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The Future’s Bright with a Fulbright: Chat with Ramsay Leimenstoll

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If you’ve had the chance to study or live overseas, you’ve already discovered some of the incredible benefits—increased self-reliance, open-mindedness, amazing friendships, and maybe even a new language or two. Whether you’re looking to build upon undergraduate experience abroad or are just testing international waters for the first time, a Fulbright Scholarship could help guide your voyage. The Fulbright, a program run by the US Department of State, gives you the opportunity to design your own study or research project or participate in an English Teaching Assistantship.

We caught up with Ramsay Leimenstoll, a 2011 Smith College graduate and Fulbright alum, to learn more about her teaching assistantship experience in Turkey from 2011 to 2012.

Where and when did you participate in the Fulbright?

I taught English in a town called Bilecik, in Turkey (about 4.5 hours southeast of Istanbul) from 2011–2012.

What type of setting did you teach in? What was your title?

I taught in the engineering and biology departments of a university—in Turkey, students in these departments are required to learn English. My official title with Fulbright was English Teaching Assistant (ETA), though I was probably the only ETA in Turkey who was truly an assistant (I co-taught all my classes)—the other 60+ ETAs taught completely independently, which was a bit of a surprise when they arrived!

Tell me a little bit about the Fulbright application process. What were you hoping to achieve from the experience and did you achieve it?

The Fulbright application process is extremely vigorous. I think I had 13 different drafts of my essays, and maybe six or seven drafts of the fill-in-the-blank/short-answer forms. Fulbright applications are due in mid- to late-October every year, and you also need letters of recommendation. I decided to apply because I really wanted to gain in-depth experience in another country similar to what I’d had when I studied abroad in Paris my junior year. I definitely feel that I achieved that—of course there is even more to learn about a country, and I’d love to go back (and many of my peers stayed for a second year).

However, even if I hadn’t been awarded the Fulbright, the application process itself is extremely rewarding. That rigorous examination of your own qualifications, experiences, and future goals had a profound impact on how I viewed and appreciated my senior year of college. I’m certain that I’ve squeezed more value out of all my experiences since because of the approach the Fulbright application gave me to my work and education—everything is an opportunity that might lead you to something fantastic, even if you aren’t looking for it right now.

What was a typical day on the job like for you?

I’d arrive at the university in time for class—sometimes a bit early if I hadn’t made my worksheet photocopies in advance. I never got to the classroom early, because students always liked to hang out in the rooms until class started, and if I showed up they got nervous and thought they couldn’t just talk to their friends anymore.

MeTeaching

Ramsay hard at work in the classroom.

Classes were usually two to three hours long, always with a ten-minute break at the end of each hour. I usually only taught the first (or last) hour of a class and my co-teacher would come for the rest. Each class only met once a week. I used a lot of music, games, pictures, and handmade worksheets. I taught about 12 classes a week, plus conversation club hours. In between classes, I’d spend time with the other teachers in our offices, or studying Turkish.

How do you think spending time abroad on a Fulbright compares to going as a student or tourist?

It’s completely different.

Ever since studying abroad my junior year (in Paris), I’ve been adamant that working in a country is really the best way to understand the culture. As a tourist, your opportunities for interacting with people are restricted to the purely coincidental or social. As a student, you interact with one segment of the population who all have (relatively) similar goals. You learn about the youth culture, the academic culture, some of the fun stuff to do.

When you work there (as I did in Turkey and at a publishing house in France), you learn about business culture—which can be fascinatingly different from your own country’s business culture. Standards and priorities differ, as does the interpretation of “success” and “hardworking.” You’re around people of different ages with different backgrounds, goals, and career trajectories. You’re more likely to have to interact with the institutions of the state—the government, the press, various layers of bureaucracy, even just small things like having to actually call a plumber or the internet company so they can fix something for you—not something you get in the relatively insulated and all-inclusive environment of a student or tourist’s life.

That said, working in Turkey under the auspices of the Fulbright Commission—and therefore, by extension, the government of the United States of America—did grease the wheels for us at times. When we faced challenges with banks, universities, visas, etc., we always had someone to call whose job it was to make sure that it all worked out. This was a huge blessing to us because bureaucratic systems operate very differently in Turkey than in the US, so it would be hard to understand how to navigate these situations in only a year.

The Turkish staff of the Fulbright Commission definitely gave us an advantage over people who come without such a system, but there were also more limits placed on us—we couldn’t do outside tutoring, and we could only get paid exactly what every other ETA was getting paid, despite cost-of-living differences throughout the country. We didn’t have a say in where we were placed or what kind of classes we taught. Independent English teachers (especially in cities like Istanbul, Eskisehir, Ankara, or tourist towns like Antalya) can get paid much more and can generally choose an environment they are especially interested (or qualified) to teach in.

How did you handle logistics like visas, housing, and transportation?

We received a lot of help from Fulbright regarding our visas—rush jobs were necessary for some people, and the Fulbright staff contacted the consulates to expedite those. Our colleagues at the universities were charged with helping us find housing—I lucked into a wonderful setup with my co-teacher, Neşe, who had a lovely apartment. Other ETAs had a harder time finding apartments because so many of the places had already been rented by students by the time we arrived in Turkey. Others had housing provided for them for free by their universities (most of us had to pay rent from our salaries, though). Transportation was all on our own once we were in the country—I took a dolmuş (a small bus or van) to work every day, and paid for my own transportation around the country by bus, train, or air. Fulbright did pay for our tickets to and from Turkey, as well as a stipend for checked luggage.

