Our experience as a Fulbright family in State College during a pandemic

From November 2019 until July 2020 my family and I lived in State College, where I was a visiting postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Geosciences at Pennsylvania State University (‘Penn State’). This blogpost shares our experience, colored by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that unfolded during our stay, and how the Belgium-Luxembourg Fulbright Commission and the Institute of International Education (IIE) serve as a prime example of how supportive, fostering academic exchange programs should look like.

Family photo at Penn State’s Nittany Lion statue on the University Park Campus, Pennsylvania, in times of COVID-19. Even though 2020’s reality upended our stay, my wife Sylwia, twin daughters Helena (bottom right) and Nela (bottom left) and I found ways to make the best out of it. (Photo: Sam Poppe, 4 July 2020)

I am a volcanologist. Yes, I study volcanoes. It’s awesome. No, I don’t stand a mere 10 feet away from a scouring-hot lava-spewing crater on a regular basis. I am not shouting “Run!” in Pierce-Brosnan-like fashion as hot clouds of ash and gas come rolling down a volcano (see ‘Dante’s Peak’ from 1997). Instead, I model how hot molten rock – or magma – moves upward towards eruption below your feet if you happen to find yourself in volcanically active terrain. You can explore my research on my personal website (https://sampoppevolcano.wixsite.com/sampoppe). Because I don’t want to talk about science to you right now, I want to talk about the Fulbright experience.

After defending my Ph.D. in November 2019, I decided Dr. Christelle Wauthier’s lab at Penn State gave me one of the best opportunities to take my research to the next level. I was lucky to convince both the Belgium-Luxembourg Fulbright Commission and the Belgian-American Educational Foundation (B.A.E.F.) to provide me with fellowships to build a new European-American bridge in Volcanology.

Moving to an unknown environment can be daunting for a family with two kids, so I left on my own in November 2019, set up our rental home with toddler beds, toys, etc… I settled into my new office. I came back to Belgium over the Christmas holidays and at the beginning of January, the four of us flew out to Newark Airport, NY, and made the jetlagged night drive to State College, PA, and started our new life. After an exhausting final Ph.D. year, we needed to reconnect as a family. So we made a determined choice to give ourselves and especially our daughters time to adapt to our new environment. While I was working daily on campus, my wife Sylwia settled in her new role of homeschooling our girls. The girls immediately fell in love with the abundance of squirrels, chipmunks and groundhogs our backyard abounded with. We enjoyed the liberation from our social obligations back-home in Belgium, and spent all free time together as a family, playing, drawing, walking in the scarce snow that fell this winter. We slowly started to build our social network by getting to know another Fulbright family in State College, as well as some young families at the local library, completed with a weekly lunch with the colleagues of my new team. I gave a presentation in my Department’s seminar series, had inspiring interactions with faculty members and was running a graduate course that provided enticing debates with colleagues and students. I found a new breath in my research after the liberation from the tiring pressure of completing the Ph.D. Plans for the summer, visits to some West Coast top Volcanology teams and participation in a fall conference at Yellowstone, one of modern Volcanology’s places of worship, were in the making.

By Spring Break, we felt relaxed enough to have a babysit take care of our daughters and go discover the local cultural and social life, and finally start building that professional and social network locally. And then the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic settled in. 60,000 students never returned from their Spring Break travels, I was forced to #workathome, the babysit was never booked, and State College became a rural town of 20,000. As parents we tried to grasp the reality through the uncertainties – Should we stay or should we go? After a frantic few days of back-and-forth with the Fulbright and BAEF teams and Belgian diplomacy, we decided to stay. We got here finally, went through all the effort, and traveling with two toddlers seemed more unsafe than staying put.

We realize we were lucky to have selected State College for its green, open atmosphere surrounded by lush national parks and forests. Our new world consisted of me working at home in a make-shift basement office, going for walks in our neighborhood, and 2-weekly trips on my own to Walmart or Weis. And boy were we lucky to snap up the very last pack of toilet rolls and a half-pound package of dry yeast at the local bio-market before things really got ugly! Meanwhile, our daughters remained unaware of how much the world around them had changed. The world of a 3-year-old expands as far as whatever you provide them with. Suddenly going for a walk and spotting chipmunks were the talk of the day. It’s amazing.

