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  • Writer's pictureAine Dougherty

My Experience as a Fulbright ETA in Alsace

Scenes from our mid-year Fulbright meeting at the Hôtel de Talleyrand in Paris.

Two years ago, my plane back home to Philadelphia had just landed when I opened my email and saw a new notification from the Fulbright Association: "Congratulations on Your Fulbright Award!"

I'm not ashamed to admit that I cried while deplaning, calling my family and friends as quickly as I could. I probably got several weird looks from other passengers, but if only they had known what the past six months had held.

With only 10 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant positions in France, I didn't have high hopes that I would be accepted (Fulbright is a grant program offering study, research and teaching awards to Americans abroad). After applying in early September 2018, and finally receiving the semi-finalist email in January 2019, thus began the agonizing four-month wait. I had made the first cut, from 100+ applicants to only ~20. Fulbright decisions for countries around the world begin to come out in the spring, and by early April, I think I had refreshed the /fulbrightfrance sub-Reddit close to 1 million times. Stress was at an all time high, and it was the universe's stroke of genius that the email arrived in my inbox as I was on a plane, thousands of feet in the air, unable to refresh the internet.

The colorful Place de la Réunion in Mulhouse, France.

Soon after, I was notified that I had been placed in Mulhouse, France, a town of 110,000 in Alsace, in the Grand Est region. (Read about how I came to love Mulhouse here.) And thus began the endless Google searches, packing lists, visa appointments and goodbye hugs. Finally, in September 2019, a year after I had applied, I was in another plane, this one on the way to Paris for my orientation and the beginning of my tenure as an English assistant in a French high school.

Despite the initial growing pains and uncertainties, I slowly came to realize that France –- and, come to think of it, Mulhouse – was where I belonged. Throughout the first five uninterrupted months of the program, I experience high after high, even after being asked to teach a "Math in English" class. Creating storytelling workshops with my students like the one I had organized as a journalism student in undergrad, being asked to lead a presentation in front of the entire Fulbright cohort, discovering the region of Alsace (and its food), becoming close with my coworkers, winning 1 million (virtual) dollars in online Deal or No Deal with one of my favorite classes... Sometimes I felt lonely or uncomfortable or unprepared or frustrated (hello, SNCF and teacher strikes!) or even terrified in front of the French 17-year-olds, but I still look back on those first few months with rose colored glasses (especially because, as ETAs, we had two weeks of paid vacation every six weeks!).

Then COVID hit, and most Fulbrighters hurried back home to the U.S. before flights got too scarce or expensive. After lots of worrying, I decided to stick things out and complete my contract as a teaching assistant, and I was able to stay safe with my adopted "host family," which made me luckier than most. I wish my grant period hadn't been cut short, but I'm so grateful for the support I got during that time.

So, what did I learn during my 5 months as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in France, and what tips can I give to new assistants?

First of all, be flexible

  • I wasn't expecting or necessarily overjoyed to be placed in Mulhouse, a town I'd never heard of before. We can't all be in the sunny south of France or smack dab in Le Marais in Paris, but it helped me to try to learn and absorb as much as I could about Alsace before going and once I'd arrived. It's not a perfect town, but (pre-COVID) it helped to make friends with fellow assistants through Facebook, check out any and all local events or activities, and just say yes! whenever an opportunity arose.

Be ready to adapt (creatively!)

  • Although I had done plenty of tutoring and mentoring, I didn't come into the Fulbright with years of teaching experience behind me. Sometimes, I would arrive at the high school with the perfect lesson prepared, and for some reason or another, it wouldn't go as I'd planned. In these cases, I would switch gears, bring out games, quietly implore the head teacher for help, or even remind my class in French, "I'm who's boss." It takes creativity to keep French students engaged! Above all, communicate with your co-teachers and keep a list of any and all lesson plan ideas you might come across. Don't be afraid to reuse ideas or structures that work! It's always better to talk less and have your students talk more.

Take good care of all your important documents

  • This tip is a bit less sexy, but because French administration is so finicky, keep every single important document that you receive (plus copies!) in a folder somewhere. Pay slips, OFII validation, carte vitale, arrêté de nomination... everything. Plus, take ID photos at a supermarket right when you arrive so you have one whenever you may need it. Finally, become good friends with your school's secretary and your co-teachers so that you feel comfortable asking whenever you have a problem or a question.

Do you have any other questions about the Fulbright program? Comment below or send me a message!

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