Academic Stories

The Fulbright experience: embracing the unexpected

What Joe Joseph, AB’17, taught (and learned) during his two years with the Fulbright Program in Madrid

When Joe Joseph, AB’17, began his Fulbright fellowship in Spain in 2017, it was a leap into the unknown. His English Teaching Assistantship in Madrid came with a lot of firsts: his first job out of college; his first long-term stay outside of the United States; and his first time teaching. He had no idea the successes he would achieve in the coming years. 

“Being thrust into all of these firsts meant that the adjustment period for me was incredibly difficult,” he said. “I spent many months wondering whether or not I had made the right choice in leaving everything behind.”

But Joseph knew how to embrace opportunity. During his time as an economics major and human rights minor at UChicago, he visited the College Center for Research and Fellowships, formerly the College Center for Scholarly Advancement, to identify and explore the opportunities and programs available to him after graduation. After researching the Fulbright program, he realized that it could be the next step for him. As the largest exchange program in the United States, the Fulbright program sponsors experiences abroad to teach, conduct research, and study for nine to 11 months. This program aligned with two of Joseph’s great passions: experiencing new cultures and supporting education. 

At UChicago, Joseph explored issues of inequality both in and out of the classroom, taking relevant undergraduate courses and volunteering with the RSO Strive Tutoring. As a mentor for students in the Chicago Public Schools system, Joseph gained the practical experience that helped him in his own classroom in Madrid. 

In his first year abroad, Joseph learned to embrace the unexpected as he taught English to students. Over the course of the year, the class delved into a Model United Nations English as a Second Language program called Global Classrooms, which offered his students a chance to explore civic issues and practice English public speaking, all while forming close bonds.

“I've watched some of my students blossom from timid and uninvolved teens to outspoken and civically-engaged young adults,” he said.

Joseph’s time in Madrid did not end after just one year. Instead, he accepted a position as one of Madrid’s two Fulbright mentors for 2018-2019. Now, he helps coordinate the Global Classrooms program and runs workshops for teachers and language assistants. He also led a group of 10 students from Spain to an international Model UN conference held in New York City.

In addition to his work with the Fulbright program, Joseph became a founding member of the nonprofit Intersect Madrid, which supports people of color and marginalized groups within the city’s English-speaking community. With his colleagues, he ran workshops addressing racism in the classroom, hosted an open mic for performers from underrepresented backgrounds, and built a community for LGBTQ+ people of color. Though Joseph said he could hardly have imagined it at the beginning of his time in Madrid, he has built the group into something that will outlive his time there.

Joseph recommends that students spend time abroad, and considers the challenges of the experience to be part of what makes it so valuable. “You're intentionally removing yourself from support systems and roots that you have built over many years to commit yourself to something foreign and unknown. The beauty of isolation is the opportunity to get to know yourself better and to spend intentional time on introspection…Living abroad forced me to confront the realities of what I want and what I’m capable of [achieving].”

In his advice to Fulbright candidates, Joseph suggests doing a lot of research. “It’s really worth delving into each individual program and discovering its intricacies,” he said. “How will this program be the best fit for you even beyond the country itself? What sorts of opportunities will be afforded to you and how is this program the only possible option for your Fulbright year? It’s important to consider these questions, because they will not only make your application stronger, but your experience as well.”

This year will be Joseph’s last in Spain, but he will not be far away from the classroom for long. He aims to begin a PhD in education, next fall.

“I would like to work in education research and study the ways we cultivate students into empathetic and informed adults, ideally from an international perspective. My Fulbright experience will be invaluable in informing and guiding my path toward this goal.” 

A total of 30 students in the College and the graduate divisions and schools are currently on Fulbright fellowships for the 2018-2019 academic year. UChicago is ranked fifth on The Chronicle of Higher Education’s 2017-2018 list of Top Producers of Fulbright U.S. Scholars and Students

Undergraduate students and College alumni interested in applying for the upcoming Fulbright competition can find more information in CCRF’s Fulbright Guide for Campus Applications. CCRF will host information sessions, alumni panels, and affiliation FAQs during Spring Quarter.