What were some of your favorite aspects of living abroad? What were some challenges you faced?

Well, the food is pretty much always one of my favorite parts of traveling or living anywhere new! My favorite Turkish food is Iskender Kebap—basically shaved lamb, butter, bread and yogurt (see photo below).

RamsayWithIskenderKebap

Ramsay shows off one of her favorite aspects of life in Turkey—Iskender kebap.

On a deeper level though, I really enjoy the opportunity to recognize ways in which US culture has influenced me by being in a culture that pulls me another way. Often, something I unconsciously assumed was a universal perception was actually very “American.”

The biggest example of this for me was uncovering my daily assumptions that essentially, bad things shouldn’t happen to you if you’re not doing anything wrong. If you’re walking down the street, it should be easy for you to figure out where it’s safe to walk according to the rules of the road, and as long as you follow them you aren’t going to be hit by a car or step in an open manhole or be hit by construction debris. And if you are… well, there is someone to blame and they will be punished in some way. It seems to me that the culture of suing people in the US stems from this, and is an extreme case—something went wrong and I must find someone to blame, punish, and make restitution to me.

I didn’t find Turkish society to be saturated with this point of view, and the extent to which it was ingrained in me was surprising. I became frustrated with this when our hot water pipes were built outside the house and were uninsulated so that they froze whenever it was cold outside. I was furious that something could be so poorly constructed and thought that the water company just needed a good chiding on the phone and they’d come over and fix it—for free. But my roommate was confused by my belief that they’d feel obligated to fix their mistake or would react quickly in any attempt to keep us as happy customers. (They didn’t.)

On a more serious note, I was saddened to learn that the father of one of our students died of carbon monoxide poisoning, because his pipes didn’t move the air far enough from his home, and a change in the wind pushed it back into the house. I was shocked by such a preventable death and asked what would be done—would they change the regulations for exhaust pipes? Would the company who put them in give money to his family for causing his death out of the company’s negligence? Both ideas seemed odd to my Turkish peers, who thought it was very sad but didn’t think that something should be done in reaction to the tragedy.

Similarly, I was in the country when a terrible earthquake happened in Eastern Turkey, near the city of Van. The death toll was shocking, and it was largely because so few of the buildings were built to earthquake-level code, even though it only costs 3% more to make it so. Obviously people throughout the country thought it was a terrible tragedy, but I was saddened and frustrated that there wasn’t a very strong public outcry for proper regulation, nor for the construction companies or regulators to be held accountable for the loss of life, which, from my point of view, happened under their watch. There certainly were calls for change, but they didn’t nearly rival reactions here in the US to the BP oil spill, nor to Fukushima.

(A note: The protests spanning recent months in Gezi Park and other areas of Turkey do suggest that frustration with the status quo—in various aspects of life—is on the rise, and that agitation for change may well spread into other areas of society. So, my impressions from 2011–2012 might soon be completely different from reality in Turkey.)

Recognizing this distinction between points of view opened my eyes to how secure and privileged most (though not all) of us are in the US—I concluded that people have the luxury to demand fixes to these problems here because there aren’t as many bigger ones, and our health care system and laws make it exceptionally unlikely that we will suffer a preventable traumatic illness, injury, or death. We can focus on making things work perfectly because we already have a structure that makes them work (historically speaking), very, very well.

What advice would you give to students who are thinking about applying for the Fulbright/moving abroad?

DO IT.

Living abroad for an extended period of time is not something you can always do—you’ll have jobs, pets, significant others, and children who won’t be able to come along later. While there certainly are careers and living situations where you can make it work anyway, don’t risk it by putting off the chance until “later.” By the time it’s more financially feasible for you, you probably will have too many commitments and obligations to be able to go.

I talked to many people before I decided to study abroad in college, and those who had said it was the best decision they made in college. Those who didn’t said that it was their biggest regret. I almost didn’t apply for a Fulbright—I thought I was too travel-weary after my year abroad, and was eager to start my career once I graduated. One of my supervisors took me out to lunch during my Penguin internship, and told me that she’d taught English in France for two years after graduation. She said that she’d wavered in the decision too, but in the end was so glad she hadn’t missed that opportunity. It’s hard to take a year off from your career once you’ve started it, but postponing it for a year or two is much more feasible and reflects much better on your résumé.

And, if you’re teaching or doing other work abroad, you won’t have the common drawbacks of returning broke. You’ll stand out from similar-aged applicants when you return because you’ve worked in other countries, navigating the business culture and demands of a society different from yours—and you succeeded. Very few people can say that—especially very few 22- to 25-year-olds.

What were some resources that were helpful to you either before or while you were living abroad?

matadornetwork.com is a fun, inspiring, and useful resource for travel abroad.

couchsurfing.org can help you find places to stay for free, and meet great new people.

ankisrs.net/ lets you make flashcards with a fancy logarithm that uses research on the human brain to teach you more effectively—great for learning languages!

livemocha.com/ is also a fantastic (and free) language-learning tool.

Expat blogs for your host country in general—for me this was The Carpetblogger (http://www.carpetblog.typepad.com/). Sites like these keep you grounded and help you laugh when something about your host country is rubbing you the wrong way.

RamsayWithNeseInBursa

Ramsay Leimenstoll is the Marketing & Sales manager at Keep&Share, and she blogs at Glued to a French Post. She also tweets about marketing and helpful stuff for young professionals: @gluedtoapost

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