When Emilee Baldwin ’19 was approaching graduation in middle-level education with endorsements in science and social studies, she was focused on finishing her degree and getting a good job. She didn’t expect a Fulbright adventure that would take her across the globe to teach in the middle of a pandemic. Now that she’s had this experience, she wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Getting the Fulbright experience

Under legislation introduced by the late U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, the Fulbright Program has given approximately 360,000 students, scholars, teachers, artists, and scientists the opportunity to study, teach, conduct research, exchange ideas, and contribute to finding solutions to shared international concerns.

Students who participate in a Fulbright Program receive grants for either study and research projects or participate in English Teaching Assistant Programs. Those who are chosen through the selection process meet, work, live with, and learn through daily experience with people in their host country. The goal of the program is to promote mutual understanding between individuals of different cultures and countries.

Baldwin heard about the Fulbright opportunity through a former professor she had while majoring in chemistry education before transitioning into middle-level education. Having been part of a dual-language program from kindergarten to eighth grade, Baldwin had an interest in living and teaching in a different culture, so she decided to apply.

The application process was rigorous, with Baldwin essentially distilling her entire life experience into one page. The initial application was due in September, followed by a final application for a national deadline in October. She credits Illinois State’s Fulbright Advisor and Associate Professor of Art History Dr. Lea Cline and Assistant Professor in the School of Teaching and Learning Dr. Ben Wellenreiter as being instrumental in her completion of the application process.

“Emilee seeks out challenges for herself professionally and personally,” said Wellenreiter. “That she was interested in this opportunity reflected her deep dedication to “gladly teaching and learning”, and I was happy to play a small role in helping her navigate the process.”

Then, the waiting game began. She was informed that she was a finalist in January, before receiving the news that she was accepted into the program during spring break of her student teaching experience.

“Once I got the word that I was accepted, I couldn’t believe it,” said Baldwin. “By that point, I had started applying to jobs, and even had an offer. I had to make the tough decision to turn it down to go on this once in a lifetime adventure for a year.”

The adventure begins

Baldwin’s Fulbright experience was scheduled to run from September 15, 2019, to June 15, 2020. She had no idea then that the COVID-19 pandemic had different plans to cut her experience short.

When Baldwin arrived in Spain, she first had to get acclimated to her new surroundings. She found an apartment, set up a bank account, got her local identification card, and explored her new area. Being the first time she had even been outside the United States, this was a daunting task.

“Right after I got settled, we went straight into our week-long orientation,” said Baldwin. “After going through that, and having navigated all the different processes, I felt like I could do anything.”

Baldwin outside her school near the beach.

Baldwin outside her school near the beach.

Baldwin’s orientation process took place in Madrid, but her placement was in the furthest northwest corner of Spain in the Galicia region. She was based in the city of A Coruña, and the school she taught in happened to be right on the beach.

“Not everyone was as lucky as me,” said Baldwin. “I was always able to look at these beautiful views between classes.”

Baldwin’s Fulbright experience consisted of teaching 16 hours each week with local teachers, and she taught religion, technology, art and ethical values. While it was not a requirement to have a teaching degree to participate as an English Teaching Assistant, Baldwin felt very comfortable in the classroom as a result of her preparation at Illinois State.

Baldwin’s school was considered tri-lingual, with standard Spanish, English, and Galician being taught there. Galician is a language within that region of Spain that is primarily spoken in the smaller areas outside the cities.

She grew in confidence daily, learning to translate multiple languages on the spot and experiencing many different teaching styles as well as the different backgrounds of her students.

“I was able to expand my viewpoint tremendously, and providing support to these students so they could be successful was so rewarding,” said Baldwin. “It inspired me with what I want to do in my career; push myself to help students that don’t always receive the same opportunities as others.”

The rise of COVID-19

Baldwin’s introduction to the COVID-19 crisis came in the form of a general awareness email in early February 2020. However, there was nothing alarming stated at that time. In early March, things began to escalate, with a travel ban being announced and schools beginning to close in Madrid. Due to its distance from Madrid and remote location in northwest Spain, Baldwin’s school remained open. Just a few days later, however, her school would close. Like most, she had no idea how long the school would be closed, so Baldwin and her fellow Fulbright students met for their normal Friday lunch and began discussing plans to go hiking. Just after that lunch, however, they all received emails from the head of Fulbright in Spain that they should leave the country. The alert level in Spain had risen, and foreign nationals were strongly recommended to leave before things got worse and they would be required to do so.

Baldwin was unsure if this was a temporary departure, but she had to prepare as if she wasn’t coming back, which she would find out to be the case later. She had to scramble to change flights, coordinate her move out from her apartment, and closeout her bank account. She was able to plan for a Wednesday departure, but on Saturday, Spain’s Prime Minister issued a lockdown turning the area into a ghost town where the only acceptable reason to be outside your house was to walk your dog.

Baldwin was able to re-schedule for a Tuesday flight, but she was unsure if all the modes of transportation would continue to operate. Fortunately, things fell into place and she was able to get to the local airport for her flight to Madrid, where she stayed the night in the airport to catch a Wednesday morning flight back to Chicago. Fortunately, a friend from Fulbright was also coming back to the U.S. so they were able to wait things out together.

“I’ve never been that stressed out in my whole life, but it taught me to stay relatively calm under pressure,” said Baldwin. “I tried to be compassionate and represent my country well during this emotional situation.”

Coming full circle

Once home in the Chicagoland area, Baldwin was able to decompress for a bit, but she knew she had to get started in her job search. She applied for a different position at the same school where she had been offered a job before going to Spain. While that particular role went to an internal candidate, the principal there recommended she apply to a STEM teacher position at another school in the same district. In a bit of serendipity, she was offered the job and will start her career in fall 2020 at Winston Campus Junior High in Palatine.

Baldwin outside her new school

Baldwin outside her new school in Palatine.

Even though her Fulbright experience was cut short and was full of uniquely stressful experiences due to COVID-19, Baldwin wouldn’t change what she went through and highly recommends applying to the program to others.

“You don’t have to be a world traveler to be part of this,” said Baldwin. “Even though some people weren’t thrilled about how the experience ended up, I learned so much and tried to embrace each opportunity as an adventure.”