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Life in the Heartland - Corn, Culture and Clichés

von Sarah Wagner
Stipendiatin im Jahresprogramm 2011/2012 für Universitäten

"Oh, so you are going to study in Nebraska? How interesting. Where is that again?" In one form or another, this question has faithfully accompanied me on my Fulbright journey, no matter if it was posed by relatives in Germany or fellow students at enrichment seminars, Nebraska seemed to be more of a vague idea in people's minds. Whereas we can all picture New York City or Los Angeles in our imagination thanks to their dominant presence in movies and the media, Nebraska remains elusive for many people, just another conservative "fly over" state somewhere in the middle of the U.S. Filled with lots of corn fields. And while I knew little more myself in the beginning, it turned out that Nebraska had much more to offer than I could have ever imagined or hoped for: academically and professionally, culturally as well as personally.

Omaha, City view from the Heartland of America Park
Cornfield and Football Field, Fort Calhoun, NE

One of the decisive factors that influenced my decision to choose the University of Nebraska - Omaha (UNO) to take part in a Master's Program for Political Science was the Center for Afghanistan Studies; a center focused solely on research and education related to Afghanistan with a well known Afghanistan expert, Tom Gouttierre, as its director. Since the aim of my Fulbright experience was to deepen my understanding of U.S. foreign policy and to research U.S. policy on Afghanistan for my German thesis paper, I could not have found a better academic environment to conduct my studies. As a non-degree student, I had the luxury to choose from a variety of electives the classes which suited my interests and research the best, ranging from traditional U.S. Foreign Policy courses to seminars on Political Islam or U.S. Security and Intelligence Studies.

Mini Statue of Liberty in Des Moines, Iowa

However, while all these classes and even additional guest speakers certainly helped me in my academic development by allowing me to gain a deeper and better understanding of U.S. foreign policy and culture, it was the faculty of UNO, especially the Political Science Department, which challenged and supported me in my professional development in a way I had not experienced before. In Germany, the relationship between students and professors is to a large degree hierarchical in terms of communication or involvement. Compared to the U.S., there is much less informal interaction with students. Yet in Nebraska, my professors stopped in the hallway to chat with me, asked me about my studies and what they could do to help, personally invited me to events on campus, gave me extensive feedback and even helped me with publishing some of my work. For me, this show of confidence in my abilities was worth more than any class I could have taken, this support encouraged me to write more and to put more effort into publishing articles, to become more active in my own personal development and it reaffirmed my ambition to become more involved in the field of transatlantic relationships in the future. Therefore, being part of a smaller campus community proved to be a great advantage for me, academically and professionally.

Rodeo with my friend Asha Adhikari from Nepal

Yet there was also much time to spend in Omaha outside of the library and classroom of course! My personal favorite was the local rodeo - something you will hardly find in Germany. I had the chance to volunteer at the rodeo through my school and was able to witness bull riding, roping and barrel racing, definitely a fun way to experience a part of American culture that is usually only known to Europeans through television or movies. Another benefit of being in Omaha was the centrality of its location, city trips to Des Moines, Iowa, Kansas City or Chicago were only a few hours away and offered fun getaways throughout the months.

However, the greatest advantage from a Political Science point of view was Nebraska's border with Iowa, a central battleground in the upcoming election in the fall of 2012. With Republican primaries taking place during my stay in the U.S., it was a perfect chance to witness politics, grassroots movements and debates live and firsthand. On campus, I had joined the ONE advocacy group as a political liaison, a non-partisan effort to raise awareness and promote advocacy for Africa, be it in terms of foreign aid, disease prevention or agricultural support. Part of the advocacy work included attending public appearances of Republican candidates in order to raise awareness for the development situation in Africa and to protest potential cuts to the foreign aid budget. Being involved in this mixture of American politics and advocacy firsthand was truly a great experience, especially because we actually succeeded in meeting the likely nominee Mitt Romney in Council Bluffs, Iowa, only a mere minutes away from Omaha.

Meeting Mitt Romney in Council Bluffs, Iowa (with Lauren Marie Foster).

When looking back at my stay in Nebraska, it is safe to say that my academic, professional and cultural experiences had a great influence on the success of my stay. Yet in the end, it was the people of Nebraska who made this state a home for me and incredibly hard to leave. Next to corn and rodeos, I had thought of the "American heartland" as another cliché, Yet people in Omaha were and are incredibly caring, supportive and always ready to help. No matter if it involved getting groceries or a bank account, calling you up during a tornado watch to make sure you are doing alright, inviting you over to their homes for dinner, taking you to see a football game or just showing you around Nebraska.

Thanks to the Fulbright commission, I was able to use this year to advance in my studies and prepare for my future while making many great friends along the way. It truly does not matter where you study in the U.S., all one has to do is take advantage of the many possibilities offered and be open and ready for the experience. A cliché can turn out to be true or not, but having lived it or experienced it will enrich your knowledge and stay either way. And before you know it, you will find it very difficult to leave the beautiful Husker state, Nebraska.

Sarah Wagner - Studentin an der Universität Trier - verbringt das
akademische Jahr 2011/2012 als Fulbright Stipendiatin an der University of Nebraska at Omaha.