From masks to flags: being a Fulbright Visiting Scholar in Boston during a pandemic

After a year like 2020, it felt quite unreal to go to the American Embassy for our visa and to get on a plane in January for the big Fulbright experience. The first weeks were tough: COVID case numbers were rising everywhere, the hospital I was doing my research at was busy planning vaccinations, causing a delay in the on-boarding processes, the apartment I booked for the first two weeks wasn’t quite like it was advertised,…

But after a few weeks it felt things were falling into place: my husband arrived in the USA as well and we found the most amazing apartment with nice views over the, at that time snowy, Harvard square buildings in Cambridge. I am quite confident I will miss those views the second I will get on the plane back to Belgium. Meanwhile, I was allowed to go to my host institution once/twice a week and meet some of my colleagues and it felt that my Fulbright adventure could really start!

Our apartment had an amazing view on the Harvard Square buildings. This picture was taken during the first weeks of our stay, shortly after Boston and Cambridge were covered by a thick layer of snow.

Living abroad has changed me, but also my husband, in so many ways. I had already been in Boston a couple times for short visits, but actually moving here for 6 months proved to be completely different. What struck us most was the overall kindness of people at work, in the grocery store or even just in the bathroom of a brewery, where I received compliments on my shoes. People showed genuine interest in our story, even seemed to be proud of us for moving amidst a pandemic and everyone seemed to have been in Belgium once and loved the beer, of course. We even met a woman who lived in my birth town for a couple of years.

The first day trip we took out of Boston, took us to Salem. During weekends, the MBTA trains are very cheap and although not all trains run in the weekend, it is an easy way to explore the regions and cities outside of Boston. One of these cities is Salem, known for the witch prosecutions in 1692. Getting out of the city sometimes made us feel we were in a movie and, what might have struck us most, there were flags everywhere. Coming from Belgium, where flags are nearly only seen if the Red Devils are playing, it felt weird to see so many national pride at first. Yet, after six months of seeing and understanding this national proudness and the diversity inside the USA, I have become more aware and proud of my own identity and values. The entirety of the USA is often seen as the same back home, but, although we couldn’t travel much, it became very clear that the different states and even cities and communities all have their own identity and values. Nuances and differences I could never have fully grasped during a short holiday.

Boston by night – view over the Charles River in Cambridge on our way back from the Museum of Science. I took dozens of pictures that night.

Finally, what really surprised us, is how accessible nature is. Living in a larger city we had not expected to be able to go for a (pretty challenging) hike with the T. Even in the city itself there are plenty of parks to go for a picnic or just some fun times with friends, not forgetting to mention the whale and bird watching experiences we had here. Watching the whales feeding, the seals sunbathing at the seashore and the eagles flying over are experiences never to forget.

It was impressive to see the American Flags in Boston Common on Memorial Day. Each flag represents a soldier of Massachusetts who lost his/her life during war.

Overall, my Fulbright experience in Boston will have lasted 6 months. Although it might perhaps not have been the perfect time to live abroad, I am quite certain that I couldn’t have spent the last 6 months at a better place.

Dr. Sara Op de Beeck is a Belgian 2020-2021 Fulbright Research Scholar to Brigham and Women’s Hospital (Harvard University). Sara Op de Beeck is a bioscience engineer and has completed her PhD in medical sciences at the University of Antwerp. In her PhD research, she uses data analysis techniques to optimize patient selection for the various obstructive sleep apnea treatments. Her main interest lays in applying technology and data science into medicine. During her research stay she aims to develop algorithms to allow for a more in-depth patient assessment based on the clinically available signals. As such she aims to further develop the fingerprint of the individual obstructive sleep apnea patient, getting one step closer to personalized medicine.

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.