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Guest Post: “The Moment of a Fulbrighter’s Journey” by Mona Anita K. Olsen

12 Jun Posted by in Uncategorized | Comments

In the coming months I’ll be inviting Mason graduate students to share their fellowship experiences in featured guest posts on the Graduate Fellowships blog. I’m proud to kick off this new series with a reflection from Mona Anita K. Olsen, who has recently wrapped up her 2012-13 Fulbright year in Norway.  Summer is the season when the next round of Fulbright hopefuls start to work on their applications in earnest, and I’m sure many will be inspired by Mona’s description of her Fulbright experience — which involved research on entrepreneurship education, along with interludes for dog sledding, a ski marathon, and more.  Mona’s experience highlights the kind of cultural and intellectual exchange that is at the heart of the Fulbright U.S. Student Program.

Mona returned to the U.S. this spring to defend her dissertation and graduate with her Ph.D. in Education.  She also holds a Masters in Management of Information Technology from the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce and a Bachelor of Science with Distinction from The School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University.  While pursuing her doctorate at Mason, Mona served at the Assistant Director of Mason’s Small Business Development Center and founded iMADdu, Inc., an educational nonprofit working to create apprenticeship programs that join small businesses, nonprofits, and students.  She has presently returned to Norway to continue her work over the summer, and in the fall 2013 will assume a position at Cornell University as Visiting Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship at the Hotel School and Assistant Director of the Pillsbury Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship.  


The Moment of a Fulbrighter’s Journey

Mona Anita K. Olsen, Ph.D.


There is one moment in a Fulbrighter’s journey against which all other moments pale in comparison. It is the moment you realize that you are living in a foreign country. It comes without warning. You know it is coming but you do not know when. It is a moment you have prepared for diligently, but you do not expect it until you find yourself in a situation where nobody knows your name.

Nothing else compares to the feeling of that moment. It is a combination of fear, loss, adrenaline, independence, and achievement. Some say the feeling is like searching for the end of a rainbow on a hike, endless yet liberating as you hope for the moment when you experience the entire spectrum of visible light. The journey that culminated in that moment began long ago.

You see for me, this moment occurred one month into my experience in Norway in my new role as a Fulbrighter and full-time PhD student from George Mason University. It was a sheer loss of identity. Stripped of the comfort of Mason, family, friends, and structure, I was known on the University of Stavanger campus as the student with the two dogs and the orange car with American license plates. I struggled with cultural and language barriers. I was uncomfortable. It was at this moment that I learned that I needed to embrace all of the lessons from the journey of my education to create a vision for my new chapter.

At that moment, I needed to leverage the reflection skills that I learned during my PhD coursework. At that moment, I needed to use the entrepreneurship skills that I obtained at the Mason Small Business Development Center. At that moment, I needed to use all the lessons that my Mason, UVA, and Cornell community had taught me because I realized that it was not good enough just to create my vision, my vision needed to be understood. But most importantly, at that moment, I needed to rely on the lessons from my diversity training because I realized that in order to be understood, I needed to first understand. I embraced the conviction of a Mason heart—to truly be free, one can never stop learning. We need to be exposed to a multitude of ideas and strive to understand them. And so my quest to understand the notion of vision began and I learned four things.

First, I learned that keeping a vision is challenging. I asked some Norwegian friends to teach me to cross-country ski so I could participate in a ski marathon. I held my own skiing however I struggled each time a Norwegian zoomed by me. They would yell heia, heia, heia right before this whoosh sound took over as they schooled me on the track. The Norwegians made it seem as if the 23 miles was as easy as walking from one gate to another at an airport. A first-time marathoner, I had no context for how to pace myself, I lost my vision and started to fall. At the end, the only thing I came home with was two purple knee awards.

Second, I learned that vision is essential to survive and thrive. I took my first trip to the Arctic in the late winter. I interacted with faculty at the University of Tromsø and got a taste of what arctic entrepreneurship education was all about. For in the arctic, there are months where the sun never rises; visions build a foundation for the journey through the darkness in order to thrive in the spring light.

Third, I learned that vision is needed to be a successful leader. I explored a husky farm operation and dog sledded through the mountains of Sirdal, which is the southern gateway to Fjord Norway, with 20 Alaskan huskies, two Indians, a German, a Swiss, and two Norwegians. It was while talking to the founder of the company that I picked up my second set of purple knee awards. If you let go of your vision for the husky pack for one moment while dogsledding, you can easily be pulled down and dragged across the snow. Huskies will take off without direction without a defined vision from their leader.

Finally, I learned that moments define visions. In learning Norwegian, I searched to identify one word that embraced all of the fantastic sounds of the language. You can call it a part of my Norwegian rendition of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Eat, Pray, Love but in my case, the book would have been called Ski, Sled, and Adoptapreneur. I returned to Mason with a dog from the husky farm which I appropriately named Buddy Grunder in honor of my research in Norway. Grunder means entrepreneurship in Norwegian.

But in all seriousness, just as Elizabeth Gilbert found the perfect combination of Italian sounds in the word, atraversiamo, which means “lets cross over,” I found the perfect Norwegian word that embraced the fantastic sounds of the Norwegian language and was crucial in my quest to create my vision. It was the word øyeblikk; øyeblikk means ‘moment’ in Norwegian. If you were to literally translate the two parts of the word it would be ‘eyeblink’; øye meaning eye and blikk meaning blink. I will never forget the moment when I first heard the word øyeblikk in the lyrics of a song by Cir Cuz. It went: Det vi gjør, er nå har, et øyeblikk, et øyeblikk. It translates to: what we have, is now here, a moment, a moment. The lyrics to the song are fitting for this øyeblikk, for this is the øyeblikk where I must set a vision for how to take my Fulbright lessons back to the United States.

I will move to New York with my Fulbrighter identity, forever changed by my experiences in Norway and taking seriously the belief that it is necessary to exchange ideas and perspective with students and colleagues across national and cultural boundaries both inside and outside the academy to be an effective and inspiring university professor at increasingly international universities. While I certainly hope the results of my research will make a difference in the world, the most important lesson from my experience as a Fulbrighter in Norway has been the following: it is a conscious choice to leverage our education to propel us upwards as we create opportunity.


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