Sometime in the early part of my graduate studies at Michigan State University, my PhD advisor, Barry Gross, told me about the times he spent teaching and living abroad as a Fulbright scholar. As a ‘Fulbrighter,” Barry taught in Turkey and then, later, in Chile. He took his family with him and they traveled all over Europe, the Middle East and South America and he always described these adventures as some of the best teaching and living experiences of his career.
Barry encouraged me to apply for a Fulbright scholarship after I finished my degree and secured a teaching position. At that time of my career, though, a Fulbright scholarship seemed so elusive and inconceivable: I had serious doubts I’d even get a teaching job let alone find myself in a position where I was a candidate for a Fulbright scholarship.
This week I’m teaching my final classes as a ‘Fulbrighter’ in Romania. Yesterday I visited one of my colleagues’ classes and talked with the students about American protest music. We listened to Woody Guthrie, Nina Simone, Bruce Springsteen and Public Enemy. We talked about music’s power to bring us together as people, to give us courage and energy to do scary things, like (as happened here in 1989) forge political revolutions against oppressive regimes. We talked about music’s ability to convey challenging and subversive ideas to a wide audience and we talked about how political/protest music is often misunderstood or co-opted by the Establishment. The students knew all of the artists we listend to and at times as we were listening to the music, I’d look up to see them singing along with the lyrics. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about the Vietnam War and Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried in one class and then in my final class, we will discuss the film, American Beauty. That, basically, has been my life for the past three months and, now, looking back, I can see why Barry encouraged me to apply for a Fulbright scholarship and I’m grateful to him for putting that idea in my head all those years ago.
I’m also grateful to the late Senator William Fulbright for the legacy of cultural exchange that he established in 1946. In addition to creating the Fulbright Program, Senator Fulbright also distinguished himself as a critic of American imperialism. After initially supporting the Vietnam War following the Gulf of Tonkin crisis, Fulbright emerged two years later as a vocal and public critic of American involvement in Southeast Asia.
In this time of political and cultural uncertainty in the United States and during this period where unprincipled men and women are taking the helm of our ship of state, I take some comfort in the fact that, as a Fulbright Scholar, I have just participated in an important and powerful American tradition of intellectual inquiry and cultural exchange and that these things, now more than ever, are part of the America that I love and feel proud to call my own.