By Erin D’Amelio

When you apply for a grant, any grant, you must accept that as soon as you submit the final copy, your next step is to wait. That dreaded delay in action that accompanies you everywhere, most annoyingly in conversations with others who ask you what your plans are after graduation. You smile uncomfortably and defer to this requisite suspension, hoping that you’ll soon be able to banish waiting for news with the simple receipt of an email. When you can finally do that, you learn that you then have to wait some more before you can actually start the grant! I’m writing this article around Christmas, but it hasn’t really dawned on me that the holiday is actually here. Oh sure, I’ve been inundated by Christmas songs since October like everyone else, but I’ve been working with a different countdown, one that has lasted for about nine months since April. Happily, this countdown will end in approximately six days. But it’s been a long time coming.
Some semblance of packing? Yeah right.

After being accepted to the Fulbright program in April, I received a lovely if not terribly anticlimactic letter from the Fulbright commission basically stating how wonderful an opportunity it is to be in the program. But the letter also gave me my marching orders: I had to obtain medical clearance, a bachelor’s degree (since I was to graduate soon), and turn in a participant consent form. Additionally, I needed an international license and Malaysia-appropriate clothing. Some of these could be handled immediately, others needed more time. For example, I couldn’t get my medical clearance or international license right away because of the timing of my grant. On the one hand, it was nice to have certain tasks spread out across the eight months, but on the other hand, these tasks would only take a day (or two, if you go to the DMV on a Monday and find that it’s closed. Oops).
With expertly timed email blasts, Fulbright sent out information regarding our grants, keeping us frothing at the mouth with excitement with their teasing reminders. I additionally heard from the Malaysian-American Commission on Educational Exchange (MACEE), the local Fulbright Commission in Malaysia. As my main contact for the Fulbright grant, MACEE sent me my grant authorization form, which had to be signed and sent to three different groups. There was even a webinar hosted by the State Department in July, which included members from the Fulbright Program staff and alumni, in which soon-to-be ETAs got to submit questions via a live chat mechanism and the speakers answered them.

But when I wasn’t hearing from Fulbright or MACEE, I found myself fairly idle. (It’s the less glamorous side of the Fulbright grant that gets pushed to a dark corner and no Johnny Castle to come and rescue it.) While there were plenty of events in my personal life that occupied my time during the summer and the fall, I didn’t have much responsibility when it came to my grant. I learned that MACEE would take care of the visa process, housing, basically anything that would stress out someone moving to another country. Unfortunately, the one piece of information that all us ETAs are dying to know- what city/school we’ll be placed in- won’t be revealed to us until we start orientation in January. Talk about cruel and unusual punishment!

One thing that I did get to do, which I found pretty awesome, was obtaining my motorcycle license. Oh yes, I am licensed to ride. There are two main ways ETAs travel from apartment to school: car or motorbike. Because we’ve been kept in the dark as to what our placements are, we have no clue what will be our best transportation option, so MACEE suggested that we acquire motorcycle licenses just in case. We wouldn’t suffer, per se, if we didn’t have one license and not the other, but it is best to prepare for everything. So, in September I got my permit, took some classes and got my license in October, passing with somewhat flying colors, and am currently on the lookout for motorcycle gangs to join (but not really).

Reading blogs from the current ETAs in Malaysia has also kept me afloat in the giant ocean of time separating myself from my grant. (Quick side note, it’s strange to think that soon after I begin my journey abroad, next year’s batch of teaching assistants will hear from Fulbright; not even halfway through my ten months will the 2015 cohort will be chosen and looking forward to their experiences abroad.) Through reading some of these blogs, I gleaned valuable insight from, basically, Future Me. The internet has been incredibly helpful not only in that, but also in connecting with my own cohort of ETAs: thanks to websites like LinkedIn and Facebook, I found my fellow teaching assistants and have been talking about the upcoming adventures nonstop. It reminds me how wonderful it is to have a network of people when a new adventure begins. Even chatting with them once gave me the welcomed reassurance of the program’s existence (because sometimes it feels like it isn’t real).

But no matter how much you prepare, there’s always something that catches you off guard. For me, it was responding to the question, “Are you excited?” It’s a question so vague, yet so ubiquitous. Am I excited to fly to Malaysia (over 36 hours of traveling)? No. Am I excited for the culture shock? Yes and no. Am I excited to be on this journey? Yes! How am I supposed to talk about my trip if you only give me the option of a one-word response? I tried the sarcastic, “No” a couple of times, but that joke wears off quickly. Worst of all, it’s not even very creative. The biggest struggle I will face in these last couple of days before I go, while I’m there, and even when I get back, is answering those vague questions, knowing that few will listen or expect a lengthy answer. Many of my experiences will be kept to myself. I experienced such a phenomenon after my trips to Madagascar and Paris: someone would inquire if I had a good time, but fail to ask me anything in depth. Nothing like the sort of questions that require more than a one-word response, such as, “What surprised you most about the country?” or “Why did you go/do X as opposed to Y?” It didn’t happen all of the time, but there are plenty of aspects of my trips that didn’t get to be told, and I just have to expect the same this time too.

With less than a week left before I board my plane, the eagerness and anticipation is at an all-time high. The thing is, I haven’t started packing yet. That’s the only task I don’t mind waiting to do.

My name is Erin D’Amelio and I’m going to Malaysia for ten months as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. Over the next 10 months I will be submitting regular journal entries of this incredible adventure, documenting my thoughts and experiences. The views and beliefs I will present in these articles are my own; they do not reflect those of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State. Below are the articles, in order of publication. Just click on any link and continue the journey with me.
An Unforgettable Journey

How Does One Get a Fulbright, Exactly?
And Then We Wait
Sensory Overload