There was no website in 1954, there were no blog spots! There were only paper brochures to learn about the Fulbright program exchange. Stella went to the University of Ghent and had a degree in Germanic languages.
In those days you needed 5 years of experience before you could be eligible for a Fulbright teacher exchange grant. Young teachers could then go to the US to spend a year at a college. She was 28 years old when she left for the US in 1954. She spent 5 days traveling on the S.S.France with four other Fulbrighters one of which was an inspector of schools in Belgium (Andre). She was sick for 3 of the 5 days on the boat to NYC and when they arrived they first saw the Statue of Liberty to welcome them to the country.
They spent one week in NYC and one week in DC to understand the principles of American teaching and then each person went off to different locations, some went to high schools and Stella went to Central Michigan college. She was very happy to land in a beautiful region by train that took 11 hours from DC to Lansing, Michigan.
‘It was paradise to me and it was called Mt. Pleasant. I thought it would be a mountains area but I got there and it was flat as can be! The reason they called it Mt Pleasant was that it was a nice place to stay the night and change your horses back in the day (afspanningen in Dutch) of course there weren’t many horses in the 50s when I arrived! It was one main street and ten blocks wide. In the winter it snowed about 2 feet and a bulldozer came by to sweep it all away so we could make it to the college.
This is an experience that one doesn’t forget. Dr. Anspagh, the President of Central Michigan College, called me to his office for an interview after I arrived. I was given the 5 courses I had to teach and he asked me questions about how I planned to teach them. After the meeting his said ‘you will do this fine’ he gave me full confidence to teach even though I had only taught in Ghent at the secondary school level whereas here this President gave me the confidence about what I could do in the classroom. It was very empowering because you had full reign to teach in my own style. There was a set syllabus but the rest was up to me. If someone gives you so much confidence then you want to prove them right and never fall short of their expectations. I worked hard there but with much pleasure. The strange thing was I had to teach French. Of course I was a native Dutch speaker but Americans only thought Belgians spoke French. At that time in Belgium you had plenty of opportunities to speak French in Ghent because bourgeois families spoke French in the city.
I was 28 and teaching students who were 30 years old. Some of the students who were older were studying on the GI Bill as a compensation for the years they spent in the Korean war. We went to upstate Michigan for skiing as well. I taught French (1st year basics and 4th year literature) and a German basics and German literature which only had one student who was a German student who had married a staff member. By the way, it was forbidden to prolong your stay in America! Not by marriage or any other way. Then you had to return to Belgium for 2 years afterwards to share your experiences in the US with other Belgians.
When I spoke to other Fulbrightes who had returned I felt lucky for the year I had in America. When I returned to Belgium I went back to the same high school in Ghent and resumed teaching Germanic languages and English. I took with me that different approach of teaching. I had a different relationship with the students in Belgium when I returned. I took time to meet with them. I had seen the world opening up. The system in Belgium seemed a bit narrow when I came back. If I had been able to stay in the US I would have stayed for a PhD at the University of Michigan Ann Arbour but could not get the visa to go back. I also had an offer from the Carnegie Endowment to stay to study but I had to turn them down because of the visa situation. I decided to go to the Congo after a few years when I returned and I taught at the high school from 57-58 in Leopoldsville and in June 58 I finally got appointed as an assistant professor in the ‘new’ Flemish department of the university until 1960. They even asked me to start a Fulbright association in the Congo but it did not work out. When the Belgian Congo began to dissolve we moved back and my husband passed away in 1970, I returned to Belgium a bit broken and was delighted to find a lively Fulbright Alumni association. I joined and participated in the activities like helping the incoming American Fulbrighters. I became President of the Flanders chapter in 1982 with Eddy De Grave who was treasurer and Roger De Bruyne. I sat on a selection Committee when Rudi Schollaert was selected to go to the US and when he returned he joined the Flanders chapter and he went on to be president after me in 1988! We organized the famous Thanksgiving dinner that had about 40 people at this dinner each year! Former Executive Directors came to our Thanksgiving dinners like Dorothy Deflandre, Sheila Bayne and Maggie Nicholson. Other chapters also organized a Thanksgiving dinner after we started it. When the little chapters like Limburg and West Flanders found they were having a hard time organizing events, we merged together. Nora Hietarinta-Zonnekein helped organize this and is still very active to this day. I made talks all over the Flanders from De Panne to Limburg for the Flemish Tourist Agency to talk about my experience in America.
The alumni association was different then because we needed each other when we first came back from America. Today, more and more people go to America and it’s no longer the same experience. This doesn’t mean that we change our attitude about the US and we know there are more scholarship sponsors and higher tuition costs and living prices but the passion about the US remains the same!
As a former grantee I have always remained grateful for this experience in the US that has literally had an impact on every aspect of my life! The Fulbright Commission has always remained so open and approachable to help when we still need them.