Being a Fulbright Scholar has been on my academic bucket list for some time now. Perhaps like many who have applied for such things, it felt like a longshot (think: Bye-Bye Birdie, “Me, on the Ed Sullivan show?”
I am junior faculty in the monolithic City University of New York system, at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. While I teach at a two year college, because I am part of a larger research system, in addition to my teaching and service, I am also expected to produce scholarship and/or creative work, for which I receive release time. My field is performance studies and speech communication, though throughout my career I’ve taught courses across the humanities in cultural studies, gender studies, intercultural communication, public speaking and presentation skills, and of course performance studies. My goal was to take a year off pre-tenure for a fellowship, during which time I could focus on research and writing, and generally get my head around the direction of my academic career. If you are reading this and you work at CUNY and you don’t already know about the Scholar Incentive Award, you can learn more about it here in our contract. It provides one year leave that counts toward tenure and pays up to 25% of your salary when you have secured an outside funding source.
Having previously spent some time in Sweden for performance work, I was very interested in returning to Scandinavia or a Nordic Country, so I set about looking for Fulbright opportunities in this part of the world.
During one of many random google adventures, I stumbled across an article in Vice Magazine about the first queer, feminist porn magazine in Finland. While I have conflicted feelings about Vice Magazine, they do cover unusual material and are an intriguing source for obscure information.
Finland!! I was immediately intrigued, and turned from the computer to tell my lover/girlfriend/partner, who is also an academic (or, my “kumppani,” in suomi) about the article. She replied that she *just happened* to have a media studies colleague at a university in Finland who has written prolifically on representations of sexuality and gender in internet culture. And from that point forward, things began to fall into place.
My research project is a comparative cultural study between the U.S. and Finland on freedom of expression and arts funding. As a performing artist myself, I am inspired by the difficulty for individual artists to find funding in the U.S. and in particular the lack of government funding for artists who do not have an organizational fiscal sponsor. There’s a complex history of culture war and moral scrutiny associated with the National Endowment for the Arts that is a primary inspiration for my project. After some preliminary research where I learned that artists in Finland are eligible for government salaries, I put together a proposal explaining my research interests in state funding and the limits of free expression.
This was not my first time applying for a Fulbright. Roughly eight years ago, when I was a scholar in residence at a small liberal arts school, I applied for a dreamy performance studies Fulbright in Iceland, which unfortunately I did not receive, although I put it in my back pocket as a future goal.
The Fulbright program was introduced by Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright as a post-WW II global cultural exchange program. While the program is cross-disciplinary, Senator Fulbright was a particularly strong proponent for the arts.
Here’s a short history from the Fulbright website:
The Fulbright Program was established in 1946 under legislation introduced by then-Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas. The Fulbright Program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
The Fulbright Program awards approximately 8,000 grants annually. Roughly 1,600 U.S. students, 4,000 foreign students, 1,200 U.S. scholars, and 900 visiting scholars receive awards, in addition to several hundred teachers and professionals. Approximately 310,000 “Fulbrighters” have participated in the Program since its inception in 1946.
Currently, the Fulbright Program operates in over 155 countries worldwide.
The Fulbright program is an enduring gesture in the best tradition of U.S. global diplomacy. It’s rare not because there aren’t multiple such gestures, but because this one is open to the general public. You don’t even have to be an academic to apply for a Fulbright. There are numerous Fulbright awards that are given to professionals across all disciplines. Fulbrights focus on innovation and cultural exchange.
There are many different kinds of Fulbright awards which are detailed on the website, and they vary according to the particular country to which you apply. Generally, an award includes a small travel stipend, a monthly living stipend, and an apartment. In exchange for this, a grantee’s responsibilities may include teaching, research, or some combination of both, in addition to public speaking engagements around the country and other presentations of ongoing research. Ideally, a Fulbright acts as a cultural ambassador for their home country.
Like many things in academia, the application process begins around a year in advance. I applied for the award during the summer of 2014, and received notices updating me about my status as a finalist throughout the fall.
When I first learned that I had actually received the award, I was on my way to teach on the C train in New York City. I got the confirmation email at one of those magic moments of reception between stops and barely restrained myself from telling everyone on the train that I AM A FULBRIGHT SCHOLAR I AM A FULBRIGHT SCHOLAR I AM A FULBRIGHT SCHOLAR. Although, on any usual morning commute, most would likely have paid me no notice.
I received this notification a bit late in the semester, because originally I was an alternate. By some kismet, someone cancelled (and I hope whoever that person is that they are well) and I would like to believe that it was my constant flow of gentle check-in emails with the Washington DC Fulbright office that convinced them that I was deeply committed and should be the next in line. When originally I found out I was an alternate I had the opposite experience as I had on the C train, which was to stand in a doorway in Union Square in Manhattan, crying into the phone that I was obviously an academic loser who would never go anywhere in her career. This is only funny if you have been that person crying in public in New York City, and are fortunate enough to be able to laugh about it later. I have been that person on more than one occasion, and eventually accepted it as a formative part of the experience of living there.
