After defending my Ph.D. in Autumn 2019, I departed to Fayetteville, AR, to start my joint Fulbright and BAEF postdoctoral fellowship at the Department of Biological Sciences of the University of Arkansas. In this blog post, I share my experience as a Fulbright fellow in Arkansas, both before and during an unfolding pandemic.
In the late evening of December 30th, 2019, I arrived in Dallas (TX) – tired but extremely excited to start my Fulbright research stay in the USA. Dallas was not my final destination – I would merely spend the night in a small airport hotel to catch another flight in the early morning. This morning flight took me to Fayetteville, Arkansas, a little college town tucked away in the Ozark Mountains in the upper northwest of the Natural State. Here, I would work in the lab of Prof. Andrew Alverson – one of the top scientists in my field – whose research interests closely align with mine. So yes, I was excited!
Arkansas is a little-known state in the southern USA. To be honest, I did not really know what to expect. I had never visited the USA before, and it is easy to get lost in the idea of big cities and magnificent natural scenery. Arkansas has nothing of that – no big cities, no huge skylines, and no Yellowstone-like natural parks. It turned out that I did not need any of that to feel connected, to feel at home. Fayetteville welcomed me with a seemingly endless series of ‘How are you?’ greetings, lots of cozy bars and breweries, and tons of wonderful people always ready to help me with a smile. In those first two months, I got to connect with the local culture, and first-hand experienced ‘southern hospitality’. There was the Saturday when I went for lunch with an elderly American couple, exchanging customs and stories about the USA and Europe. There was Amanda, an American local my age whom I met through the university iFriend program, who greeted me with a big hug, took me shopping and introduced me to fried chicken. There was Chris, who gave me and some fellow Fulbrighters a wonderful lasagna, some wine-tasting and engaging conversation. There was Becky, who offered me a bed for the night – not having met me before – when I visited Kansas City for a Fulbright Enrichment Seminar. She introduced me to her family, took me sightseeing in KC, and made sure I got to enjoy a real Kansas BBQ. Coming from Belgium, this degree of friendliness to strangers seemed odd to me at first, but it is probably the one thing I will carry with me the most when returning to Belgium.
Amongst many other things, living abroad mostly teaches you how to be resilient, and how to adapt to new, often unexpected, situations. In my case, this included arriving at my apartment after taking three flights, dead tired and jetlagged, only to find the key did not work – or being alone in the research lab on one of my very first days during a huge thunderstorm when my phone started emitting loud blaring sounds warning me to seek shelter for a potential tornado. That day, I promised myself to always check the weather before venturing out – a reminder of which was given in April when egg-sized hail fell from the sky. However, the biggest test on resilience came in mid-March, when it became clear that we were at the start of a long battle against COVID-19. Right before things went haywire, I visited the Fulbright Enrichment Seminar in Kansas City. This proved to be a wonderful experience, allowing me to forge connections with Fulbrighters from around the world. Nevertheless, the constant hand sanitizing and pandemic buzzing during lunch or on the bus indicated what was to come. Mere days after returning from KC, my university went online, students left campus, and the lab became off-limits. In the months to come, the connections forged with other Fulbrighters in KC proved to be extremely valuable, as we continued to support each other from afar.
Mid-March, upon the realization that COVID-19 is now a global threat, I was feeling at a total loss. There was the fear of the unknown, the knowledge that all my plans for 2020 were off the table, and the need to make decisions. Should I stay, or should I go? Connecting with other Fulbrighters and BAEF grantees across the USA, as well as tons of skypes with family and friends in Belgium eased my mind, and I decided to stay. The knowledge that Fulbright, including both the team in Brussels as well as my IIE advisor in Washington DC, had my back – providing emotional support, online meetings and yoga sessions – helped tremendously during these days.
Over the next months, working from home became routine. Weekly happy hours with my lab members, online conferences, and department seminars allowed me to continue feeling connected with my colleagues and other scientists across the globe. I forged a COVID bubble with several other international friends – exchanging recipes from our home countries, learning how to make proper cocktails, and going for hikes. As a biologist, I could not be happier with the nature both in and around Fayetteville. Almost every day, I ventured out of the house by foot or on my bike – photographing plants, birds, reptiles, insects and mammals. Being out with my camera also proved to be an excellent way to connect with other people, as many were interested when they saw me moving butterflies or snakes from the bike path, hiding next to a bush to catch that one hummingbird on a photograph, or spending minutes underneath a tree observing my favorite bird, the Northern Cardinal. This easy access to nature and wildlife has tremendously helped me to remain positive, and allowed me to cope better with unexpected setbacks.
Set-backs came in the form of travel bans, continuously changing visa regulations and mails from embassies and health insurance companies urging me to leave the USA as soon as possible. On top of that, 2020 was not only marked by an ever-worsening pandemic and its consequences, but also the brutal killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the resurgence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, nation-wide social unrests, and a historical election. These events made me much more aware of my own privilege, and prompted me to become better informed about racial injustice – in the USA, but also in Belgium – as well as American social and political history. This was facilitated by the online seminars offered by Fulbright and the international scientific community.
Now, in Autumn 2020, I am nearing the end of my Fulbright fellowship. This will, however, not be the end of my research stay in the USA. Sometime during the pandemic, I decided to apply for a US postdoctoral fellowship. I recognized quite early that 2020 would be mostly lost on me, but I was determined to nonetheless try to get the US experience I signed up for. Now, with this fellowship in my hands, I am looking forward to getting back to the lab and continuing to do exciting science. I am eager to be a part of this country a little longer, eager to forge new connections and collaborations across the USA, and eager to continue carrying on the Fulbright spirit. Here is to a better, brighter future!
Eveline Pinseel is a Belgian 2019-2020 Fulbright Scholar in Biology to the University of Arkansas. In her Ph.D., she focused on the diversity and geographic distributions of unicellular algae in the Polar Regions. This research interest has seen her traveling to the Arctic and Antarctic Regions to collect samples and has fueled a strong interest in the history and diversity of life on Earth. In her role as a board member of the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists in Belgium, she has also been involved in many outreach activities concerning the Polar Regions.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.