Safely arrived and settling in

I am finally here in the USA! I arrived late on Tuesday at Raleigh Durham airport and was collected by the Dean of the School of Education, Professor Ann Bullock. I’m staying in a University house with 2 others, Kristen, an international officer at the University and Babu, a PhD student from Assam, registered at the University of Tartu in Estonia – he is here until Christmas.

This is the house where I am staying. It’s about a half hour walk from the University campus, but it’s a hot and sweaty walk at the moment as it’s about 34 degrees Celsius and very humid. Apparently we have about 3-4 more weeks of the hot weather before the temperatures will start to dip a little. Being used to the Scottish climate, the slightly cooler version of North Carolina will be welcome! I will face the heat again next year from March onwards, but my Fulbright Scholarship will finish at the end of May so I’ll miss the really sweaty months of July and August!

Elon University have also provided a set of wheels! It does feel a bit as if I’m driving a taxi as I’m more used to driving a small hatchback! It is fantastic to have the car to get around locally, as the US is set up in ways that expect you to have a car. So I can get to supermarkets, meet colleagues and friends (including my first book group meeting next week!), and get to local towns relatively easily. I just need to practise driving on the right hand side of the road.

I visited Elon University for a few days, 10 years ago and since then there has been significant building – the campus has nearly doubled in size! The style of the buildings is all pretty harmonious and the grounds are maintained impeccably. Not surprising then that in the Princeton Review, Elon is #1 in the country for the most beautiful campus.

On Wednesday this week I was given a tour of the campus by Francois Masuka from the Global Education Center (the Center is one of my hosts while I’m at Elon). It was great to find out all the important parts of campus including coffee shops and eating places, a post office on campus, an ATM, the library, gym, theatre, and the Mooney Building, which houses the School of Education, where I will have an office from Monday 30th September.

Meanwhile, I’ve been opening a US bank account, and sorting out lots of official paperwork, sorting out a new Elon email account and staff card etc. Yesterday, I had lunch with Prof Peter Felten, a good friend and colleague who I’ve known for a while and who co-wrote a book with me a few years ago. Then later in the afternoon, Peter’s wife Sara, and I went to a huge convocation on campus where Senator Nikki Haley was speaking. News on the ground is that if Trump is impeached, she plans to run as a republican candidate for President.

She was pretty coy about such plans when asked questions, but she certainly seems pretty ambitious. I was curious to be there to hear what kinds of messages she would give, and I must admit I was pretty angry throughout a lot of what she said. In a nutshell, she spoke of all the evil and bad regimes ‘out there’ that we shouldn’t give in to, and how the USA was pretty much the only country that stands up to these evil regimes.

Unfortunately she seemed unable to see that many of the things she was accusing the evil regimes of having done (e.g. separating children from their families, meddling in other people’s elections etc.), have been, and are being, done by the USA. I wanted to lend her a copy of ‘Why do people hate America?’, which I finished reading before leaving the UK. Interestingly it was an almost entirely white audience at the event. It was fascinating to be there, and it’s the first time I’ve experienced the star spangled banner being sung live at an event so far.

I finished the day by spending the evening with Peter and Sara in downtown Burlington (the main town next to Elon), at a community event run by the local community and Elon University, where there were food stalls and events taking place. The photo shows me with the Elon Phoenix mascot and cheerleaders who cheer on Elon University athletics and sports.

I’ll leave you with some pictures of the amazing Magnolia grandiflora outside our house (thanks John for the plant ID). It’s fruiting just now but I’m expecting great things in the spring!

Packed and ready to go

I fly to the USA on Tuesday 24th September at lunchtime from Glasgow Airport. I’m pretty much packed and ready to go, with a modest sized suitcase and hand luggage – what do you really need for 9 months in a country with shops and Amazon?! I’m so excited there have been times this week when I’ve not been very effective at concentrating on what I’m supposed to be doing!

In my last week, I’ve been making the most of lunch time walks around Lenzie Moss, which is a lovely 45-60 minute round walk from our house. It was looking particularly lovely this week in the last splash of sunshine as we head into autumn. There was good bird-watching this week too with long-tailed tits and a treecreeper in evidence.

