Five Months, Five Currencies, and Five Kids: 15 tips to survive Fulbright with a Full House

Loretta L.C. Brady, Ph.D., APA-CP
Associate Professor, Saint Anselm College
Cyprus 2012/2013

I was a 21 year old first generation minority McNair fellow when my mentor told me about her Fulbright to the Netherlands, and I learned that one could travel, do research, and build career-long international connections, all while being paid!  I set my sights on securing one, someday, and tucked the idea away.

By the time it was right in my career for me to pursue a Fulbright I was a married, mortgage-laden, pet- owning mother of five with more than only myself to consider as I perused the Fulbright Award Catalog. I searched for opportunities a year before applying, and it was about two years between looking at awards for 2012 and arriving in Cyprus with my husband, children, and a family friend who was traveling with us to help with the kids. During our semester in Cyprus I traveled to Israel, Egypt (with my three oldest children), Greece, and London (on our way back to the United States, thanks to a well-coordinated layover). We toured all over Cyprus and our kids collected Turkish and Egyptian lira, Israeli shekels, euros, and British pounds.  Some people thought traveling with five children under seven would be a disaster, but we found it a rewarding and enriching experience. Maybe some of these tips will help your big family make a Fulbright work, too.  

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Get organized

Parents with large families will need to prepare not only their scholarship materials but their family’s schooling, recreation, and community materials. Create organized files related to those needs while you are putting your application together. We had a Cyprus folder that included my proposals, contacts I was making for my work, and files related to schooling options, housing options, and community resources (pediatricians, uniform retailers, parks and playgrounds).  Any time one of us came across something that might prove handy at a later date, it was added to the folder for easy reference later. We didn’t have all the details ironed out before hitting “submit” but we had enough pieced together that we could wrap our heads around the first steps should my application be selected.

Ask questions

While you will need to inquire about research support and student learning styles, parents of large families will also do well to ask specific questions about what your family is likely to encounter while in country. Program officers may know a lot about the community, but they generally only tell you what you have asked them. Share that you have a large family and ask them about what they think local reaction would be, logistics that would be required, and whether the budget you have available is likely to work for so many mouths once you arrive. If you connect with prior scholars, ask whether they traveled with family and how they found the experience to be.

Consider needs, diet, and infrastructure

While you need to select a country that works professionally for you, pay attention to information about the country’s climate, infrastructure, diet, population, and education system.  This information is often available in various expat forums online and reviewing these will help you get a sense of whether the target country is a good fit for your family.

Be practical

It is easy to get so swept up in big picture things like host institution and kids’ schooling that you forget details like transportation and whether or not cars exist that suit your family size. Most European countries, for instance, have smaller cars than in the U.S. and asking around to various rental agents is wise.

Budget for the unexpected

An education credit may seem generous until you realize it is only going to cover a portion of what would normally be a school day and that on top of tuition you will need to pay uniform and activities fees. Reserving at least 10% of your funds for these unlisted expenses can help a great deal.

Connect early

While it may seem premature to have regular communication with folks before you learn of whether you have a Fulbright award, it is wise to send messages every few months to touch base, wish a happy holiday, or share a thought or idea. Being personally connected will make all the difference for what housing and transportation options you end up having access to, so don’t be shy even if you can’t be sure you will get there this year. We had communicated with so many people so often before our departure date that we threw a party our first weekend in Cyprus and invited everyone we had corresponded with along the way, as well as other Fulbrighters in the area. Most everyone we invited came and it served to make us feel connected to our new community right away. 

Tell your story

We found that people were often excited to hear about our situation and often gracious with suggestions or leads. If I had not shared our interest in renting a village home with a colleague, we never would have had the opportunity to live in an idyllic Cypriot village and would instead have likely ended up in what would have been a cramped apartment too small for our needs in center city Nicosia.  Americans can be very self-reliant, but it is okay to share what your needs might be.

Be gracious and curious

When we would encounter new friends we would ask about them, their work, and their families. This often opened up connections that brought us a chance to host other large families that we met. Often it is only large families that are brave enough to invite you over!

