Aug 21, 2018

Academic and Cultural Enrichments

By Ilka Gerhardts

A spark of U.S. diversity: from Seal Beach to Monument Valley

As a participant of the Fulbright program for doctoral students I was given the opportunity of a six month research stay at UC Santa Barbara. Afterwards the Fulbright Visa allowed me to travel the US for an additional month. Out of seven months in total, would I want to miss a single day?
I don’t think so…

The main takeaway up front: The UCSB academic environment was inspiring and the exchange has certainly fostered my wish to pursue an academic career. There are three main components about the scientific community I appreciate in particular.

First and foremost, my supervisor offered to meet with me once a week, which was tremendously useful for the progress of the research project. She also invited all her visiting students for Thanksgiving to her home, a unique traditional experience! Personal interaction was by no means limited to my supervisor – senior and junior faculty likewise treated my projects as well as my foreign background with sincere interest.

Second, the other grad students gave me the feeling I was one of their cohort. Very few of them were originally from Santa Barbara so they knew a lot and from personal experience about starting friendships at foreign places. Even prior to my arrival they helped me with finding housing which was certainly among the most challenging organizational tasks. When I got to Santa Barbara by the end of September the grads showed me around campus, Isla Vista, Downtown, the beaches… and they invited me to join them for little trips e.g. to Ventura Avocado Festival. Thus, on my first Saturday in Santa Barbara I was already dancing with an avocado. And, needless to say, Santa Barbara wildlife is just charming: I fell in love with the seals at first sight.

Third, as a UCSB Broom Center visitor I was in contact with researchers from many different fields including but not limited to biology, geography and demography. This diversity gives rise to an intriguing seminar series with as different as valuable approaches to analyze quasi-experimental data. On top of that UCSB hosts high-quality talks from the field of economics on a weekly basis.

To sum up, when you visit UCSB economics department you are welcome to actively engage into faculty life - you can join research groups in your field to exchange ideas and work on new methods, you are even given the chance to present your own research as a labor lunch speaker and you are encouraged to comment on other projects - in bilateral talks as well as in more crowded meetings.

The Fulbright network is very present in Santa Barbara, e.g. the grad student who helped me to find a  flat is a Fulbright scholar himself, just as the godfather of my flat mate who turned into my best American friend. The Fulbright network also simplifies meeting students from other fields. I especially liked the cultural events organized by Fulbright Turkish language teachers - there was food, music and a friend of mine even performed some traditional dance! Going one step back, there is one hint I would like to share with future Fulbright scholars. When I started working on my Fulbright application I checked out the website and luckily I also talked to a fellow PhD student at my university who was granted the scholarship one period before me. He told me about Youtube application tutorials which I strongly recommend to all potential applicants. From a German student's perspective those tutorials are tremendously helpful, e.g. in adjusting your essays to an American readership. Moreover they are really interesting telling some insightful stories about former successful applicants.

My report would be incomplete without mentioning the Thomas fire that struck Santa Barbara in early December. It started with a county-wide outage late at night. When the lights went out, my flat mate and I tried to call friends in Downtown because our entire neighborhood was covered in darkness. But cell phone coverage was down so just the two of us huddled together in my bedroom with a candle and coconut chips waiting for news. This was as scary as fascinating an experience, for sure it was something we will never forget. During the following days when air quality deteriorated dramatically we were locked up in our tiny flat noticing how our neighbors left one by one seeking shelter at other places. Given Christmas break was drawing near we finally could escape by going home a little early. Retrospectively the moment that most fostered our friendship was when my flat mate offered to take me home to her family in case I could not afford to reschedule my flight to Europe. My Fulbright advisor was also very supportive, emailing me regularly and thus checking in on my well-being and offering advice and encouraging words.

In conclusion, when asked about what I loved most about my Fulbright experience I respond: The balance of academic and cultural enrichments. Some people return from an academic exchange telling stories about having seen nothing but their office walls - neither their supervisors nor other grad students nor the country that hosted them. Fulbright makes sure this won't happen to you -- yes, your academic experience will hopefully be demanding and intense but also incredibly diverse by cultural activities and the best possible integration you could wish for as a 'temporary migrant’.

llka Gerhardts is a Fulbright scholar from LMU Munich, where she is affiliated to the Chair for Population Economics. Her main research interests are Economics of Education, Labor Economics and Applied Microeconometrics. At UC Santa Barbara, she visited the Broom Center for Demography to investigate the impact of fertility on female labor market participation. For this project she combined spatial analysis tools with classic econometrics. Prior to her PhD, Ilka got a M.Sc. in Economics from LMU Munich. She obtained a B.Sc. in Business Sciences from the Distance Teaching University of Hagen while working as a consultant in banking.

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