During Fulbright: Finding Community

Written by: Izzah Zaheer

On paper, the job requirements of an English Teaching Assistant are to provide a cultural exchange in the classroom and to engage with the community. In practice, you are tasked with creating a home in a completely new place.

I worked as an English Teach Assistant at UCLouvain in Louvain-la-Neuve, while living in Brussels. Coming from a big city like Dallas, I chose to live in Brussels as I wanted to experience the center of Europe up close.

I had already visited Brussels in the past years and loved it. However, I soon learned that visiting as a tourist and living in a city are two very different experiences.

Group of Fulbright students smiling at Brussels Place during cultural exchange program

Brussels Pride

Adjusting to a New Country

The Fulbright year is a gap year, but that does not mean it is a vacation or a year of complete rest. I enjoyed my time, but adjusting to a new country and lifestyle took a lot of time and energy. For the first couple months, I was busy setting up my apartment, and implementing a daily routine. Figuring out where the best place to grocery shop as well as which pharmacy or doctor is best for me took a lot of time and patience. There were days where it was difficult to romanticize life and it is important to know that it is okay to struggle. Life is not Instagram and even though living abroad is amazing, life still happens and you will be faced with many struggles.

My advice would be to go into your Fulbright with realistic expectations and let go of the pressure that this is supposed to be the best year of your life. It will likely be one of your favorites because of its uniqueness. Take advantage of everything you can, but if you do not have the capacity, it’s okay to take a step back!

Finding My Home

Through the many struggles and many celebrations, I found friends who became my support system through my grant period. A big point of stability for me was attending community kitchen. Regardless of how I felt, I made sure to get myself and go to the community kitchen. It was a simple volunteering activity that always made me feel better afterwards. People from all different backgrounds attended the community kitchen and it was great to learn from them and hear their stories.

International students cooking together in community kitchen during Fulbright program in Brussels

Community Kitchen in Brussels

Being far away from home, I was nervous about celebrating Ramadan and Eid far away from my family. I was in an unknown landscape that felt difficult to navigate. However, luckily, I was able to be part of pockets of the community in Brussels and attend iftars hosted by Belgian Muslims as well as host iftars myself for my fellow cohort members. I was happy to attend an Iftar-Shabbat event and discuss the ongoing occupation of Palestine. These experiences shaped my time here and gave me friends that I am proud to call friends for life.

Fulbright scholars sharing a communal dinner in Brussels, bonding over international cuisine

Last dinner together with most of the cohort

From the opportunity to attend the EU-NATO Seminar to Brussels Pride, In the last couple of months, I found a home in Brussels. Through the small kindness through the people I met from my roommate to the people in my cohort, my experience was shaped by the people who provided me the space to create a home.

It may seem daunting at first, but I encourage individuals to look for places where they can really be a part of the community. That will take a lot of courage and confidence, but it is something that will make this year truly fulfilling.

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