Hold onto routines and traditions

Dealing with homesickness can be a challenge. Having some consistency with your kids (bedtime stories, dinner, family meetings), even in a new environment, can help them feel grounded despite the disruption.

Create a countdown

Our children really benefitted from a calendar they created before we left and then again about half-way through our trip. It included major holidays and family events along with dates that we would travel.  When they needed some reassurance that they would be traveling they were able to refer to it easily and mark off days as we got closer.

Give kids decision making authority

Whether it was in picking which Lego pieces would travel, which friends we would visit, or which items needed to come back home, giving kids some decisions that they get to make for themselves or the family goes a long way to making them a bit more cooperative even in the face of change.

Introduce new foods in familiar contexts

We learned a few recipes before we left and made a point to visit some Greek festivals to expose kids to tastes they would encounter. Don’t be put off if they hate the foods you try; exposure is the key to developing a taste for new flavors. Getting a few tastes in from home base will help them once you arrive.

Delegate (busy boxes) and Diversify (suitcase contents)

Easily the worst part of traveling with young children is the airport experience and the close, not-always-quiet, quarters of the plane.  Packing lunch boxes with quiet but engaging activities, stickers, and snacks can save you some sanity en route. Airlines are bound to misplace at least one piece of luggage when traveling with such a large party, so be sure to put a change of clothes for each person in a carry-on. You might also want to mix and match items in each case so if a bag does get misplaced everyone is equally affected instead of only one person being on the hook. 

Get guidebooks early

Leaving home is such an abstract idea that having something tangible that represents your new location can help kids start talking and preparing. Our kids created maps, charted all the locations they wanted to see, and learned about fun facts in a way that got them excited.

Use bedtime stories to share and prepare

When we arrived we lucked upon a locally written book about our village. I would read up about it during the evening and the next night that would become part of our bedtime story. When we took walks or saw something the kids could talk about the story and it helped them develop knowledge about their new home quickly.

A Family’s Fulbright in Austria

Dr. Ashley Steel
Ecological Statistician
USDA Forest Service
Austria, 2008

Dr. Steel at work during her grant in Austria

Our Fulbright experience started on a very busy day – such a busy day that I very nearly missed the opportunity altogether. There was a guest seminar speaker visiting my office, a professor from Vienna, Austria. After lunch and his speech, he asked if I had time to meet later and I almost said “no.”  I remember my hesitation clearly. I had so many deadlines and “important things” to deal with that afternoon. Luckily, I hedged my bets and suggested that he swing by when he was finished with his other meetings.  He did, and by the time I left the office that day, Stefan Schmutz and I had scoped out a special session at a scientific conference, and drafted a collaborative research proposal.  Thank goodness I didn’t let busyness completely eclipse the opportunity of a lifetime.  About two years later, my family of four arrived at our apartment in Vienna with seven suitcases, four carry-ons, a laptop, and a giant ski bag.  It was New Year’s Day and there was a dusting of snow.

I spent six months researching and lecturing on landscape-scale river ecology working with the Institute for Hydrobiology and Aquatic Ecosystem Management (IHG) at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU).  My research in Seattle focused on building statistical models to link watershed conditions such as percent forested area, road density, or mean summer temperature to the physical, chemical, and biological conditions of the river itself.  My collaborators in the IHG had participated in a large pan-European collaborative to collect fish community data  across Europe.  Our proposal was to apply the landscape approaches that had been successful for modeling salmon in the Pacific Northwest, United States, to pan-European fish community data.

During this time I also led a seminar in which we wrote an invited literature review of landscape-scale approaches to modeling riverine fish and taught a more general course on river ecology including cross-continental comparisons such as the Columbia River, full of dams and Pacific salmon, versus the Danube River, full of dams and Danube salmon.  In their final course projects, students gave presentations on various river ecology topics and sampled smoked salmon from Seattle.

