I set sail for Washington DC in the summer of 2009, determined to complement my European perspective on International Relations with an American one and hoping to discover an unbiased truth in the process. As an MA student at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), I wanted to understand why Europe was perceived to be an economic giant but a political dwarf. Why the national healthcare reform seemed to provoke such heated debate. Why Belgium could not elect its own Obama.
Admittedly, I chuckled a bit when reading Fulbright’s pre-departure guidelines on how to cope with the culture shock which would await me upon arrival in the United States. Surely, I knew this country already. I had ardently followed the 2008 Presidential elections, scrutinized the Federalist Papers in an attempt to understand Europe’s own constitutional aspirations and had enthusiastically participated in what had come to be known as the American ‘soft power’ industry – sipping Coca-Cola whilst watching an episode of the West Wing.
Needless to say, I was wrong. We human scientists have a tendency to analyze, grasp and understand a country on the basis of a certain reading of history, a compelling narrative of current events and a range of indicators to vaguely measure societal developments. What I could not fathom at the time, however, was how true Senator J.W. Fulbright’s words would ring to my ears when he proclaimed that “educational exchange can turn nations into people, contributing as no other form of communication can to the humanizing of international relations”. And humanizing it was indeed.
Even if I did not find an answer to all of my academic questions, studying with some of the brightest people I had ever met often did make me feel as if we, as a community of committed scholars, had come very close to understanding the poignant issues of the day. Coming from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) myself, a university which incorporates the principle of free inquiry into its statutes, I believe the true Fulbright spirit is driven by the continuous bolstering of an open mind and the endless exchange of knowledge. Because by humanizing international relations over and over again, we are given the opportunity to learn from each other, to let go of the way in which we were taught to look at the world around us and to turn nations into long-lasting friends from every corner of the globe.