How a biochemist in Belgium found community through music

How a biochemist in Belgium found community through music

In high school I was definitely a band kid. I played in every musical group available to me, and my world revolved around music.  The sense of belonging and community I felt as a member of a musical ensemble was unparalleled. This was why I kept playing in college, even as I decided to pursue a career in biotechnology research. When I applied for my Fulbright grant, I proposed that I would join a local orchestra to foster the same sense of belonging with my Belgian neighbors. When I arrived in Gent, I began researching different community groups. I found the Gent University Harmonic Orchestra (GUHO), a student-run,100-piece wind-instrument orchestra. I filled out an online questionnaire, and I was invited to audition. When I arrived, I played a short audition piece and was invited to stay for the rehearsal. During this first rehearsal, I was surprised how mentally exhausting it was for me to keep up with the directions and […]

The Kindness of Strangers

Moving abroad takes a lot of faith: faith you will overcome the language barrier and culture shock, faith that you will be welcomed into the community, and a lot of faith that you are doing the right thing, even when things get tough. Luckily, my hop over the pond has been a pretty euphoric experience so far, mostly due to the kindness I have seen and found in Gent. Last night, I decided to make a trip to a sports center on the other side of town. As I sat down on the tram, I glanced at Google maps on my phone for the name of my stop. I had 5% of my battery left, just enough to make it to my destination. I stuck my phone in my coat pocket and read a book while I waited. After I exited the tram, I reached for my phone to check the directions again. Nothing. I rummaged through my purse, but […]

Who are the people in the neighborhood? A historical look at “neighbors” and their communities. Dr. Sarah A. Cramsey

My parents have lived next to the same three families for thirty years.  They have never fought over property lines, noisy parties or the shade provided by various trees.  Relations between “them” and “us” have almost always been friendly. We wave hello, feed each other animals during times of vacation and redeliver errant mail. Yet, I can honestly say that I don’t really know them at all.  Outside of the family unit, the first collective that most humans belong to is their neighborhood. And yet, “neighbors” in both my personal experience and in the historical past remain under-known quantities.  More specifically, we might ask, what does it mean to have a relationship with a “neighbor” and how does it become possible to feel “rooted” on a street, in a neighborhood, in a city or in the broader nation? Ask we did.  And after two days of discussing these questions and the larger issues of “neighbors,” a dozen experts assembled in Brussels began […]

That which Upholds a Society and Founds a Community: The Visible and the Unnoticed

Societies need people to function and communities need something in common around which to coalesce. These needs are met in different ways by and for different people. While we acknowledge the importance of doctors and lawyers, teachers and professors—what might be called the upper-class workers—we tend not to notice the people who have the greatest effect on our day to day lives. Yes, the upper-class workers are important, preforming specialized task or providing specific help in our times of need, but how often do we pass by the people who found our sense of normalcy. I’m speaking of the janitors, the grounds keepers, the bus drivers, the servers at functions—a group of people who, in my experience thus far, tend to be immigrants, or at least people of non-Western European descent. In my brief time in country, I’ve had people thank me for engaging them in conversation and listening to them. For asking questions about their experience and showing genuine […]

I’M FINALLY HERE: Starting my Fulbright, Getting adjusted, Navigating “solo” time

GREETINGS loved ones! Ahh… I can’t believe I’m writing my first Fulbright blog post! It seems like just yesterday I was editing my application essays until 4 am and entering class like a ghost the very next morning with a gallon of Loyola Starbucks coffee in hand. Those were the days… (sarcasm intended, though not regarding Loyola Starbucks. God I miss that place. And all the money I wasted there.). It also seems like just yesterday I was writing my blog posts about studying abroad in Leuven — this deja-vu is even more surreal, especially given the fact that I’m BACK in Belgium and there are just so many parallels between my time in Leuven and my time thus far living in Brugge. However, though I’ve only been here for just under a month, I already know that this experience will be far different from my previous time living in Belgium. Most obviously, I’ll be here for a substantially longer […]

