There are many fantastic benefits to a Fulbright scholarship, and my gratitude for the opportunity is great. Travelling to, and studying in, a foreign country to learn both as a professional and a human being is enough, but the advantages stretch far beyond these. Among my favorite lesser-recognized perks are Fulbright Spain’s orientation and mid-year seminars.
These are (have been) a huge treat: several action-packed days of Fulbright-oriented programming and social events, surrounded by a diverse crowd of motivated, interesting, talented, friendly, and intellectual people. It’s a stunning atmosphere and a chance to savor great company and inspiring energy. It’s impossible to spend time in a group of Fulbright grantees and not quickly feel rejuvenated and charged with wide-eyed wonder and excitement about the world around you.
To cut to the chase, I was treated to yet another such experience earlier this month, when I flew to Valencia for Fulbright Spain’s mid-year seminar, a chance for students and scholars alike to share their experiences from all over Spain. It’s a brilliant idea, really; between workshops, student presentations, coffee breaks, and cocktail hours, we all learned from over a hundred other experiences in Spain, from all different parts of the country. My own narrow experience from one city in one state was multiplied hugely as I shared my adventures with others, and soon I felt as though I had been from Murcia to Asturias during my first few months (needless to say, there’s no substitute for experience, and I’ve still got to see it for myself!).
With introductions and orientation logistics out of the way from our meeting in September, the mid-year seminar was a different experience entirely. It focused more on exchange of knowledge and experience, reflection, goal-setting, and forging new connections. The diversity and quality of the presentations was staggering, and subject matter ranged from enlightening personal experiences and reflections to research presentations of scholarly merit and TED-esque lectures on exciting topics in innovation and thinking. I was fortunate enough to share some details on my work in Sevilla, and also (taking advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of talking to a roomful of future American leaders) made my soap-box pitch for biodiversity conservation and its inseparable connection to human well-being.
The first evening concluded with a dazzling talent show, which combined impressive and long-practiced abilities, new skills, and clever humor in an intoxicating mix. There were delightful musical pieces, hilarious and educational skits, jaw-dropping dance performances, and a stand-up comedy bit.
In addition to the planned portions of the seminar, we also enjoyed unstructured time for a less formal exchange of knowledge and experience, and of course to kick back, enjoy ourselves, and see more of Valencia. Having never been before, I was eager to get out and have a stroll; I was not alone in this and repeatedly found myself among other Fulbrighters on long and satisfying rambles.
The seminar concluded with several inspiring talks by students and officials alike (including staff from the U.S. Embassy) and was for me a powerful reminder of the importance of what we’re doing and the degree of privilege and behind the opportunity granted in our fellowships. I was grateful and lucky to contribute my own soppy reflections to our concluding remarks, which allowed time for humble contemplation of the past five months and what they have meant to myself and my fellow Fulbrighters.
We were treated next to a delicious Valencian paella at a seaside restaurant, followed by (for me, the biggest treat of all!) a tour of la Albufera, a beautiful, brackish inland lake south of the city. A storied place with a name of Arabic origins (from al-buhayra, for “a small sea”), this lagoon is an ecological treasure like Doñana, sharing its designation as a Ramsar site (a wetland ecosystem of international importance). We toured the extensive marshes in a pole-propelled boat, then explored a traditional home of the type used for centuries by fishermen that survived on Albufera’s bounty.
I spent the rest of my time in Valencia exploring the city and getting to know various other Fulbrighters. One particular pursuit of mine was to sample as much Horchata (or Orxata) as possible. This sweetened, vegetable-based drink is an acquired taste for many, and may be familiar to some Americans from the Latin-American (Guatemalan or Mexican), rice-based version that is becoming popular at many restaurants in the U.S. The Spanish (chufa– or Tiger-nut-based) version was yet another cultural import of the Moors to the Iberian peninsula more than a thousand years ago. I was on an absolute war path to consume as much horchata as possible, and managed to get a few glasses down at several local horchaterias before I left.
My meanderings around the city revealed it to be a vibrant and bustling community, that–depending on the neighborhood–combined striking street art with crumbling old Franco-era brick buildings and spotless shopping plazas and main streets. There were beautiful old churches, stylishly modern parks, and just about everything in between.
One thing I particularly enjoyed was visiting the seashore, which is where I made sure to spend my last few hours in Valencia prior to my departure. Although Sevilla is not very far from the ocean, it’s certainly not coastal, and so I hadn’t seen the ocean since my arrival in Spain. So on my last morning in Valencia, I trekked out to the beach and sat for a couple hours, staring out at the water, keeping an eye out for interesting gulls (I saw no new species, but saw the first House martins of the year, already migrating back from a winter season in North Africa), rescuing scores of Seven-spotted ladybird beetles (Coccinella septempunctata) that were getting blown out to see by the heavy wind, and reflecting on the first half of my time in Spain. It is redundant to explain my gratitude and appreciation for the opportunity that this fellowship has been so far. Suffice it to say I had more valuable experiences to ponder from a short amount of time than nearly any other period of my life. I can only imagine what great experiences and worthy challenges are in store for the second half.