A Transformative Experience

Although the 2016-2017 Fulbright has come to an end, my connections to the people and culture of my new home has not. My time in Leuven, Belgium has been a
transformative experience thanks to the amazing people I was able to meet through my research and courses at KU Leuven. My new Belgian and international friends that I made were truly able to breathe life into one of the founding principles of the Fulbright: promoting international understanding through cultural and educational exchange.

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The experience during my time in Belgium that epitomized this idea most was during our last weeks of the school year when I hosted everyone in my tiny apartment to watch Eurovision. For those of you unfamiliar with what Eurovision is (as I was before watching this year), it is basically a giant song contest in which each country in geographical Europe (plus Australia for some bizarre reason) sends one citizen to represent them each year in the hopes of winning the Eurovision title. This year, the contest was hosted in the previous winner’s country in Kiev, Ukraine. Most countries put on grand performances, sometimes relating to the current political unrest in their country or to celebrate their own country’s heritage. Together, friends from Belgium, the UK, Germany, Hungary, and the US brought snacks and huddled around my little TV to see who would claim the win this year. As we watched each country perform, my friends also talked about their own countries, why they selected the singer they did, and how the song chosen reflected the spirit of their home. It helped me to better understand people’s connections to their home and to learn more current history in each country. When Eurovision came to an end that night, I felt as if it was the perfect way to close my time in the Fulbright program because the atmosphere with my international friends was warm, open, and in the spirit of sharing.

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Being able to conduct research and interact with people from Belgium and around the world in Leuven has given me the opportunity to learn a great deal about my host country while also partaking in events that have allowed me to share my first-hand knowledge of the US with others. At a time fraught with worries about the future state of global relationships, I feel that the exchange and bonding that happens between internationals during the Fulbright program couldn’t be of more importance since it embodies how we should all continue to move forward: together.

Savannah Kounelis
2016-2017 U.S. Fulbright grantee to Belgium
Leuven, Belgium