There is a reason why so many people move to LA: the climate is, let’s face it, incredible. Coming from Belgium, I especially loved not having to think about how many layers I would need to put on before going outside. After a couple of months, I was gradually becoming an LA girl used to the neverending sunshine.
Then came the email that I was invited for the Fulbright Enrichment Seminar at the end of January – yay! – in Salt Lake City – Salt Lake City? Where the winter Olympics took place some time ago? I didn’t even own a warm coat in California, or, you know, closed shoes. Fortunately, my friend lent me some more snow-appropriate attire that would prepare me for the seminar.
Now, I didn’t really know what to expect from an Enrichment Seminar. After all, academics tend to attend niche conferences about very specific topics, so everyone is connected through his research. However, this seminar was on “The Driving Forces Behind the Entrepreneurial Landscape of Silicon Slopes”, something I know virtually nothing about. In which ways will I be enriched? It felt strangely liberating, setting off somewhere where I didn’t need to have an expert opinion ready, meeting new people with completely different interests and world views, however all connected by our Fulbright network.
I can honestly say, this experience has become one of the fondest memories of my adult life. On the first day, I witnessed the testimony of two female CEOs who talked about the still-existing glass ceilings and struggles for women, especially in the STEM fields. They emphasized that it is really important for girls to have women role models in their lives, so they can believe in themselves. But more generally, all children and young people should have a mentor, who is engaged in her/his personal and professional growth path.
The next day a group of us visited a non-profit organization that put these words into deeds on a daily basis. The Junior Achievement City invites low-income children for a day in their recreated city, to teach them about everyday adult life. Which career choice do I make? How can I invest and save my money? How do I fill out my taxes? (Many of us jokingly said, ‘I wish I attended something like this when I was young’, but were we really joking though?). The complete and unconditional passion with which these mentor volunteers showed us their life work and accomplishments, only reinforced the message from earlier in the conference.
It all just really stuck with me. Before, I’d never thought about the importance of both being and having a mentor. But ever since Salt Lake City, I have made the promise to myself to be actively engaged in both short and long term for young people who would like to be mentored. Of course, the most fun part about these seminars, are the people you meet. Normally, I find these social functions rather awkward, but oh my, how spoilt are we in the Fulbright community? It felt like someone said: here is a hotel with 150 of the most interesting, versatile and accomplished people you will ever meet, now talk and make friends. I met Aziz, an astronomy enthusiast who got a comet named after him. I met Matteusz, doing a dissertation in classical composing touring around embassies with his music. I met Madiha from Pakistan, who taught me all about her culture and the path she took that lead her to the USA. The list goes on and on. Many of them have become friends, and even during these difficult times, we keep in touch on a regular basis.
I often find myself thinking back to these four days in January. Now, as I am writing this, I finally know the answer to my question: in which ways will I be enriched? I learned that I can constantly renew my view of the world. That I can change opinions when I meet new people, or adjust my stance when I listen to someone who is an expert on a topic. I always thought I was one person. But now I realize, I am not. I contain multitudes. And for me, that was my enrichment.
Machteld Joly is a Belgian 2019-2020 Fulbright Student Researcher to the University of Southern California. She is a Ph.D. researcher in environmental economics at the University of Leuven in Brussels, Belgium. She started her career in the financial sector, as a financial risk consultant for Ernst & Young. In 2015, Machteld took the opportunity to pursue an academic career at the KU Leuven. She has been awarded an FWO Ph.D. fellowship in 2018 for her work on the valuation of environmental externalities.Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State