Initially  I was concerned about briSteel 3nging my whole family on this professional trip.  But those concerns were quickly relieved as I began formal planning for our visit.  The first reaction of my Fulbright Scholar Program connection in Vienna, the executive director of the Austrian-American Educational Commission, was something like “Fantastic! Four for the price of one!”  Our older daughter was in third grade at the time and we found her a place in a bi-lingual school within the Viennese public school system.  She made close friends quickly, including students from Australia and Turkey.  Our younger daughter was in kindergarten and her schooling turned out to be more problematic.  The Austrian system doesn’t really have a kindergarten in the American sense of the word, which was a bit surprising since “kindergarten” is, after all, a German word.  She was ready to learn to read but the available Austrian options for kids her age were more like preschools.  After visiting over a dozen schools in five days, we finally settled on the Vienna Elementary School, an English-immersion school.  We were disappointed that she did not learn much German, but she learned a little in the playground, tried ballet and soccer, learned to read (as she had hoped), and enjoyed piano lessons while at school.  She was the hands-down best English student at the school!

Steel 2

We were also initially worried about whether my husband would find exciting opportunities while in Vienna.  Over several family trips prior to Vienna, we had begun joking about writing a book and had taken lots of informal notes on napkins and scraps of paper.  We figured that, while in Vienna, Bill could simply write the book.  Happily, he also found all sorts of professional opportunities.  He worked with a forestry student to revise two scientific manuscripts and initiated collaborations with researchers from BOKU and the Vienna Departments of Water and Forestry that led to a collaborative, comparative manuscript.

We did start that book too, but it turns out that it takes a bit more than six months of causal, part-time writing to complete a book project.  Now, over four years after returning from Vienna, we finally published it! It’s not a guidebook or a memoir of our experiences, though there are anecdotes sprinkled throughout.  The book is a how-to guide for traveling with children.  It has an educator’s spin, offering parents creative ideas for engaging kids and turning them into travel partners.  We talk about preparing kids for a travel adventure, enjoying long plane flights, planning successful days on the road, creative journaling, and reinforcing multicultural experiences at home.  We eventually had to start a blog to promote the book and more of our Austrian experiences are there including our e-letters home describing observations on Austrian life and culture.  We like to think that the book, and maybe even the blog, can contribute in a tiny way to a greater enthusiasm for cross-cultural understanding.

We’ve been back to Vienna twice since the Fulbright experience and have dreams of returning for another long stay.  Both girls now consider Vienna to be a second home and have fantastic memories of palaces, giant slices of cake, trams, wandering in the vineyards, and amazingly, classical music.  They gained a deep understanding of cultural differences as a result of our experience and also an understanding of how similar most people really are.  Time abroad has certainly given them a new lens on American life.  They are less patient with large automobiles, fast food, and a lack of public transportation.  They regularly complain about missing Austria.  It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what we miss so much.  I think it is intense family time combined with the opportunity to learn from a culture that truly believes in the value of sitting outside, sipping a cup of coffee, and enjoying insightful conversation.

Five years later, my  work collaborSteel 1ations still continue. Several manuscripts are in progress and we have hosted two Austrian graduate students here in Seattle.  Words and ideas from Austria have slipped into our way of thinking.  I commonly ask at meetings about identifying the “red thread” that runs through a presentation or manuscript.  I differentiate between river restoration and river rehabilitation and I think about “human pressures” on aquatic ecosystems.  In the United States, we tend to think of current ecological conditions in comparison to wilderness or natural conditions.  But what does “pre-European settlement conditions” mean in Vienna?  Human development, war, and political ideologies have all contributed to the ecological communities on the landscape today. One of my favorite statistical ideas is also from our time in Vienna, the possibility of underlying correlation structures that cloud our ability to untangle landscape-scale effects on river systems. Preliminary research on the idea has now been published and is an integral part of my thinking about riverine landscapes.

Our family is deeply grateful to the Fulbright Scholar Program and, in particular, to the Austrian-American Educational Commission.  Our youngest daughter has already been online to find out when she can apply for her own fellowship!

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