Vanessa Erat finished her MA in English and American Studies with a thesis on “Elves and Empire: Challenging the Ludonarrative Colonialism and Othering in Dragon Age: Inquisition” in May 2018 and then left for the United States in August 2018 to work as a Fulbright Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA) at the University of Oklahoma (OU) in the academic year 2018-2019. Today, she joins us to talk about some of her experiences and to offer advice to everybody who would also be interested in spending a year in the US teaching German as a foreign language.
Thank you for taking the time to sit down with us and answering a few questions about your experiences. Going abroad is always an exciting opportunity and helps students in many ways, what are some of the reasons you decided to spend a year in the US and to go abroad in general?
Thank you for having me and I am glad to share my experiences with you. This was altogether my fourth experience living abroad after spending time in Finland, Wales, and Canada. I decided to apply for the FLTA program because teaching German was new ground for me. I was excited to take on that challenge and to spend a longer period of time in a country whose cultures and histories are part of what I study. The Fulbright program assigns you to a university based on your qualifications and in my case that was the University of Oklahoma, which was especially interesting for me because Oklahoma is a state I have never been to before. So my experience became a discovery of new grounds in more ways than one, and I am really grateful for that.
How does the FLTA process work and how can we imagine your typical day at OU as both a student and a teacher?
You start with an online application via the Fulbright Austria website. The deadline is November 15, and if your application is successful, it is followed by a bilingual interview with board members of the Austrian-American Educational Commission. After having been accepted into the program, I got in touch with my future supervisor at OU and with my FLTA predecessors who gave me helpful tips about the daily life on my host institution’s campus.
In April, the Austrian Fulbright Commission holds the Fulbright Seminar in American Studies in Strobl am Wolfgangsee, which serves as a meeting point for American grantees in Austria and Austrian grantees going to the States, but also doubles as a first pre-orientation for outgoing program participants. During these three days, I got to know fellow grantees participating in the program. In June, we had a final orientation in Vienna where we could talk to previous participants, were provided with a structured overview of what to expect, and given important guidelines. Part of why I am so grateful that I could participate in an educational exchange program of this caliber is that the pre-departure orientations provided by Fulbright Austria were incredibly structured and organized. You feel well taken care of and are never left stranded.
Since all American universities have different starting dates, we all had different times when we left the country; I was part of the first group of Austrian FLTAs to depart. Before you go to your host institution for your FLTA year, you participate in a Fulbright FLTA Summer Orientation at another US campus. In my case, this was the summer orientation hosted by the Penn Language Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. We had three days of workshops and orientation seminars on what to expect in the American classroom, including input on teaching standards and intercultural competences. Together, we were about 75 FLTAs all from different countries. A lot of attention was paid to group building, which contributed to the feeling of being part of a Fulbright family before we then departed to our host institutions.
Then the semester began: I taught German 1115, a beginners’ class that took place five days a week, and participated as a “cultural ambassador” in the OU German Club. I also audited two classes per semester, which in addition to learning was a fantastic opportunity for making friends and connecting with the campus community. You can choose what is relevant for your own coursework, but every FLTA has to take at least one course (in the entire year) that is related to American Studies since the program serves the promotion of mutual understanding and exchange between peoples.
Throughout my year at OU, I audited two courses in the Department of Native American Studies (NAS). Since Oklahoma is home to a variety of Native American tribes, I wanted to take the opportunity to learn more about Indigenous communities and their lands. The NAS Department at OU is a great place for learning about current issues in politics, culture, and society, alongside a multitude of native languages. I particularly appreciated the chance to attend a course about Native American women in the fall semester, i.e. at the same time of the midterm elections which saw Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids make history as the first Native American women elected to congress. At the same time, Native American women are still affected by the ongoing epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) across the US and Canada.
I also attended a literature class on German Medieval Literature, which was held in both German and English. It was great for me to see what higher-level students of German do with the language, reminding me of what I saw in our English literature classes at AAU. In the spring semester, I had the opportunity to audit a graduate-level class on the American West taught at the Department of History, which helped me advance my own research for a conference I presented at.
As for my typical day, here’s how you can imagine my schedule: I taught around noon, so I prepared in the mornings, went to campus, did some work after my class, and attended my audit classes in the afternoon or evening. Together with colleagues in the OU German Club, I organized and participated in different events, such as a poetry night, a pub quiz or a “Weihnachtsbäckerei”. We also hosted “Stammtisch”, a weekly German Club meeting at a local pub. I really enjoyed the fact that there were always so many things happening on campus, which helps to create a strong sense of community among students and peers.
The university system, and life in general in the US, differs quite a lot from what we know in Austria. Would you mind explaining some of the most significant differences or potential challenges you experienced while living in the US?
Definitely distance and transportation. The University of Oklahoma is located in Norman, a town in the larger Oklahoma City area. Public transportation there is not as extensive or widespread as in many Austrian towns. Luckily, my first accommodation was across the street from a fairly good grocery store. Later, when I moved to campus, I could either walk forty minutes to the nearest organic grocery store or ask a friend to give me a ride. Weather permitting, biking is also an option, although cycling lanes off campus are few and far in between. Apart from getting used to long distances and limited public transport—unless in big cities—prices, including rent or food and restaurant prices, were also quite different, down to tipping, of course.
Something I enjoy every time I am in the US is the huge diversity that runs through all levels of day-to-day life. I miss Mexican food so much! Cuisine aside, I always appreciate the diversity in general that comes from being surrounded by people of different cultures coming together. The cultural makeup of the US is vastly different than the one of Austria, and I cherished the opportunity to learn from and live with people from all over the world. This also extends to getting to know the other participants in the FLTA Program, of course. In December, all program participants came together in Washington, D.C., for the 2018 FLTA Mid-Year Conference. Participants could present in a panel format to reflect on what they have learned so far. We also had a set of speakers and presenters to host additional workshops on topics ranging from incorporating cutting-edge teaching methods to combating language stereotypes. This was a great opportunity for FLTAs to talk about their experiences and spend some time together.
The American academic system in general is radically different from the Austrian one. The high amount of tuition fees that students have to pay puts a lot of pressure on them and their performance as students. This, of course, influences the way you as an instructor interact with your students. I tried to be as mindful as possible and approach my students individually about any kind of problem they might encounter to help them move forward. In general, the pressure faced by undergraduate students in America is nothing I have ever experienced in my own student life in Austria.
Likewise, my students were eager to learn about cultural and social differences. One thing they found particularly interesting is how our social and healthcare system works here in Austria.
Is there any advice you want to give to those students who also want to embark on such a journey? Why do you think someone should spend some time abroad? Would you do it all over again the same way?
I would definitely do it again! For practical reasons it improves your CV and increases your language and intercultural skills, but on a more personal level it teaches you so much about yourself by stepping outside of your usual box and the culture you grew up in. It challenges you to leave your comfort zone and demonstrate self-resilience. It’s an important reminder that the world doesn’t end at the borders of your nation and that there are so many different ways of living and doing life. It is something every young person should experience in my opinion. In the end, going abroad also changes how you perceive your own culture, and it’s a great opportunity to share these insights with people at home and address common cultural stereotypes.
For those who are interested in going to the U.S. for a semester or year, the Department of English will also host a Joint Study / Fulbright Language Teaching Assistant event on October 29 at 4 pm in N.0.27 – More information soon!