Just over a year ago today, I learned that I would be spending an academic year as a Dutch teaching assistant at the University of Minnesota. Before I traded my old home on the river Dender for my new one on the Mississippi, this is the full extent of what I knew about the place: it gets cold up there. Most pre-departure conversations I had with Americans and with google boiled down to that simple fact. Terrified, I listened and took in everyone’s advice. I spent my first monthly stipend on a down coat that came down to my knees, hats, gloves, and a year’s supply of thermal underwear. I found my old snow boots in the attic. I was ready.
The first five months of my stay in Minneapolis felt like the first five seasons of Game of Thrones: winter was definitely, unquestionably coming, but no one was really sure when. Fall was glorious, colourful and warm until mid-December, and I was happy not to have to deal with winter just yet. In the fall semester, I quickly settled into my new role as a Fulbright FLTA. I felt enormously privileged to be able to teach these young Americans who, for various reasons, were highly motivated to learn my mother tongue, Dutch. I started off as a TA for my supervisor, the wonderful Dr Jenneke Oosterhoff, and soon started teaching my own classes. I cannot begin to put into words how much I enjoyed working with Jenneke and with our students, and seeing the progress they made throughout the year.
Aside from this unique teaching experience, as a Fulbright FLTA I was given the opportunity to take courses at my host university. A teaching methodology class helped me learn the ropes of teaching in this new environment, and collaborating with my peers, the other new TAs in the department, taught me things about teaching that will surely impact on my classroom practice for years to come. I also grabbed this opportunity to broaden my horizons with some less self-evident courses that fell vastly outside of my area of expertise, such as film studies and an introduction to quantum mechanics, the latter of which mainly served to remind me that, like a character from the aforementioned series, I know nothing.
Winter came and went again, and I fell smitten with the North Star State. As it turns out, the place is not nearly as bleak as the internet and Fargo would have me believe. Where else could one expect to find spectacular waterfalls in the middle of a city, a mighty river and ten thousand frozen lakes, giant butter sculptures of beauty queens, and a gorgeous rugged coastline minus the salty air? I grew to love the Minnesotans and their “Minnesota nice”, which either means actually nice or passive-aggressive, depending on who you ask. In my experience, these two things are not mutually exclusive, and I consider having learned to communicate effectively with the locals one of my greater accomplishments of the year.
Of course, I didn’t exactly stick to Minnesota. Fulbright orientations and conferences took me to Syracuse, NY and Washington D.C., and I made sure not to miss any opportunity to travel on breaks and weekends. Along the course of the year, I visited a total of fifteen states and whetted a healthy appetite to see the other thirty-five soon.
My year in Minneapolis has surpassed my wildest expectations, and I am forever indebted to the Fulbright program for this incredible experience. It remains to be seen in the years to come what being a Fulbrighter will mean for my development as a teacher and as person. In any case, I have returned to Belgium more ambitious and eager to continue learning.
– Charlotte Vanhecke
Fulbright FLTA at the University of Minnesota, 2015-2016