Nicole Wells -- A Romanian Connection: Continued
Nicole Wells ’10, winner of the prestigious Fulbright U.S. Student Program English Teaching Assistantship, seeks challenges. As a first year student at Hastings College, she took Constitutional Law, for which she had to argue cases against better-honed juniors and seniors.
“She didn't ace [the course], but she persevered,” Dr. Elizabeth Frombgen, Chair of the Political Science Department and Nicole’s advisor, said.
Hastings College faculty and staff echo Dr. Frombgen’s admiration for Nicole’s intellectual curiosity and work ethic.
Dr. Rob Babcock, Professor of History, recalls his first conversation about studying abroad with Nicole, a history and political science major.
“I told her about HC’s exchanges in Northern Ireland and in England,” Dr. Babcock said. “‘No,’ she said, ‘I have to have classes in English, but I don't want to go to an “English” country. It wouldn’t feel foreign enough.’”
“It is the kind of self-aware and very brave statement that I have come to expect from Nicole.”
As one of only 1,600 U.S. citizens serving as a Fulbright scholar, she faces perhaps her biggest challenges to date; teaching courses in American history and culture at Transylvania University in Brasov, Romania, and attempting to master Romanian.
“Going to a former communist country is really difficult politically and spiritually,” Nicole said. “To see the country not just in my research but to be really faced with it is challenging.”
Wells arrived in Romania this past October and has described her journey from the Romanian capital city of Bucharest, to the port city of Sinaia, and, finally, to Brasov as a “strange time warp” in terms of prosperity and technology.
During one bus ride in Bucharest, for example, she noticed an airport for private jets to her right and a man crafting and selling stick brooms on her left.
“Most days I see people walking around with iPhones, and then a little later I see peasants walking around,” she said.
Her Romanian remains a work in progress, leading to minor misunderstandings.
“When you buy fruits and vegetables, you have to give them to employees so they can weigh it for you,” Nicole explained. “Then you get a sticker with the weight and price – it’s just one of many examples I have on how bureaucratic this place is.”
On her first shopping trip, she wasn’t aware of the produce protocol.
“So I picked up my fruits and vegetables and walked on,” Nicole said. “Well, a woman comes up to me and starts speaking really fast in Romanian, touching my food and grabbing my basket and I had no idea what was going on,” she remembered. “She told me to come with her. I followed, and then all was fixed when she weighed my produce.”
Stepping into the classroom
After learning she had received the Fulbright, Nicole set forth compiling course syllabi and teaching materials for her first semester classes, including Visual Culture. Employing her experience as a student worker at Perkins Library and her contacts within HC’s faculty, she pulled from diverse sources. Now, not only are her students studying late 20th century art, they also are exploring works by underground comic book artists.
If all 50 students enrolled for her seminar class attended, she would not be able to fit them into her classroom. That never happens, though.
“I am missing 15 students who have never showed for class,” Nicole said.
University tuition, once free for Romanians, must now be paid by the students.
Consequently, attendance has dropped in recent years.
Furthermore, the Romanian higher education system is in “some pretty serious trouble,” according to Wells, as it continues to struggle after the 2008 global economic crisis.
“Right now the government has taken some pretty intense austerity measures. All civil workers, including professors, have taken a 25 percent decrease in wages,” Nicole said.
Nicole finds these factors frustrating but takes heart in those students who do attend class regularly.
“My students who are showing up are excited because I am an American, and my perspective is different,” she said.
One student has even asked her to advise his thesis; others have helped her learn to navigate the university’s bureaucracy.
“She worried that she’d never been ‘anywhere’.”
The Seward, Neb., native first became interested in international affairs while taking Comparative Politics with Dr. Frombgen. Nicole had a growing interest in feminism, which would ultimately lead her to write her senior thesis on the role of women in emerging democracies. Then for comparative course, Nicole wrote a paper contrasting the responses to human trafficking in Ukraine to the reactions in Tajikistan.
“I knew at some point I wanted to study abroad and to broaden my horizons,” Nicole said.
That led her to Dr. Babcock’s office to discuss exchanges.
“She worried that she’d never been ‘anywhere’,” Dr. Babcock said.
But Dr. Babcock and others at Hastings College from whom she sought advice and direction continued to allay her fears.
“She earned a lot of personal faculty attention she would never have received at a larger institution,” Dr. Babcock said.
Ultimately, Nicole selected a program at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands and spent a semester there taking history courses.
“I took a class called Romania Returns to Europe, which was my first academic exposure to Romania,” Nicole said.
Meeting Romanians in Amsterdam and giving swimming lessons to a Romanian family living in Hastings only strengthened Nicole’s interest in the Eastern European country, in part because Romania differs from the perceptions about it.
“Romanians have really tapped into the vampires and Dracula’s castle for tourism and souvenirs. Everywhere you go you can see Dracula coffee mugs and magnets,” Nicole said. “I think Americans see Romania as a dark and spooky country, but not in the right way. Vampires don’t exist, and Bran Castle is not Dracula’s castle.”
According to Nicole, the country’s economic crisis and slow transition to democracy have created what is scary.
“Romania has a lot of cybercrime,” she said. “My debit card was shut off because [the bank] thought someone stole my identity.”
Despite that hassle, she feels very safe in Brasov, describing it overall as “amazing.”
“It’s a German city, with German, Hungarian and Romanian architecture. There are mountains, and the trees covering the mountains are all different colors with the leaves changing,” Nicole said. “All the Romanians I met told me that Brasov is the best place to visit in Romania. Not very many Romanians like Bucharest, but everyone seems to love Brasov. It’s quaint, quiet and has a small town feel to it.”
Currently, Nicole's long-term goals include attending graduate school in the Washington, D.C., area and continuing to pursue her interests in women’s issues, especially human trafficking.
“I can’t really identify with women who have been trafficked or have been discriminated against, because those things have never happened to me,” Nicole said. “I know that I want to help people and this is an issue that is still largely neglected.”
To Nicole's knowledge, human trafficking is rare in Brasov. However, she has found a very tangible way to contribute to the well-being of others by volunteering with a program for battered women and at an orphanage outside of Brasov.
“Orphanages are still a problem here,” she said. “There are not enough Romanians adopting children. Non-Romanian citizens cannot adopt Romanian children because they had some problems with children being trafficked.”
Does she expect these overseas experiences to influence her career’s trajectory?
“Romania will be a big test for whether or not I want to teach,” Nicole said.
The Fulbright U.S. Student Program
The Fulbright U.S. Student Program’s namesake, the late U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, foresaw the need for American scholars from all fields to interact with their counterparts around the globe. Through international educational exchanges, leaders might find solutions to shared problems.
Since 1946, the program’s grants, which are administered by the U.S. Department of State, have emerged as highly competitive, prestigious awards, providing more than 300,000 students with the opportunity to teach and study overseas. Fulbright alumni fill leadership roles in academia, government and business, among many other sectors.
The Fulbright application assesses candidates’ academic or professional achievement and their leadership potential. For Wells, the application process took several months.
“I had to write two essays – one on why I want to go to Romania and one personal essay. Each essay could only be one page, single-spaced so I had to be very concise,” Nicole said.
Although several college faculty and staff critiqued her application and even helped her load it into the cumbersome Fulbright website, they credit her with securing the grant.
“She has asked the questions she’s needed to ask, and she has done this on her own drive,” Dr. Frombgen said.
“This achievement is hers because she has wanted it.”