But the email notification I received on the train was quite the opposite. I was ELATED, and the elation lasted for one full week, during which time I felt like everything in my academic career had finally come to this one perfect moment of fruition and I would never again experience a second of the self-doubt that so many of us foolishly allow to plague our lives.
And then the angst set in. I would be leaving the country for AN ENTIRE YEAR. This would require official signed permission from my chair, my dean, and the president of the university approving my scholar incentive award that would give me the (partially) paid year off from my job; this would require deciding if my relatively new Kumppani would be accompanying me to Finland, when we had only moved in together three months before; this would require navigating inscrutable city bureaucracy to sublet my hard won rent stabilized New York City apartment; this would require renting an overpriced storage unit in the Bronx for all sorts of personal effects I likely wouldn’t even remember I owned after a few months; this would require somehow transporting enough–but not too much–domestic comfort halfway across the world for a year on a very limited travel budget; and most importantly, this would require finding someone to take care of and love my darling cat son, Sweetpea, like he deserves to be loved, which is with all the love in the world.
Suddenly, things seemed insurmountable, and the insomnia began.
Because Kumppani and I would be staying in Finland for a period longer than six months, we needed to apply for Finnish identity cards, which meant that we would be officially registered in the government system. Among the many, many helpful emails with links to instructions that I received from the Fulbright office, there was information about how to get our identity cards, which involved going to the Finnish embassy office. Because I was used to the DMV-style process of getting things done in NYC (show up and wait) I foolishly–FOOLISHLY–assumed that these Finnish identity cards could be procured in the same manner. In the Fulbright literature, it was suggested that I needed to call and make an appointment, and so I did. Two days before we were scheduled to turn our apartment over to the subletters and leave New York City, I called the Finnish embassy. The conversation went something like this:
Me: Hello, I’m calling to make an appointment for an identity card
Finnish Rep: Yes, the next appointment we have is in three months.
Me: Three months? I’m leaving the city in two days.
Finnish Rep: Oh, I’m sorry.
Me: What would you suggest I do? I’m going to Finland as a Fulbright Scholar and must have this identity card to enter the country.
Finnish Rep: I’m sorry. There are a lot of people like you. You can call one of the other offices to see if they have an appointment.
The other offices turned out to be located in Los Angeles and Washington D.C. and neither one of them had an appointment for months, either. At this point, it seemed like our only option was to postpone our trip and find our own sublet somewhere between NYC and DC, or buy a plane ticket to LA and try to find a place to hang out there for a while, or go back to the original plan involving New York tenacity to just show up and wait. We chose the latter.
The next day, we took a car to the Finnish embassy in Midtown East and were, of course, stopped at the desk.
“We are here to get identity cards,” I told the guard as professionally as I could, like I had every right to be saying that. He scanned the list for our names, and not seeing them, asked, “Do you have an appointment?”
“Oh, no we don’t have an appointment,” I admitted.
At this point he looked at me and laughed, and picked up the phone. Then a miracle occurred: “Okay,” he said, “you can go upstairs.”
Could this be possible? Had our New York tenacity prevailed?
We went upstairs and walked down a long white corridor with no windows. After being buzzed in to the Finnish office, we spent some time waiting and looking at colorful brochures about all of the wonderful things that Americans think about Finland that really are true (highest rated education system; gender equity; incredible wilderness; excellent public transportation; no GMOs; clean cities; Northern Lights). We were called to the desk and told that if we could come back the next day, we would be seen for our identity cards. It was a miracle.
Now, Kumppani is of the butch persuasion. We are not married. So we went to the office together as a couple yet applied for our cards separately. The interview process consisted of a high tech fingerprinting device and turning in a copy of our letters of invitation (mine from Fulbright, hers from the university inviting her as a scholar in residence–since it’s her sabbatical year, the university generously supported us by including her). Despite the fact that Finland has registered partnerships and will have same sex marriage in 2017, and has a progressive view on queer identities, the embassy seemed to have difficulty understanding what our relationship was, exactly. First, Kumppani was repeatedly referred to as male–which, really, is fine, since she is of the butch persuasion, this was received as a compliment. However, this became more complicated when it became clear to the embassy that she was in fact a woman and I continued referring to her as my partner. The end result of all of this was that when we received our Finnish identity cards in the mail, Kumppani was referred to as my daughter. While some queers have certainly utilized the option of adoption to secure legal protections, this was not our approach, and so we called the embassy back to make sure that they understood that we were not actually physically related, but only going as a couple. “Yes, oh yes,” they explained, “that must have been a clerical error.”
Like I said, being awarded a Fulbright has been on my bucket list for quite some time now, and whenever I get stressed out about all of the pragmatics involved, I try to return to that space of elation on the C train when I could have danced with delight across the tops of the benches, up and down the length of the car. It was a magical moment during which I felt absolutely satisfied, and truly accomplished about my academic career, and these are the moments to be relished.
This is a personal website. All views and information presented herein are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Finnish-American Fulbright Program and its sponsors.