2019 U.S. Grantee Orientation

Enthusiastic – and highly caffeinated – smiles greeted the Royal Library of Belgium as the newest cohort of Fulbright grantees slowly trickled into the building, newcomer jitters in tow, eagerly awaiting their program orientation. After a steady chorus of casual greetings and public transit mishaps, Fulbright Executive Director Erica Lutes formally opened the presentation by asking each grantee to introduce themselves to the group — and introduce themselves they did. This year’s group of Fulbright grantees boasts a wide array of incredibly accomplished individuals, with eight student researchers, nine English teaching assistants, and five scholars (to arrive in the spring) in Belgium, six English teaching assistants and one researcher in Luxembourg, and three Schuman researchers. With such a diverse range of backgrounds to draw from, there did not appear to be one academic stone left unturned. Polite chuckles laced with pride accompanied the account of many grantees’ interests, and, with projects like “exploring the role of prenylation in plant crop productivity […]

American Football in Antwerp

What could be more quintessentially American than football on a Sunday afternoon?  Since part of Fulbright’s mission is to share American culture abroad, while experiencing and engaging with local cultures, one of my plans was to find out about any local American football clubs and try to attend some games.  A Belgian housemate told me he knew several members of the Antwerp team and made sure to let me know when the season was beginning. A week before their first game, I found out the team was hosting a viewing party for Super Bowl LIII at a restaurant/bar and everyone was invited.  It turned out to be a great opportunity to meet the players, spend a night out late, and enjoy the game.  Everyone knows soccer is the preferred sport (by far) in much of Europe, and Germany and England are always the countries associated with American football.  Yet Belgium also has some insanely passionate and knowledgeable fans, and they […]

Joining the Congo Research Network

I am a bit of a unique Fulbrighter in Belgium. I have had the unusual privilege to serve as a grantee twice here, thirteen years apart. The first time was to teach English in 2005-6 at the Université Catholique de Louvain in Louvain-la-Neuve. That experience was the beginning of a lifetime connection between me and le plat pays. In the years since then, I returned many times for short visits and to maintain old friendships, including those with my cokotteurs (student dorm roommates) and my original Fulbright contact person in Hasselt, with whose family I have become very close. Meanwhile, after finishing my studies at Berkeley, I established an academic career in African studies. Now, in 2018-19, as an assistant professor at George Mason University, I have had the honor to return to Belgium. This time, the Fulbright Commission welcomed me as a scholar in order to undertake archival research on colonial literature and history at the Africa Museum in […]

International Fairs, the Post-Colonial Nation, and Archives: Doing Research in Brussels

When I first arrived in Brussels as a student researcher in September 2018, I was excited to finally do extended archival research for my dissertation. My project focused on sovereignty and the intersection of private, colonial, and local actors in southeastern Congo and Central Angola during the early 20th century. The project considered a situation in which interests among people from Congo, Belgium, Angola, Britain, Portugal, America, France and elsewhere all seemed to overlap in one region of Central Africa. Within the archives I expected to find consistent struggles among these actors over issues of economic and political authority during the early 20th century, and while I found some of these conflicts, it became clear that these struggles over authority really came to a head around Congo independence in 1960. Part of this was due to the fact that many of the available sources come from colonial officials who had an interest in presenting images of tranquility during the early […]

Beyond Mai Fulbright Experience

Absolute silence, the sound of a tranquil morning, was something completely foreign to me. Yet most of my mornings are now like this; filled with a sense of peace and comfort, similar to the feeling one gets from drinking a cup of hot chocolate on a cold night. I may not sleep as often as I would prefer, but I no longer wake up with a sense of immediate urgency, the way I used to in college. It’s hard to imagine that a year ago, my life was consumed by an endless stream of courses, organizational meetings, volunteer activities, and side jobs. I remember free time being scarce with mornings that consisted of repeated rings from my alarm. Starting my day involved checking my emails and trying to set a new record for how fast I could get out the door. So far, it’s 10 minutes. Who needs a lunch break when you can scoff down your sandwich on your […]

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