Every few days some e-mail from the Belgian embassy or IIE, or some more disconcerting news upended our fragile equilibrium. Imagine reading “Be ready to evacuate within 24 hours!” while being surrounded by tons of toys, children’s furniture, a car and a bike to sell. Yeah, we freaked out from time to time. But we also decided very early on to take everything day by day. Keep calm, stay positive, stay hopeful, find joy in the things we still could do. We cooked the most delicious meals, baked the fanciest cakes, explored all possible national and state parks and forests within an hour driving distance. Those two fierce 3-year-old pairs of legs often walked 2-4-mile loops on forest trails. No complaints. Every earth science parent would be proud! The hardest was the absolute separation between ourselves and our family and friends. There were no planes up in the air. No grandparents visiting. And what if we got sick? Who would take care of our children? So how did we make it through? Professionally, I tried to stay focused on my main priorities. I accepted that not every day could be efficient. My involvement in an international Early-Career Network provided inspiring virtual exchanges. As a family, we stuck together. I’m one of those lucky scientists to have the absolute, unconditional support of my partner. She already gave up way more than she should have for what ultimately is my career and passion. And she needed my support in return to get through this.

But in hindsight one of the most determining factors was the immediate human response from the Belgium-Luxembourg Fulbright Commission and my IIE advisor. They organized virtual calls with other fellows to make us understand we were not alone. They were always available in times of doubt, or to get to the bottom of that most recent confusing e-mail. It’s unusual to have a direct line to the program director herself. Most importantly, we shared the daily hilarious moments of #stayathome with one another. Apparently, hilarious news I sporadically relayed of our adventures with the kids often brightened the day of many Fulbright team meetings. Or pictures of that Fulbright t-shirt that accompanied me in all important moments of our stay there. In return, we knew there were Americans out there who had our back. We may have not gotten enough time to build that local social network beyond my supportive colleagues, but we knew we had an organization with the right in times of need. Furthermore, their effort to set up virtual seminars to discuss science in times of COVID, and systemic racism in academia and beyond, provided the American experience of that hope, that drive for change towards a better future, that I could not experience otherwise this year.

Finally, in June we received news of an accepted FRS-FNRS postdoctoral grant back in Belgium, and with the uncertainty of what Fall would bring in the USA between an uncontrolled pandemic and election season, we decided it was time to return home, back to Europe. That was made possible by a generous Fulbright-chartered flight that flew the four of us together with other fellows and their families from Washington DC back to Europe.
Our stay in the US was not what we expected. By far. The picture above speaks volumes. With our July visit to Niagara Falls, NY, just before we left as an impressive though deeply conflicted reminder of what could have been. We have not regretted for a second, however, to have taken the step and to have accepted the opportunity. As a family, we came out as strong as ever. We experienced the United States of America to its most intense and did our best to represent Belgium and Europe at large as best as we could. We shared our positivism, our hope for an even better future with whomever we met in the street or virtually. Most importantly, current or future Fulbrighter, please realize the following. Your Fulbright Program director and officers, your IIE advisor, are not merely your sponsor sensu strictu. They are people of flesh and blood, with an incredibly hopeful and positive attitude towards their mission of higher education exchange between our two continents. They extended their spirit of humanity with my family and I, and are ready to do the same with you. Connect to them, share your experience, lean on them when you feel isolated. The move across the Atlantic can be daunting, but with a little help from them, this adventure will become the experience of a lifetime and change the core of how you define yourself. In the search for mobility, for that international experience, many researchers move around frequently. This aspect of academia places a heavy burden on their families, who quit jobs, change school, miss their families. It is my hope and wish more international exchange programs and foundations can see the light the Belgium-Luxembourg Fulbright Commission has seen this year, and make a human touch and personal, mental support a feature of their program.

Dr. Sam Poppe is a Belgian 2019-2020 Fulbright Visiting Research Scholar in Geology at Pennsylvania State University. Sam Poppe is a geologist-researcher with a passion for Volcanology at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. His current Ph.D. research focuses on deformation of the Earth’s crust induced by magma intrusion. He also has expertise in volcanic hazard assessment in populated areas. He combines analog modeling with fieldwork in Europe and Africa, 3D imaging techniques, structural analysis, physical volcanology, and geochemical rock analysis, and is often visible in the media to comment on current volcano news. He is currently developing a new method to image analog sandbox models that helps us understand better why volcanoes deform the way they do.

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