Second-generation Fulbrighter (or perhaps a mid-gen one?).
My Fulbright scholarship experience began a long time ago, “in a galaxy far away.” In the distant past, during the 1993/1994 academic year, my father, Leon Gradoń, was granted a Fulbright Senior Award, and our family moved to the U.S., where my dad began his research in the Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Cincinnati (Ohio). The prospect of going overseas was very tempting to me – even though communism had ended in Poland just 4 years earlier, we were still a very strange and somewhat surreal country, and America had back then the quality of a fairyland at the end of the world.
Today, for most modern teenagers, such a prospect may seem something completely abstract, but at that time, just going to the States was an almost unheard-of experience. I had just finished my second year of high school (T. Reytan High School in Warsaw) and the vision of abandoning my friends for an entire year was difficult and painful for me; I was very attached to my social group (with which, by the way, I still maintain close and regular contact), so a year’s absence seemed like an eternity. However, the period of separation turned out to be a factor that greatly strengthened our ties, and the letters (paper ones!), which were dozens of pages long and for which we had to wait for weeks (!), are the best testimony to our commitment to each other.
From the point of view of this testimonial, however, the most important thing is the American experience, and this – thanks to Fulbright – was very comprehensive and had a profound impact on my entire future, which I did not realize at the time. For our whole family, this was a watershed period. My father was taking advantage of the opportunities provided by the University of Cincinnati laboratories, my mother was perfecting her language and learning about new culture and customs – not only American, but also those flowing from the multicultural and international environment she was in. My younger brother learned English in no time and, as an open-minded and sociable person, quickly found new company.
I became a student at Sycamore High School (junior year), and although nostalgia for my Reytan friends blocked me a bit at first, I very quickly began to take advantage of the amazing opportunities that my new school and the United States afforded me. The high school experience was completely incomparable to what I was used to in Poland; I was shocked by the quality and accessibility of all the opportunities that allowed the students to develop even the most exotic interests and passions. Since the condition for my return to the High School senior year in Poland was to pass the identical subjects that were in the Polish school’s curriculum, I had to choose the most challenging lessons, and regretfully gave up programs such as experimental darkroom photography or playing the electric guitar. However, I came across wonderful teachers, with whom I kept in touch for many more years.
(Photos from left: Sycamore High School 1994; Mount Rushmore 1993; New Orleans 1994).
I also started learning Latin – as required by my Polish school – which turned out to be one of life’s great benefits. Latin gave me a great ease in learning other languages, and due to the fact that I really devoted a lot of energy to it, it also gave me the opportunity to participate in the American Olympics (National Latin Exam) – having received a silver medal, I was also offered a full scholarship to study at the Department of Classics, University of Dallas in Texas (which I could not take advantage of, due to the fact that we simply would not have been able to afford either the cost of my Senior Year in the U.S. at the time, or the cost of living during my studies – such were the times…). At that time, I was also able to work legally in the United States – I was making extra money for a whole year, working after school, and the musical instruments I brought back then with the first money I earned on my own, are still used by my high school band to this day 🙂
We used every school break, holidays, vacations and long weekends to travel around the United States. We explored most of the central and eastern parts of the U.S. – visiting many states from South Dakota to Louisiana and Maine. We spent our last weeks in America, living in a friend’s apartment in Manhattan. The New York of 1994 was completely different from the NYC of the third decade of the 21st century – crazier, “movielike” and more fascinating (or maybe it was just the impression of a teenager from a poor country on the frontiers of Europe?).
I remember the whole trip to the United States at that time as a great adventure, but very quickly it turned out that it was also a powerful formative experience. Aside from the obvious linguistic benefits, I became more independent thanks to it, learned how to work and gained an awareness of the value of independently earned money, paid my first taxes in life, gained an ease of functioning in a multicultural environment and got a taste of traveling through boundless spaces. My stay in America changed me as a person. The new skills allowed me to quickly get my first job in Poland, shortly after graduating from high school, and gave me a great deal of flexibility and openness, which I still use today. I am convinced that Fulbright became the stimulus and inspiration for many activities and actions that I probably would not have undertaken had I not had the opportunity for a year-long “total immersion” experience in the United States as a teenager.
(Photos from left: Niagara Falls 1994; World Trade Center 1994).
Just a few years later, while writing our master’s thesis – prepared jointly with my friend from Reytan, Arek Czerwiński – I started a life-long collaboration with Prof. Elliott Leyton from Canada, who became my mentor and true friend. This contact resulted in further trips overseas and several research internships in Newfoundland. I believe that, in this case as well, it was the aftermath of the experience and openness I gained from my stay in Cincinnati. In the following years, I went to Canada and the United States many more times – the first trip made possible by Fulbright became the impulse for more frequent visits to the U.S. and the establishment of several interesting and fruitful collaborations. One of these contacts was the University of Colorado Boulder, where within the Institute of Behavioral Science there has been – under the direction of Professor Delbert Elliott – one of the absolute best research groups dealing with aggression, violence and social pathologies, responsible for developing the groundbreaking Blueprints for Violence Prevention programs. I first visited CU Boulder in 2009, and it was an incredibly inspiring experience.
A year after returning from Colorado, I moved to the UK, where I completed a two-year postdoctoral tenure at a Top-10 University in the World – University College London (Department of Security and Crime Science), later maintaining close ties with UCL as an Honorary Senior Research Fellow. Thanks to the UCL colleagues, especially Prof. Richard Wortley, staying in London was another – after the “teenage Fulbright” – breakthrough in my life; it was then that I gained absolute confidence that international mobility was the key to achieving professional fulfillment. Shortly thereafter, I decided that a Fulbright Senior Award should be my goal.
