Neerja en España #1

An overview of Fulbright Spain and the year to come

Originally written September 2019

The first 11 posts in my “Neerja en España” series will be very lightly edited emails that I sent my friends while I was in Spain. Since a lot has changed since I wrote them, I’m adding retrospective comments in italics to the posts that I wrote while I was living through them. Here’s the first email I sent:

The summer after graduation flew by between cherished time at home, travels to Europe with family, and a trip to the East Coast with my best friend to visit some of our college friends who started work. Now I’m in Spain, which has already been crazy, but I first wanted to explain what the Fulbright actually is and what I’ll be doing:

There are two broad kinds of Fulbright grants: the English teaching assistant grant (ETA), and the research/masters grant (which I am here on). For both grants, Fulbright pays us a stipend for living expenses and facilitates us getting a visa into Spain and setting us up. Spain has the second-largest Fulbright program, with over 150 ETAs and about 30 research/masters students. The ETAs are all placed in one of 6 regions of Spain where they are assigned a school and teach classes for about 20 hours a week. The research/masters students are all over Spain, since we got to choose our host institution as part of our project proposals. The majority of us are in Madrid or Barcelona, but there are a few like me who are in other cities, such as Seville, Salamanca, Granada, and Leon. After a few days orientation in Madrid, we all go to our respective cities.

I’m the only Fulbright student in my city, Zaragoza. Zaragoza is a medium sized city (~700K people), located right in between Madrid and Barcelona - it’s a little over an hour on the high speed AVE train to either city (I ended up taking the AVE so many times, and loving it more and more each time). Even though it’s smaller, it definitely has everything I need, and has a lot to explore, especially compared to Hanover. Also, apparently Zaragoza has the highest amount of bars/clubs per capita in all of Spain. Zaragoza is much less touristy than most other cities its size or bigger in Spain, which is really nice, since the cost of living is lower here and I’ll be able to actually immerse myself in Spanish culture. One of Zaragoza’s most famous attractions is the huge basilica - here’s a photo of it:

from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Up_from_the_highest_tower_(16079304178).jpg

I’m pretty nervous to be the only one in my city, since I know literally no one here and don’t have an automatic cushion of American Fulbrighters to fall back on. I expect the first month or so to be a little rough. However, I think that it’ll overall be good for me, since I’ll hopefully form deeper friendships with people that are not American, which is important to me, and in the meantime I’m grateful FaceTime exists! (I ended up befriending many non-Americans, and while I was apprehensive I am so grateful that I specifically ended up in Zaragoza)

In terms of my actual project, I will be doing research somewhere within the convex hull of graphics, vision, and computational photography. I’m not exactly sure what my project will be, but the lab I’ll be working in at Universidad de Zaragoza does a lot of very cool things, so I’m excited to get working! I’m not sure exactly what my schedule will be like, but I should be doing the same amount of work equivalent to a 9 to 5 job, working in the lab every day.

This year is really going to be what I make of it, in every way. In terms of work, Fulbright doesn’t expect us to create any sort of final product with our research, as long as we are working on it consistently. So while publishing a paper would be nice, it’s in no way required. I definitely want to get great work done and learn more about my research interests and style, but aside from near deadlines, I don’t plan to work as intensely as I will be during my PhD. In terms of the rest of my life, I have a lot of freedom, and I definitely want to use this year in a lot of ways. When I studied abroad in Budapest, I was essentially an American tourist in Budapest and only made friends with other American students, and I absolutely don’t want this year to be a repeat of that. My top personal goals/to-dos include:

  • Improve my Spanish (I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how decent it is, but I still have a ways to go in becoming totally fluent)
  • Improve my cooking abilities and make my health a priority - sleep a lot and work out regularly
  • Make non-American friends and expose myself to new perspectives
  • Travel to a lot of places in Spain! I’m only allowed to leave the country for 21 days, but there’s so much to see just in Spain that I’ll still be able to travel a ton. I already have the Asturias, southern Spain and the Canary islands at the top of my list

(I’m really happy that I ended up achieving all of these goals to a pretty good extent, except for the places I traveled to ended up being different - I very sadly did not make it to Asturias, Andalucia, or Las Canarias)

Hopefully that answers some of the questions you guys have been asking me and gives you a sense of what I’ll be up to for the next year!

Neerja Thakkar
Neerja Thakkar
Incoming EECS PhD Student @ Berkeley
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