Contrary to many international students that I have met in the previous years, going to study in the U.S. was never something that I was consciously searching for. I have always had often negative perspectives and prejudices regarding the U.S. as a country and culture. Nevertheless, 2 years ago, when I have been presented with the opportunity to enroll in a master’s program with the University of Arkansas as a partner, I have decided that it would be a great chance to enhance my experiences, skills, and knowledge.
The thought of going to the U.S. and making my own opinion by experiencing first-hand what it means to study, but also live in the country has motivated me throughout my master’s program as I strived to test and discuss my presumptions in the hope of changing those. I decided to read about the program, read about Arkansas, and finally enroll into the program.
Once into the program, I was introduced to the Fulbright program by the University of Ghent. My first impression was that I would need every financial support to go to the U.S. However, the more I investigated Fulbright, the more I was fascinated about it especially the network and connections between students and alumni it creates and facilitates by giving all of us one common interest and involvement. The day I was accepted into the Fulbright program was a very celebratory one which is where my adventure all began. The journey began well before I arrived in the U.S. as I had the joy to communicate with Fulbright members and to participate in the preparatory classes given by Wayne University. These first impressions were extremely positive and very helpful in making the first steps into U.S. cultures.
Since my arrival in the U.S. I have learned many things, such that I could already start to write a book about it. The book would talk about my arrival and the emotions that came with it that started at excitement and joy, but which shifted very quickly to nostalgia and homesickness. Although I have travelled many times before, the emotions were a big challenge, and I was very lucky to have the Fulbright network and other international and domestic students to assist me through these times. The book would continue by narrating the meetings and work with my professors, colleagues, and research team, but also the cultural experiences with all people around me. It’s been almost 7 months since my arrival, and I have so many stories to tell. The culture here is not the same as the one back home and it is especially the smaller differences that I keep experiencing.
From an educational perspective, my expectations were entirely fulfilled. Compared to my previous academic education, my host university has taught me many new things in a much more hands-on approach instead of a theoretical one. This has proven to be a great asset in my professional work search and my abilities to better communicate and understand information overall. From a cultural standpoint, it has been very interesting to me to observe that the U.S. is truly a nation built by very multicultural and diverse communities. Like many places in the world, there are important disparities and polarization among people. However, I have found nothing but kindness since my arrival which has been an important step for me towards tackling my prejudices. I have had the opportunity to meet many domestic students that quickly became friends, international students with whom I have been able to share many points of view, Fulbright students that visited Arkansas and whom I have had the chance to meet around fantastic conversations, and residents that have shown me what life is about in Arkansas, Texas, California, and many other places. The cultural exchange that I have experienced was constructed around music, food, humour, and common grounds. Not always have we all agreed, but I have mostly encountered an open-minded approach which allowed for very constructive conversations. Thus, this entire experience has already changed me in many ways i.e., my spirit of cooperation and toleration, mutual understanding, sharing, communicating, exchanging of ideas and perspectives in an open-minded context and environment has evolved.
On the other side, I have also experienced that this sentiment goes both ways. Not only am I learning from people in the U.S., but they are also learning from me, which I am often less conscious about, but which does happen daily. Many people that I have met, rather than keep on responding to my many questions, have also often expressed a big interest in getting to know where I come from. This led to long conversations where I would talk about Luxembourg, Belgium, many other European countries, and Europe as a Union, and where I would get to know many things about the U.S. As said before it is often the small things where one sees striking differences which often leads to very humourful conversations. Differences range from, things such as tilt and turn windows seemingly more common in Europe, how people drive, how sports are perceived, how people dress especially when attending events such as a football game, how the weather is like, how religions are lived and experienced, how marriage is seen and at what age people decide to take this step, how individuality and competition are experienced in both sides of the world, how politics and policies are perceived and understood, and how people communicate and build relationships.
Communication and building relationships have been some of the most fascinating differences to me. Daily, I experience that many people around me tend to build relationships very slowly. Trust, personal commitment, and opening about oneself appear to need a long time and much effort whereas where I come from, people are very quick in opening and sharing their opinions, views, and lives. Thus, it has been a great challenge for me to adapt to these changes, which, however, led to wonderful friendships that will hopefully remain alive years from now.
All these observations and learnings, and being a Fulbrighter has created the chance for me to be involved in my host university in a way that I have never been before. As such I have not only been acting as a cultural mentor to welcome and assist newly arriving international students, but I have also been selected by the university to be a 2021-2022 member of the GSIE Deans’ International Student Advisory Board representing sponsored graduate students on campus as well as students from Europe and surrounding regions.
As I said, I could write a book about my experience in the U.S. which I will be very happy to share on my return to Europe. Daily life as an international master’s student has been challenging, the workload is completely different compared to many European universities, but there is also plenty of time and opportunities to encounter delightful people from all over the U.S. and the world and have many enriching conversations. To put it in a nutshell, the experience is worth every effort, and I trust that I will come back home with baggage that allows me to become the best version of myself.
Benjamin Jacobs is a Belgian Fulbright Student in Agricultural Economics at the University of Arkansas. He is a Belgian citizen residing in Luxembourg. Holding an undergraduate degree in Agronomics in Warm Climate Regions. Looking forward to increasing his skills and knowledge he is now enrolled in a double master’s degree in Rural Development and Agricultural Economics at the University of Ghent and the University of Arkansas, respectively. His ultimate professional goal is to be working for the international cooperation in agriculture and rural development. Besides his academic or professional life his favourite activities are travelling, conversing with people, bouldering, and sports climbing.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.