Thanks to my constant and close contacts with CU Boulder, I already knew that Colorado was my absolute priority. The research program I designed won approval from CU and, to my great joy, from the Polish-U.S. Fulbright Commission and a panel of reviewers. In the summer of 2017, we traveled with the whole family to Colorado, beginning a year of real adventure. Previous visits to Boulder made settling in easier – in addition to professional matters, I had all the logistics checked-out, including, most importantly, my sons’ future schools. I highly recommend pre-departure visits – it makes the relocation process tremendously easier later on. A great support was the community of American Fulbright alumni. In our case, an email contact with Fulbrighters from Boulder resulted in a friendship with Lauri and Robert McNown, who, long before our arrival in the U.S., provided us with their priceless advice and guidance, organized some of the furniture and home furnishings, and hosted us before we moved into a rented apartment. We remain in very close contact to this day, and this is one of the most beautiful outcomes of our trip to Colorado.
Boulder itself captivated us with its style and surroundings – location, nature, climate, culture and a very unique atmosphere and lifestyle. Due to the fact that our family leads a fairly outdoorsy lifestyle, we were a perfect fit for what Boulder offers. I think that aside from the entire professional, academic, language and school benefits, a huge gain from the Fulbright grant is also the opportunity to completely immerse yourself in the environment you would be living in for the duration of the grant. In the case of going with a family, I find it essential to use every free moment, break, weekend, or vacation to enjoy everything the area has to offer, and to travel around the United States.
The result of staying on a Fulbright scholarship must, of course, be academic development and expanding your network of contacts, but don’t forget to have a true all-American experience and get to know the country inside out. In our case, we managed to make the most of the one-year stay one hundred percent. My work at CU Boulder in Prof. Karl Hill’s wonderful team and throughout the Institute of Behavioral Sciences (under the direction of Prof. Myron Guttman) once again reevaluated my scientific plans and gave me a completely new, fresh and unconstrained perspective. During the trip, in addition to my work at CU Boulder, I also had the opportunity to attend several major conferences in the U.S. (including the most important congress of IALEIA – International Association of Law Enforcement Intelligence Analysts) and Australia (Safeguarding Australia National Security Summit), very specialized and otherwise unattainable training courses (Open Source Intelligence in Los Angeles and Dark Web Investigations in New York City), as well as a few dozen scientific conferences and events in Colorado. As part of the Fulbright Outreach Lecturing Fund program, I also took a week-long tour of three universities in San Antonio, Texas, where I gave several lectures that resulted in professional contacts that continue to this day. Networking, by the way, is something the Fulbright brand is made for: Fulbright Scholar status genuinely ‘opens doors,’ and as a result I’ve established excellent relationships with experts from institutions such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Security Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals. Prof. Wesley Moy (now at Johns Hopkins University, then DHS), who I met at the IALEIA conference, became my friend and regular collaborator – we have published several articles and book chapters together to date. The Fulbright brand also earned me invitations to more conferences – literally the day after I returned from the U.S., I flew to the IEEE World Congress in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and a few weeks later to a major cyber security event held in Gaborone, Botswana; I’m sure this was largely due to the Fulbright affiliation.
The philosophy of Fulbright grants is very holistic: it’s not only about studies and research, but also about cross-cultural learning, establishing new relationships, and discovering a country. Our family has taken full advantage of this. My wife enrolled in several language and art courses, enjoyed mountain sports and made new friends. We all spent our free time running, biking, climbing and hiking in the mountains. Along with the “before” and “after” grant grace periods of the fellowship, we used all vacations, weekends and every school break to travel around the U.S., visiting more than a dozen National Parks (which we consider the greatest treasure and impressive achievement of the United States), driving thousands of miles from the Atlantic to the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico. Boulder’s surroundings – the Front Range massif and the Rocky Mountains – became our regular training arena. Cosmopolitan and artistic Boulder also gave us the opportunity to enjoy culture – exhibitions, performances, concerts and plays.
An undeniable and absolutely wonderful benefit was American schooling. My younger son mastered English in no time, very quickly found himself in a new environment and made new friends. He also discovered a new passion for fly-fishing and went fishing in mountain streams with his generation-older colleagues from Rocky Mountain Anglers. The benefits of his stay in Boulder resulted in him becoming a winner of two English Language Olympiads upon his return from America (and he’d had a completely basic level of the language before he left Poland!) and getting into one of Warsaw’s top high schools, while planning to later study in the U.S.
The older son became a student at the phenomenal Fairview High School in Boulder, where he combined a demanding curriculum with elements of International Baccalaureate. A completely unique Science Research Seminar subject enabled him to work in the research laboratories of the Biochemistry Department at the University of Colorado Boulder (Dr. Amy Palmer Lab), as part of collaboration between Fairview H.S. and CU Boulder. My son gained unprecedented experience there, and on top of that he was able to meet Nobel Prize winner and CU Boulder Faculty member, Prof. Thomas Cech. He also became a winner of American science competitions. These experiences determined his later life choices. After returning to Poland, he transferred to the IB program at his Warsaw’s S. Batory High School, participated in more Polish and international science competitions, and thanks to his hard work and perseverance, he achieved very high IB matriculation results and was accepted to study at Oxford University’s Department of Biochemistry. Currently, he is doing an internship at the Francis Crick Institute in London after completing his second year of study. We both believe that our family’s year-long stay on the Fulbright Scholarship was crucial to such a development of his scientific life, and we are deeply grateful for such wonderful opportunities the Fulbright has given us. As a father, it is my dream that the next stage of the “relay of generations” will occur and that in the future one of my sons would have the opportunity to obtain his own Fulbright Scholarship and be able to take advantage of the unprecedented opportunities and experiences provided by this completely unique program.
Kacper Gradoń is an alum of the Fulbright Senior Award 2017-18.