Perhaps the moment that best reflects my time in Luxembourg would be the night of my final Lëtz school. For a majority of my time in Luxembourg, my Wednesday night’s were spent within the walls of the monastery of the Brothers of Verbum Spei. Each week, the Brothers would welcome young adults to their home and present a seminar covering topics of philosophy and theology. Following the seminar, they would invite us upstairs to enjoy snacks, home made beers, and fellowship. It was a true community. When the night was ready to be concluded we would gather in their chapel to pray together before returning to our homes. During the closing prayer of my final Lëtz school the magnitude of the last nine months finally hit me. I remember as people left the chapel one by one I remained on the floor with tears in my eyes for the first time in a long while. Yet the tears were not out of sadness but due to the tremendous sense of blessing I felt in that moment and allowing myself to be moved by my emotions.
Truth be told, I was not 100% sure I would go on Fulbright until the moment I was on the plane bound for Luxembourg. I did not graduate in the spring of 2021 as required to be eligible to accept the Fulbright grant. Rather, I signed up for classes for fall 2021 at Purdue leaving me two options: graduate in the summer to go on Fulbright or return to Purdue in the fall. As the July 14th deadline to declare graduation for the summer approached I remained torn on whether to stay at Purdue or accept the Fulbright and go to Luxembourg (technically I had already accepted the Fulbright in May but shhhh). I was afraid of change. I feared losing the social connections I had spent so much time building. I did not want to lose the Catholic community at Purdue which helped me rediscover my faith and feared if I left them I would lose my way. Yet, one of my friends pulled an all-nighter with me to talk about my decision. He told me that I was always attempting to plan every next move, but in doing so I never allowed for myself to truly experience life. He told me that this opportunity would be a once in a lifetime experience that regardless of the other factors I could not pass up. After hours of conversation, he and I facing east, facing Luxembourg, we watched the sun rise on our roof on the morning of July 13th, and it was clear I needed to accept the next challenge in my life.
Professionally, it made sense for me to go as at the time I was applying for MD PhD programs and the research opportunity at the Luxembourg Institute of Health would be unmatched. However, the ultimate push factor ended up being just how uncomfortable and challenged I would be by this experience. I remember my first days well, how timid I was to try and speak French to anyone. How lost I felt. I knew very little about culture outside of the United States. The first restaurant I went to I remember I sat at for almost 2 hours waiting for them to bring me my check as is custom in the United States. This is not the case in Luxembourg. To say I was uncomfortable, under prepared, and out of my element would be an understatement. On top of the cultural and language challenges, my research demanded more of me than any project I had worked on previously, and I had no social network yet to fall back on. Within the first month I wondered if I should quit and go home.
Yet something stirred in me to stick with it. The moment that changed everything for me came during a solo hike on one of the mullerthal trails. In typical fashion for myself, I got lost in the woods. I lost sight of the trail and had no cell service. All I could think to do was continue to push forward and after an unknown amount of distance I came upon a beautiful view of the Luxembourg countryside.
Had I not committed to continuing to push forward I would not have seen this sight. I would have missed the view and perhaps even remained lost in the woods had I just given up. On the bus ride back, I told myself I needed to stop questioning whether I made the right decision and instead commit to the experience. Allow myself to experience life. From that moment, I told myself I needed to be all in. This all-in-mentality drove me to achieve one of my biggest goals in coming to the country when I walked across Luxembourg in one day (48 km 9.5 hours) in an effort to raise money for cancer research.
By committing to my life in the moment, I started to regularly attend water polo practices again for the first time since the pandemic started. I became part of the team in Luxembourg and was able to experience the same game I had played since I was 6 in a whole new light and higher skill level.
But most importantly, it was this mindset that drove me to the order of Verbum Spei as for the first two months, I had bounced around different churches not staying put with one place, constantly telling myself it didn’t matter since I would be leaving by June. This commitment to one community led to me being invited to stay with the brothers for Christmas and Easter weekend, attend a retreat in Switzerland where I semi learned how to ski, and was able to be a part of the Octave procession in Luxembourg which featured the Grand Duke.
Yet most importantly, this commitment allowed for me to become part of the community at St. Henri’s leading to a deepening of my knowledge, maturity, and strength of my faith. I would have described myself as a practicing Catholic when I arrived in Luxembourg, but after my time with the brothers and the greater church community I would say I am a living Catholic. The difference being that I feel now as if my life is rooted in my faith in comparison before I felt that my faith was merely an aspect of my life.
My time living in Luxembourg may go down as the most challenging time period of my life, at the time of writing this it is unmatched. Yet, with this extreme challenge came the greatest time period of maturing I have been through. Living through a once in a lifetime experience taught me to appreciate the now and the present day. To get the most out of my life, I ought to fully commit to where I am at now and the people I am currently sharing this moment with. Do not be concerned with the brevity of the situation or moment, rather focus on how to truly be immersed in the moment. Even if I may not fully be able to communicate with those around me, even if I do not understand every detail in the moment, and even if I feel uncomfortable or like a fish out of water, I know after my time in Luxembourg to embrace all these aspects of life for they shall bear great fruit. For it was reflecting upon this wisdom and the community I was able to be a part of that led me to this wisdom that moved me to tears on the chapel floor. As I said my goodbyes to the brothers of Verbum Spei, for the first I can remember, I allowed myself to soak in the hugs that accompanied the words of farewell for in the past I would have detached myself from the moment and thought about what was next for me. Yet in those final goodbyes I choose to be present, I choose to embrace the moment, and I choose to experience the emotions that came with the farewells despite how challenging they were to say.
Phillip Harter is a graduate of Purdue University from St. Louis MO who studied political science and premedicine. As a recipient of the Fulbright Scholarship to Luxembourg for the 2021-2022 year, he worked on the relationship between autophagy and the effectiveness of cancer immunotherapy at the Luxembourg Institute of Health. His ultimate goal is to become a physician scientist working to improve cancer treatments for pediatric patients.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.