After trudging across town with my laughable burden of luggage, I arrived at a gorgeous hotel on the Western side of Alcalá de Henares just as the heat of a mid-morning sun was beginning to exert its scorching influence on the late-summer cityscape. Greeted first by triumphant signage outside of an elegant and well-groomed building, I was already beside myself with excitement as I made my way through a set of revolving doors with my armada of suitcases.
I found myself in an enormous lobby overflowing with a diverse and impressively boisterous crowd of young people socializing energetically in Spanish, English and just about everything in between. The enthusiasm, positivity, and excitement in the air were palpable, and would have been somewhat intimidating, if two people hadn’t immediately rushed over to introduce themselves, help me with my things, and orient me to the situation. From there, I was passed seamlessly with great tact and care from conversation to conversation, hardly aware that I had been essentially conveyed from the hotel’s entrance to a registration counter, all while being amiably introduced to at least seven people. Finally reaching the registration desk, I was given a stylish nametag and the keys to my room upstairs, to which I retreated to finally dispose of my burdensome luggage.
I wrestled my suitcases up the 2nd floor and took a moment in the solitude and relative silence to clear my head. I’m here, I thought, staring perplexedly into a nearby mirror. I made it. Still shaking my head in disbelief, I donned my nametag and returned to the stentorian roar of my hyper-talented colleagues on the first floor.
Unlike the intimidating, awkward difficulty of socializing at scientific meetings (let’s face it, stereotypes of brilliant scientists having poor communication skills are not entirely unfounded), I was spared even a moment’s standing alone outside of the gathered mass of Fulbrighters. Instead, before I had even finished descending the stairs, I was beckoned to join a group of smartly-dressed people happily conversing by the elevator doors. Never have I played part in such smoothly-handled, equitably-shared, interesting, polite, or engaging conversation. With the utmost respect and politeness, opinions and stories were exchanges with great enthusiasm, questions posed, curiosities mused upon, and diverse experiences related and compared. All this, and everyone’s voice seemed supported and encouraged, while topics ranged from the logistics of life in Spain to favorites from classical literature and poorly understood oncogenic gene complexes.
We were soon corralled into a large ballroom for a rather impressive and elegant almuerzo, complete with our option of red or white wine (when in Spain…). As before, the fascinating conversations rolled on, always expertly conducted; I was reminded of a colleague’s analogy, likening such discussions to dancing with highly experienced partners.
To say that I was impressed with my Fulbright colleagues would be a massive understatement. I met people from diverse ethnic, cultural, educational, and economic backgrounds, who differed hugely in disciplinary expertise and perspective, but who shared a combination of self-actualization, passionate dedication to scholarship, and genuine interest in others.
After welcoming words and continuous uproarious conversation, we were herded across the beautiful streets of Alcalá de Henares to the city’s University, which had a stunning campus of elegant old buildings hearkening back to its establishment in 1499 by a cardinal, and as a distinctly religious institution. One room, in which we attended a panel featuring the U.S. ambassador to Spain, featured some tremendously ornate craftsmanship and impressive decor. In an attached building nearby, a saint or some other religious figure of import was in an impressive sarcophagus.
Over the next four days, through dozens of presentations and workshops, I was repeatedly, happily surprised by the careful attention that the Fulbright commission in Spain had taken to prepare its students, but also by the import and prestige of our mission here in Spain. The notion that Fulbright Students and Scholars were real, functional ambassadors for the United States was not just some loose idea tied to an academic grant, but instead the underlying structure of the fellowships. We had been chosen, among other things, to represent our country; the notion shocked me at first, and I reflected purposefully on it in rare moments outside of riveting conversation and new introductions.
It will suffice to say that the orientation passed in an absolute blur of learning, socializing, shaking hands, laughing, networking, ad so on. I felt privileged and deeply grateful to be part of the Fulbright community. The 2018-2019 cohort consists of nearly 200 Fulbrighters, of whom 26 are researchers like myself (though only two postdocs!). Interestingly, by my reckoning there was only one other Fulbrighter in the province of Andalucia, where I would be headed shortly. I met several other biologists, one of which was a fellow ecologist, and added a completely unrealistic number of trips to my planned itinerary for exploring the rest of the country. At least I’ll have places to stay wherever I do make it!
Between highly informative workshops, we enjoyed ample time to get to know one another, and the volume (in intensity and duration) of conversation shared was so immense that I managed to completely lose my voice within the first two days. By the end of the orientation, I felt as though I had made dozens of new friends, and was looking forward to opportunities to explore the many parts of this rich country to which they were being sent.
Despite the exhaustion of four straight days of excitement, socializing, and non-stop intellectual conversation, as the orientation drew to a close, I found myself absolutely supercharged to start my Fulbright experience in Sevilla. Taking advantage of photo opportunities with the much-coveted Fulbright España sign, I felt that my colleagues and I were finally beginning to understand just how much of a life-changing experience was about to commence. There was a tacit, shared feeling of disbelief, overwhelming gratitude and relief. Beyond this, I sensed in many–including myself–an anxiousness to be underway. In a flurry of activity as chaotic as it all had begun, we dispersed the next day, catching trains and buses to all corners of the country. And so began what is sure to be a monumental and unforgettable experience for all of us.