One of the things I had difficulty with when applying for my Fulbright (and then jumping through all the requisite hoops, once accepted), was getting information on what I could really expect from my experience. This is difficult, because the nature of the student research program is that each grantee has a self-designed project–so everyone works in different fields and institutions, and has different goals and methodologies. I am working on architectural heritage management in Tbilisi, one other student is researching English language acquisition in Georgia as a whole, and the other student is researching climate change in a remote mountain village in Svaneti. Additionally, we are all different ages and points in our career: I just got my bachelor’s this past summer, one student already has her master’s, and the other one is halfway through his master’s dissertation. So understandably, it’s hard to know what to expect when everyone’s experience is completely different.
So with that disclaimer, here are some things to expect that I wish I had been told from the outset–some are specific to me and my experience, or specific to Georgia as a whole, or that could apply to any Fulbright US Student grantee:
- You do not get your grant money until you buy your airfare first. This was kind of a pain, because I had very little money in my bank account over the summer, but my first grant payment would not be deposited until I submitted flight itineraries. Note, however, that your departure date is flexible. It’s difficult to book a flight so far out, and you may very well end up changing it, which isn’t a problem for the grant administrators.
- You do not need a visa if you are an American citizen in Georgia for under one year (unless there are special conditions, as for businesses, etc.)–Georgia has very lax entry requirements right now, as evidenced by the fact that they’re giving away free wine to anyone who goes through passport control at the airport.
- It is very possible that your project, and even your host institution, will change drastically after a few weeks here. The Fulbright midyear report asks you how your project is going, but a more appropriate question would be “how has your project changed since your arrival?” I was originally here to work on museum exhibit design at the Georgian National Museum, except they were too busy with internal reforms to be bothered with me. So now I work on heritage management at ICOMOS Georgia, which is quite different but even more interesting than I could have imagined.
- On that note, once you get here, your project is only as important as you need it to be. While outlining a rigorous yet feasible project is a significant component of the grant application, and considering that the application process required an almost constant stream of paperwork for several months, you’re left to your own devices (for better or for worse) after the arrival briefing. Your embassy contacts are there if you need them, and they’re always interested to hear about any of your milestones, but they’re not there to check up on your progress–how can they? How is an embassy diplomat qualified to judge progress on an architectural survey project or an ecological survey? Their priority is just to make sure you are safe, relatively productive, and serve as a cultural ambassador.
- Get to know the expat community. They know all the good restaurants, who is working where or researching what, and where to find the specific goods and services you may eventually need–dry cleaners, fitness clubs, repair services, etc. In Tbilisi there are a lot of expat events–Wednesday night Work-in-Progress talks, Friday night banya, etc.
- Volunteer or intern. If you have time outside of your project, get involved with a local NGO. You will meet locals and other expats, and can learn about social, economic, or other issues in your host country/city that you might not have fully understood before. I currently volunteer at Dog Organization Georgia (a shelter near Lisi Lake), and the International Spark Program (a year-long program for Georgian college students to develop projects that address local issues).
- The stipend Fulbright gives you is plenty to live off of in Georgia if you find an apartment with decent rent ($500 or less, which isn’t hard, particularly if you get a roommate) and aren’t making grand travel plans–you’re only allowed 14 days out of the host country, because you’re supposed to be here being a cultural ambassador, remember?
- That said, DO travel while it’s warm! The roads in Georgia get quite bad in the winter, and many beautiful yet remote villages (Shatili, Ushguli) are inaccessible past November. You have all winter to work on your project, and fall is the most beautiful time of year in Georgia, so take advantage of the weather and the cheap trains/marshutkas while you can.
- Don’t worry if your apartment isn’t that great. Define your non-negotiables (washing machine, well-maintained heating unit, commuter distance) and don’t worry too much about extras. If you’re spending all your time in your apartment, you’re doing something wrong.
- If you are debating grad school, try auditing some classes at a local university in the topic(s) of your interest. I am taking an English-language course on collective memory at Tbilisi State University. It only meets once a week, so it fits in with my schedule well, and the readings (2-3 papers a week) are manageable. While it isn’t necessarily historic preservation, concepts about memory and how collective memory differs from individual memory can be very helpful when developing educational programs at historic sites.
- Accept that you will occasionally be used as an editor–English usage is spreading throughout Georgia, but very few people are fluent. So gracefully accept the fact that you will be asked to correct letters, essays, brochures, press releases, academic paper translations, etc.