I have been teaching Dutch at the University of Minnesota as a Fulbright Foreign Language Assistant (FLTA) and to be honest: if this experience was any more perfect, it could only be in a dream. My home is in the Twin Cities, more specifically in Minneapolis, a lively city where you can walk on the lakes in winter and use year-round public transportation that is actually on time!
The University, locally known as ‘the U’, has an impressive campus on both banks of the Mississippi. I share an office with other TA’s of my department, who make the hours of grading and preparing classes more fun with their comments and conversations about language teaching and life in general. Last semester I attended my supervisor’s classes in addition to teaching them sometimes and I held a weekly conversation hour. That way I gradually felt more confident about teaching Dutch to American students. This Spring semester, I am teaching my very own class of enthusiastic students! Belgians often ask me who actually wants to learn Dutch, and why. The answer to that is that most students have a connection to Belgium or the Netherlands, such as family or friends. Others are just really interested in learning a language that has so much in common with English. Luckily, every single student has a specific reason, and therefore motivation, to learn more about my language and culture. Other Americans, however, are often confused when I tell them I teach Dutch, because a lot of them do not understand the connection between Dutch and Flemish (which they assume is my language). A tip for future FLTA’s: using the comparison of British and American English as a similar example helps.
Another way I have been involved in university life is by taking ballroom dance classes. With zero previous experience, I was a bit hesitant at first, but since this Fulbright year is all about doing new things I decided to just go for it. Now you can see me dancing tango, foxtrot and so much more for about 5 hours a week during both lessons and social dancing. I was even a finalist for east coast swing in a big competition! Dancing is a great way to interact with students from different programs and backgrounds. This is how a typical conversation might go: “Hi, how are you?”, step, step, “I like your accent, where are you from?”, step, “Belgium” step, step, “Oh, I love Belgian waffles!”. Imagine their disappointment when, in the middle of complex turn in a tango, I tell them our actual waffles are very different from the kind they know. Although I have to confess: I ate one in an ultra-American diner and it was delicious!
Last semester I took a Native American History course and a class about Education and Society. While I learned a lot in the first one, the latter gave me more insight in the inner workings, benefits and flaws of the American education system. It also provided me with the opportunity to volunteer as an English TA in a high school for mostly inner city youth with a problematic schooling background. This semester I am taking a (very relevant) course about American Foreign Policy and one whose title is definitely not less interesting than its content: Becoming Stupid: Anti-Science in American Politics. I guess these last few historic political months have not left me unchanged. Both Belgian and American people often ask me how I feel about being here during the elections and Trump’s presidency. “Interesting” is definitely the right word to describe it.
I will be sad to leave this diverse country and the amazing friends I have made. Some of the highlights in a nutshell: at the FLTA orientation in Arkansas I played on stage in a dueling piano bar. In Minnesota I saw a real rodeo, carried a canoe on my back and fell asleep under the stars watching the northern lights. In DC more than 300 FLTA’s exchanged stories at the Mid-Year Conference and I stood where Martin Luther King held his “I have a dream”-speech. With Kirsi, my Finnish FLTA roommate, I spent a 25-hour train ride on the Coast Starlight from Seattle to San Francisco and crossed the Golden Gate Bridge on foot. We held the New Year’s Eve countdown in LA and won 25 dollars in Las Vegas before being awed by the Grand Canyon. I have to go back to Belgium in June, but I am more motivated than ever to share my American experiences with my future students and others. So dear reader, feel free to contact me if you want to know more. Thank you, Fulbright, for allowing me to see the real United States of America.
— Joke De Lille,
2016-2017 Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant