It was the first day of the semester at the University of Latvia in Riga when I arrived promptly for my opening lecture in a class called “Public Relations Principles.” I had been rehearsing my introductory comments for days and was pleased to see that a large group of students were in the room as I arrived.
“Labrit,” I began, wishing the class a “good morning” in their Latvian language. I then introduced myself and began explaining why an American had come all the way to a small country in northeastern Europe to teach. “I’m here through the U.S. government’s Fulbright Scholar Program,” I told the class in opening remarks that I had rehearsed the night before. “The Fulbright program is all about building bridges between America and people from around the world. While I may be the teacher, I expect to learn as much, or more, from you as you learn from me about public relations.”
As I looked around the room, I saw several students nodding and smiling. I imagined Sen. J. William Fulbright himself smiling down from the heavens above. I was on a roll. Suddenly, a hand went up from a student in the back of the room. “Excuse me,” she said politely. “This is a class in German literature.”
It was not the auspicious start I had wanted. As it turned out, two classes had been assigned to the same classroom at the same time. It wasn’t an uncommon occurrence in Latvia, as course schedules and student registration were not computerized at the time. It took three weeks – and moves to two other classrooms — before it all got straightened out.
Administrative snafus aside, teaching abroad through the Fulbright program proved to be one of the most fascinating and fulfilling experiences of my professional life. My opening remarks may have been delivered to the wrong class, but what I said turned out to be true: I did learn much from my students during a three-semester stint in Latvia.
I’ve since returned to Eastern Europe numerous times to teach at universities in Bulgaria, Lithuania, Moldova and North Macedonia. Each time I go back, I marvel at the progress these countries have made in the fields of journalism and public relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union. I’ve always encouraged my peers in America to apply for the Fulbright grant. “Yes,” I tell them, there can be occasional missteps and stresses in teaching at foreign universities.
But the rewards far outweigh any difficulties — even if you may occasionally end up in the wrong classroom.
Dan Fellner – Fulbright to Latvia 2001-2002