17 February, 2012

So what do you *do* here?

This is a question I get a lot:

"So what exactly do you do here?"

Said, of course, with the requisite emphasis on the second 'do' so as to indicate a presumption that the answer may be "Nothing", a la The Bobs.  So, six months into the program, I'll finally describe what it is I do here, first with a bit of explanation about the Fulbright Program itself.

Because the Fulbright Program's purpose is simply 'to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries', it leaves a lot of freedom as to how the the three types of Fulbright participants will work to achieve that goal.  The three types of Fulbright participants are  
  • Fulbright Scholars - Professors at US universities who teach at a host country university for about one term,
  • Fulbright Researchers - Graduates who perform research on a variety of topics in the host country, and
  • Fulbright English Teaching Assistants - Graduates who teach English in the host country.
I am a Fulbright Researcher and my topic relates to the state of the microfinance industry in Moldova (this will have to be a different post).  Notice, though, that the goal of the Fulbright Program does not include furthering research.  Rather, the role of the researcher is a mechanism through which the program achieves its goal for mutual cross-cultural understanding.  By placing Americans abroad, they are providing host-country citizens a personal face to what is otherwise be a stereotype often developed from an exported entertainment and fast-food industry and YouTube videos.  

Without this personal face, someone whose main source of exposure to the US is YouTube and the entertainment industry may not experience a side of the US that is smarter than a 5th grader, knows that Europe is a continent, and can form a competent sentence.  These are funny videos, and as a result have gone viral, but if this is the only type of 'culture' the US exports, then anyone exposed to it will naturally have a pretty low opinion of that 'culture'.  By providing cultural exchanges like the Fulbright Program and a number of programs that offer non-US-Citizens to study in the US, the US government is able to counteract the perceptions propagated by funny viral videos, among other things.  This is of course, an oversimplification, and only describes a part of the program and its purpose, but I don't want to spend too much time on this right now.

All this is to say that, while my research proposal is the reason I was selected to participate in this program, it ends up taking up somewhere around only half of my time, and in some weeks, even less.  Instead, in addition to research, I actually teach two classes at my host institution, the Free International University of Moldova (ULIM - pictured above).  I teach Public Finance and Basic Accounting at the university to a group of bright first year students studying International Economic Relations.  Anyone who is familiar with academia in both the US and Eastern Europe is aware there is a strong difference in teaching styles between the two regions, so I greatly appreciate the efforts my students have shown to participate in (put up with?) my vastly different teaching methodologies.  

I also participate and present at conferences, evaluate and interview applicants of students applying to study in the US, facilitate English language conversation hours, and, of course, prepare a lot for the courses I teach at ULIM, all this while trying desperately to grasp the Russian and Romanian languages.  I also try to get around Moldova to see more than just its capital, whether it is research-related travel, for a program I am working with, or just to visit friends in the countryside.  

As you can see, it's not easy to describe what I do here in one sentence, so it often gets lost in details or in translation.  So this post is just a small attempt to shed some light on that subject.

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