A world of cultures hidden in a local community

Just having obtained a master’s degree at Ghent University, I was ready for something else. Something providing me with more than just a passion for my work. A month later, I was on a plane, heading for my first direct contact ever with American culture. Not only for a two-week vacation but an actual full academic year, the longest I would ever have been out of Belgium.

Being abroad for such a long time really persuades you to be open and welcoming for a new lifestyle, and consequently rethink and consider your own habits. It is remarkable how much you learn about yourself and your own culture by being so far from home.


The first thing that popped into my mind when arriving in Miami for a Fulbright event: “I am totally in a movie!”. A week later, I went through New York City to reach my final destination, Ithaca. While my knowledge about American life was completely based on the cinematic world, I quickly saw the diversity present in a single nation, which cannot be captured on screen. In my European environment, we often generalize the U.S. as people with a single culture and lifestyle. While for a country the size of Belgium, this assumption is somewhat valid, it is incredible how wrong we are for a nation like the United States. Each region offers its own ideas, values, habits, and people to explore.

In that sense, Ithaca itself is definitely a unique environment worth discussing. I landed in a small community, as its town is no larger than my local hometown in Belgium. It was shocking to me how such a renowned university as Cornell University can exist in such a local area. However, I quickly realized the enormous advantages that come with it. Due to the presence of the university, everyone is extremely open-minded and welcoming to new people coming from all over the world, which quickly made me feel at home. At the same time, you get accepted in the community, offering you the direct experience of living and being involved with the locals. While I mostly am an introvert, the community-feeling enables you to easily make conversation with random strangers and make friends in unexpected situations. My most interesting discussions were definitely with the bus driver on Sunday evenings, a photographer at a local fundraising event, and with the taxi driver taking me out of Ithaca.


Last but not least, I want to take a moment to express the presence of Fulbright into my adventure. From the start, I set myself the goal to make friends outside of the physics bubble I comfortably resided in the previous couple of years. I wanted to meet people with a very different perspective on life, making me more aware of all its aspects, and eventually helping me in better defining my work-life balance, something that needed lots of improvement. Fulbright exactly provided me with this environment. Through multiple events, such as the gateway orientation in Miami and the enrichment seminar in Pittsburgh, I met the most amazing and inspiring people from over 50 different nations. These were some crucial changing points for my views on all kinds of cultures and people. But also locally in Ithaca, a strong network was present. Actually, all of my closest friends are Fulbrighters themselves, connected through our common struggles and experiences. They inspired me to come out of my shell and allowed me to make the most out of my time there. Organizing paint nights, game nights, movie nights, hikes in the beautiful nature surrounding the region, going to local fundraisers and the astonishing performances in Ithaca College, and many more. Even now when I’m back in Belgium, I feel the connection with others.


I really cannot recommend enough for anyone to go on their own adventure and submerge yourself in a variety of cultures. It is an invaluable life experience, having prepared me fully to take on the next challenges that I will encounter.

Tom Vandekerckhove is a Belgian 2019-2020 Fulbright Student in Engineering at Cornell University. Tom Vandekerckhove holds an MSc in Engineering Physics from Ghent University. Having gained experience in the field of quantum optics, his goal is to contribute to the future quantum technologies by pursuing a research career. That is what leads him to follow the ME in Engineering Physics at Cornell University, providing the perfect opportunity to start building an international network. Besides his academic interests, he likes to explore new countries and has been a regular volleyball player for the past 12 years.

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