period don’t expect everything to be revealed to you right away. Transitions can be long, and include ups and downs. Have patience as you plan your next chapter. Rely on your family, your friends – both the ones at home and the ones you met during your Fulbright – and colleagues, particularly faculty and other professionals. Make sure that you set reasonable expectations for yourself. Enjoy small victories like when being introduced to someone who can make connections for you. Join the local Fulbright Association chapter in your community. Be patient with yourself, and let things unfold. Also, recognize that home may feel unsettling at times: there are too many crowds or you might miss an aroma from your Fulbright country. And, yes, you will wish at times you were back. You might go back one day, but your experience was unique to time and place. Even when you go back, it won’t be the same.
Embrace the transition. It is a time to learn about yourself, particularly how your Fulbright has changed you. Consider how you can sustain the change now that you are back. Think about ways in which you might use your experience to foster positive change in the community you have returned to. A transition provides the chance for reflection, visioning, and planning. A significant experience like a Fulbright is like the fermenting of a fine wine: it takes time and patience. Let that be you.
—David J. Smith
David J. Smith (Fulbright Scholar, Estonia 2003-2004) is a career coach and the author of Peace Jobs: A Student’s Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (Information Age Publishing 2016). He is on the career advisory board of the Peace and Collaborative Development Network. David writes regularly on career issues at davidjsmithconsulting.com. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.