Last night, I was at a meeting of my lovely book group, where friends sent me off in style with the US flag on prominent display and the Star spangled banner playing in the background!!

I commented that I don’t know the words of the US national anthem and that maybe I should learn them, only to realise it’s yet another anthem with overtones of ‘we beat you in a war, aren’t we great’ – in this case victory over the British in the War of Independence. However, Scotland is no better with it’s ‘we beat you in a war, aren’t we great’ anthem of ‘O flower of Scotland’.

Anyway, if anyone has ever heard the Whitney Houston version of the Star spangled banner, sung at the Tampa Stadium, Florida for the Super bowl XXV in 1991, I think I’ll give up any attempt to sing along, as no one is ever going to hit it out of the park the way she did 🙂 (Those checking out the Youtube clip, yes I did notice the description of Whitney Houston as ‘just a woman’! Grr.)

Why Elon University?

Many people I’ve spoken to have not heard of Elon University in North Carolina or have asked why I am going to Elon University and not Harvard, Yale or Columbia. Elon University regularly comes top of the US National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE – prounounced Nessie – the Americans beat Scotland to using that name for a Survey of Student Engagement!!). In contrast, the University of Edinburgh does not do as well as it would like to in the UK National Student Survey (NSS). Elon University is also very proud to be listed as a top 100 US University, coming second in the USA for Teaching Excellence.

The two institutions couldn’t be more different, Elon is a medium-sized, private university with a broad general first year curriculum in contrast to Edinburgh which is a large-scale and research-intensive university. There will always be an advantage for smaller institutions when it comes to creating a sense of community and belonging for students, but there is still much we can learn from Elon University’s approach.

Elon University’s symbol is the acorn, and indeed from little acorns mighty oaks do grow. Elon University does not have any relationship to Elon Musk as far as I know – a question I have been asked frequently! Rather, Elon is the Hebrew word for oak tree. I recently read George Keller’s book, Transforming a College: the story of a little-known college’s strategic climb to national distinction, which tells the story of how Elon has risen to its current place within the US higher education sector.

“Four decades ago Elon College in north central North Carolina was described to me by one North Carolina scholar as “a small, unattractive, parochial bottom-feeder,” struggling to fill its freshman class and pay its bills. Today Elon University is a beautiful, medium-size university attracting students from forty-eight states, with a new library, student center, science facilities, football stadium, and fitness center. Parents, visitors, and students often come away from the country club-like campus with something approaching awe. College guidebooks now list it among the three hundred finest undergraduate institutions in the land.” (Keller 2014, pxvii)

I’m off to the USA

It might be understating things to say that I am very excited to have been offered a Fulbright Scholarship! One of my colleagues, on hearing the news, sent me the words from Paul Simon’s song ‘I know what I know’

“She moved so easily all I could think of was sunlight,

I said, ‘aren’t you the woman who was recently given a Fulbright?'”

A friend said to me “I thought it was just presidential candidates who received Fulbright Scholarships”! In fact there are 370,000 Fulbright alumni around the world. Many of them are US citizens going to other countries to study and work. Each year the UK selects approximately 40 Fulbrighters in a highly competitive process (approx 25 students going to study Masters courses and PhDs and 15 Fulbright Scholars including me, who are people going out to research, teach and work). Biographies from this year’s Fulbrighters will be available soon on the Fulbright Commission web pages. I’ll post a link in a future blog as soon as these are available because my cohort is made up of amazing people.

© Leo Johnson 2019

Here we are having on our Fulbright orientation days at Goodenough College, London. In case you are wondering (which many of us Fulbrighters did), the College is named after a Mr Goodenough, and focuses on providing accommodation for postgraduate students – nothing to do with the calibre of students and staff who visit! The orientation days included each Fulbrighter presenting about the particular projects they will be working on. It was a fantastic way to get to know one another and find out the things we have in common as well as the diversity across our group. One of the highlights of the orientation days for me was a panel What is America Talking About? on US culture/society/current affairs for which one of the speakers was James Naughtie from the BBC. His astute analysis of American politics and culture was inspiring, and I hope to listen to his advice to all of us for our time in the USA – “travel, travel, travel”.