Neerja en España #15: Remote Fulbright

It’s crazy that it’s been almost 6 months since I was in Spain! In this post I’m going to talk about what finishing up a Fulbright remotely was like. My next and final post in this series will reflect on the academic/professional side of my time in Spain and the personal side of my thoughts on my Fulbright year.

When I got back to the US, everything still felt so chaotic. Many people were very unhappy with the way that Fulbright had handled the pandemic and that we were sent home to a country with an inferior healthcare system. I think that the Fulbright Spain Comission did a wonderful job dealing with a completely unprecedented situation, but that the US goverment’s lack of leadership/direction made things really crazy and bad for many people. It’s also absolutely horrible that many Fulbrighters lost their health insurance abroad and had to come back to the US uninsured in the middle of a pandemic, but that is completely the fault of American values and our current administration. After some pressure from Fulbrighters, the Fulbright program did provide reimbursements for all of the travel back and a little extra money to aid the sudden transition back. I was extremely lucky to be able to come back to Minnesota and life with my family, and I won’t get into my feelings on this chaos too much more, but you can read some of my friends’ very well-articulated thoughts here and here.

The month of March felt a bit rough between watching the world fall apart, mourning the loss of my time in Spain, and remembering how cold Minnesota is until the end of April. However, as spring started to appear (the second spring of the year for me, actually), I realized that a lot of good things were happening. I had been really burnt out after college, and had regained some of my energy the previous summer, but after a few weeks at home I started to feel extremely energized and ready to take on all sorts of new personal and research-related projects again (like starting this blog, and you can read about some other things I did during this time here). I felt deeply re-invested in research and learning, which has been wonderful.

I also felt extremely connected to other people. There were so many college friends and friends from back home that it had been hard to stay in touch with, between traveling all the time and time zone differences, but now I was able to talk to them more often. I also have stayed in contact with many friends in Spain and friends I made in Spain who returned home to other places, like New Zealand, and it’s been really fun and interesting to talk to friends all over the world during a global situation such as this one. It was additionally wonderful to have more time with family than I had ever thought I would at once (I honestly don’t understand why American culture takes so much pride in independence and moving away from family).

It’s also ironic that in leaving my Fulbright program early, I got much closer to many Fulbright friends than I had ever anticipated. Going through the same crazy situation was a great way to bond, and we filled the strange time with game nights and lots of Zoom calls. We even had a virtual Research + Masters journal club a few times, which was really successful and interesting. Overall, I so value my friendships with the other Fulbrighters. A few close friends of mine have also been starting their PhDs/med school right now, and it’s been lovely to have good friends who understand the crazy situation I’m going through right now.

Actually finishing my Fulbright remotely was definitely a very different experience from being in-person. The time difference was significant, and it is completely different to meet once a week over a call than to be in a physical place for ~40 hours a week. So much of the benefit that I got from being at my lab in Spain came through the chats that we had over lunch/coffee breaks, learning from my labmates, getting to go to group meetings, and generally being in a new environment. Going to another country is really about the place, culture, and people, and unfortunately so much cannot be replicated over a computer screen. Of course, staying in Spain and being confined to my apartment wouldn’t have fixed any of this, and I’m very happy that I was able to return home and spend time with family.

The Fulbright end of year event (over Zoom, of course), was not the weekend of celebration in Madrid that I thought it would be, but nevertheless it was still a fun time. It was fun to see people’s faces, and hear recaps of different groups’ times in Spain. I was also extremely honored to have been voted for two different superlatives - Most Growth from Orientation to Mid-Year (I guess not that hard when you’re fresh off a plane and very disoriented when you first meet people), and Best Instagram Documentation (I do love to capture fun moments).

While having to finish up a Fulbright remotely was not what I expected, the 6 months that I did have in Spain were so extremely fulfilling and honestly far exceeded my expectations, so I have absolutely nothing but gratitude for the opportunity and everyone that made my experience what it was!

Neerja Thakkar
Neerja Thakkar
EECS PhD Student @ Berkeley
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