Recently, a conversation with an old friend of mine brought it to my attention that my online presence does not completely explain how or why I’ve been traveling around Europe over the past two and a half years. After a superficial run-through of my Facebook page, one might even get the impression that I’m living some kind of fantasy never-ending vacation. Well it’s time to set the record straight! Also, please check out the very relevant acknowledgement at the end of this post. Okay, here we go!
English Teaching Assistant (ETA)
That’s my job title. I’m helping to teach English as a Foreign Language to German high school students. While that seems simple enough, it’s not my only reason for being here.
(*Disclaimer: My words do not necessarily express the views and opinions of the Fulbright association or U.S. government.)
The Fulbright Program is a competitive, merit-based scholarship for international exchange sponsored by the U.S. government (Although the program exists in other countries and is co-funded by various ministries of education). It was created by senator J. William Fulbright shortly after the end of WWII in an effort to “increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.” If you want, you can check out their website.
In other words, while I am teaching English to German kids, the primary duty of my job is to learn more about Germany while fostering understanding about American values among Germans. I am essentially a cultural ambassador. I am here to encourage peace and understanding. I am here to leave good vibes.
So while it would seem like I’m having an awesome vacation (don’t get me wrong, it definitely feels like that 99% of the time), I’m also keenly aware of the importance of my program and the duties it entails.
How I can afford to travel and “A Worry-Free Year”
For those of you with whom I haven’t spoken since high school, the short story is that shortly after starting college in 2010, I realized I had a passion for learning languages. And I wasn’t so bad at it either. For this reason, I redirected my whole course of study toward modern languages and arranged to study abroad twice – one semester in Germany and one semester in Spain. I was able to travel during my time abroad using discount airlines. While I consider these experiences to be invaluable, I do have some student loan debt from the tuition costs of my 4-year degree.
For my current program, Fulbright paid for my flight and is providing me with a stipend that covers all of my living expenses. Other expenses, such as traveling and cultural activities, have to come of out pocket. For most participants, this is no problem –they simply work as much as they can the summer before departure from the US and then take up a small tutoring job when they arrive for extra cash.
I, on the other hand, had some special circumstances at home, namely that I’m one of the main providers for my family, and had a not-so-brief scare about how I was going to leave the country for an extended period of time when my family had to – ahem – pay the mortgage. This is where the “A Worry Free Year” project came into play. An extremely caring and dedicated group of individuals came together for me just a few months before my departure to help raise money for both my family and my extra expenses in Germany. So now I get to pursue my passion and my family won’t lose the house.
To that team of selfless, hard-working individuals I would like to express my utmost gratitude. You have truly been the most wonderful blessing of my life thus far! I would now like to mention all of those who were part of this team by name (and please, if I forgot anyone, let me know and I will add your name to the list):
Ruth Jackson, aka “Auntie Ruth” – My work-study supervisor and part-time life coach. Thank you for caring so much about my family and helping me follow my dreams!
Dr. Jay – My scholarship advisor for Fulbright. Thank you for being such an incredible source of direction and encouragement since I started at Rollins. There’s no way I would have gotten the scholarship without you.
Dr. Decker and Anna Lohaus – My German teachers who helped me to discover my love for languages in general (and not just Spanish). Herzlichen Dank, dass Sie mich zum Kaffeeklatsch eingeladen haben, als ich ein Freshman war!
Ana Bugallo – Director of my program when I studied abroad in Spain. Thank you for writing such an awesome letter of recommendation y por las aventuras inolvidables en tu hermoso país.
Ashley Graham – Who was my manager at McDonald’s for the longest time, ever since I was first hired at the age of sixteen. Thank you for writing a winning letter of recommendation, even though you were tired and short on time, and thank you for the sweet memories working in the fast food industry.
Sheri Kebbel (of Say True Films), Joe Tamborello, Jamie Cricks, Chris Cruz, Matt Lynn, and Craig Stottle – Who volunteered their time and expertise to make a professional documentary (which was later shared by Wesh2 News!). Thank you for giving me a voice and helping me to tell my story.
John Rivers – Thank you for employing my little brother at your restaurant. Watching him grow and thrive after working there has been a blessing in itself. Thank you especially for the advice you gave me about reaching my goals in life and for the personal words of encouragement. The story of how you grew up and made it to where you are today is an inspiration and I hope to have such an amazing story someday as well!
Vivianna Lopez, Morgan Knox, and everyone at Synergy – Thank you for your financial services and moral support.
Thank you to The Nation Law Firm for representing my mother in her case for social security disability. Thank you for helping her to finally see a doctor and get the paperwork she needs to prove her disability.
Thank you to Mr. Bailey and The Bailey Fischer Law Firm for allowing the team to use your office and for the constant support.
Thank you to my aunts and uncles for stepping in to help when my family needed it the most. Thank you for supporting my interests and sharing in the excitement of my adventures abroad. Thank you especially, Aunt Mary and Uncle Joe, for getting (my friends and) me into Disney World 1,439,046,579 times last year.
Thank you to my three brothers and mother for working hard and holding together as a family through every hardship and obstacle. (Things are finally looking up for us, and we’re getting closer with every step!)
Most of all, I want to thank Fay Pappas for organizing the GoFundMe, gathering all the resources we needed, and leading the entire “A Worry-Free Year” team. Fay, I am forever indebted to you for the kindness you’ve shown! It was your unyielding diligence and heart of gold that really made this project a success. Thank you for listening to my story and for helping me to tell it, for staying up all night to help edit the documentary, for every word of encouragement, for every late-night pep-talk, for holding my hand through it all (often literally). Thank you for empowering me, for believing in me, and for helping me to follow my dreams. I hope to pay it forward in as many ways as humanly possible.
Princess Christine Dickens