The writer is a student at the University of Trier in Germany. She recently completed an academic year at UNO as a Fulbright fellow.
“Oh, so you are going to study in Omaha, Nebraska? How interesting. Where is that again?”
In one form or another, this question, posed by relatives and fellow students back home, has faithfully accompanied me on my Fulbright journey.
We can all picture New York City or Los Angeles in our imaginations, thanks to their dominant presence in movies and the media, but Nebraska remains elusive for many people, just another flyover state somewhere in the middle of the United States, covered with fields of corn.
While I knew little more myself in the beginning, it turned out that Nebraska had much more to offer than I could have imagined.
A critical factor influencing my decision to choose the University of Nebraska at Omaha and its master's program for political science was the Center for Afghanistan Studies, a center focused solely on research and education related to Afghanistan and led by well-known Afghanistan expert Tom Gouttierre. Since the aim of my Fulbright exchange experience was to deepen my understanding of U.S. foreign policy and to research U.S. policy on Afghanistan, I could not have found a better academic environment.
While all my classes and guest speakers certainly allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of U.S. culture and foreign policy, it was the faculty of UNO, especially in the Political Science Department, who 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 hierarchical in terms of communication and involvement. Compared to the United States, professors informally interact with students much less.
In Omaha, my professors stopped in the hallway to chat with me, asked me about my studies and what they could do to help. They personally invited me to events on campus, gave me extensive feedback and even helped me publish some of my work.
For me, this show of confidence in my abilities was worth more than any class; this support encouraged me to become more active in my own personal and academic development. Therefore, being part of a smaller campus community proved to be a great advantage for me, academically and professionally.
Yet there was also much time to spend in Omaha outside of the library and classroom! My personal favorite was a local rodeo — something you will not find in Germany. I had the chance to volunteer at the rodeo through UNO and was able to witness bull-riding, roping and barrel-racing — a fun way to experience a part of American culture that is known to Europeans only through television or movies.
Another benefit of being in Omaha was the centrality of its location. Des Moines, Kansas City and Chicago were only a few hours away and offered fun getaways. But most of the time, I was lured away by strolling in the Old Market, eating a falafel in Dundee, enjoying a movie at Film Streams, shopping at West- roads or just spending time with friends. Omaha offered endless possibilities.
When looking back at my stay in Nebraska, it is safe to say that my academic, professional and cultural experiences had a great influence. Yet in the end, it was the people of Nebraska and specifically Omaha who made this state a home for me and incredibly hard to leave.
I had thought of the “American heartland” as another cliché, yet I found people in Omaha incredibly caring, supportive and always ready to help. They helped with simple things like getting groceries or opening a bank account. They called me during a tornado watch to make sure I was all right. They invited me into their homes for dinner, took me to see a football game and showed me all around Nebraska.
Thanks to Fulbright, UNO and the Omaha community, 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.
When studying in the United States or any foreign country, one has to take advantage of the many possibilities offered and be open to new experiences. A cliché can turn out to be true or not, but living it and experiencing it will increase your knowledge and enhance your life either way.
Before you know it, you will find it very difficult to leave a beautiful place like Nebraska.