To Berkeley and Beyond

Tracey Steinrucken

To Berkeley and Beyond

By Tracey Steinrucken

When I look back on my Fulbright experience, I struggle to work out how I managed to fit so much into nine months. Not only did I complete complicated laboratory, field-based and analytical research for my PhD at UC Berkeley, but I was fortunate enough to experience so much more of what the U.S. has to offer. For me, the whole point of applying for the Fulbright was to make the most of every opportunity that came my way.

Here’s how I did that:

I visited Yosemite National Park three times between September and April. We saw bear cubs and a bobcat, hiked ten miles without seeing a human, camped under the stars, and marvelled at what I believe to be some of the most spectacular landscapes the world has to offer. If there’s one thing that California does right, it’s maintaining their National Parks, and Yosemite is the perfect example. Getting hold of camping gear is easy, and a must-do is s’mores on the campfire. My favourite smell in the world is that of sunbaked pine needles, so bushwalking through the moss-covered forests and past giant sequoias is an absolute pleasure.

Yosemite National Park

I got lost (briefly!) in the forests of Lake Tahoe on a snowshoe hike on Christmas Day. We stayed at my advisor’s cabin at a ski resort and explored the freshly-powdered slopes and forests each day for the perfect white Christmas. We also drove around the 490 km2 lake (with our newly-acquired snowchains!) and stopped at South Lake Tahoe for some ice skating. Like Yosemite, Lake Tahoe is spectacular in summer and winter – a haven for water sports, snow sports, exploring and camping. It’s also only 3 hours from San Francisco so most of my trips there were weekend road trips. I also joined a ‘Meet-Up’ adventure group and some of my weekends away included rock climbing, canyoning and white water rafting in the surrounding Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Lake Tahoe, Winter

I found out that two days at the Grand Canyon is definitely not enough. As an add-on to some field work I had scheduled in southern Arizona, I did a road trip to Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon. It was November and I was surprised at the sub-zero morning temperatures, but after a hike halfway down the canyon, you tend to warm up pretty fast. I intend to return one day and do a trip down the Colorado River through the canyon, stopping and camping along the way. During my fieldwork we stayed at a University of Arizona research station almost on the Mexican border and explored the surroundings, finding snakes, coyotes and pigs called javelinas. Southern Arizona was surprisingly beautiful and as it was the end of a rainy autumn, the greenery was stunning – in particular the millions of sentinel-like cacti dotting the hills around Tucson.

Grand Canyon

I signed up for a Fulbright Enrichment Seminar along with hundreds of other international Fulbrighters in the U.S. The four-day trips are organised by IIE and Fulbright, and funded by the State Department. You have some choice about timing but don’t know where you’re going until a few weeks beforehand. The Enrichment Seminar I was allocated was in Atlanta, Georgia and was on American Politics (during the lead-up to the primaries). It was the perfect time to learn about how the U.S. Electoral College works, to listen to and speak with political reporters who had interviewed each candidate, to run a mock election of our own, and to spend time volunteering for local charities in Atlanta. As well as meeting other Fulbrighters from around the world, local Atlantan families signed up to host small groups of us for dinner one evening.
The discussions were wildly entertaining and a great way to get the American perspective on life and make new friends.

Fulbright Enrichment, Atlanta

Tracey volunteering in Atlanta and San Francisco

I went to the Super Bowl and didn’t pay for it. Yes, you read that correctly. I knew someone who knew someone and we signed up as volunteers selling programs at the 50th Super Bowl held at the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi stadium. When one talks about immersing yourself in American culture – this was the pinnacle, and one which I happily brag about as a highlight of my Fulbright experience. It was a long day with the highest level of security I’d ever seen, thousands of staff and volunteers, rich and famous ticket holders, and fantastic entertainment that we got to enjoy between selling $40 programs and posters. Other than the Super Bowl I also attended college football games (Go Bears!), rugby and hurling matches, and a San Francisco Giants baseball game. Sport in America is something else – it’s definitely not all about the sport. The halftime shows, cheer squads, marching bands and stadium food are testament to that.

Superbowl 50

I visited Duke University, Georgetown and Penn State, and attended conferences in Pennsylvania and Pasadena (CA). I visited a colleague of my advisers in Australia who is a professor of mycology at Duke University in North Carolina, and experienced his family’s wonderful hospitality and the southern-hipster beauty and delicious food of Durham and Duke. Then, a new Fulbright friend I’d met in Atlanta invited me to visit her at Georgetown University in Washington, DC and with only two days there I managed to see the Library of Congress, Capitol Hill, the Natural History Museum, the Air and Space Museum, the National Gallery of Art (where I got a behind-the-scenes tour thanks to a curator I met at the Penn State conference), the White House, the Lincoln Memorial and of course Georgetown Campus. At Penn State I presented my research at a mini mycology conference and went mushroom picking in the woods nearby with other delegates. And in Pasadena I met leaders in the field of plant pathology and lapped up the southern Californian sunshine on multiple conference excursions.

Overall, I definitely made the most of my time in the U.S. and yet there are still so many things I’d love to experience in the future such as a trip to Yellowstone, Bryce Canyon and Oregon. I met lots of local Californians, joined a social soccer team, went to pre-game tailgate events and even attended a Bernie Sanders rally.With all the similarities between the U.S. and Australia, the differences stood out more with every new experience, and yet the people remained as friendly and helpful as ever.

After all, the Fulbright is about more than just academic outcomes – it’s about cross-cultural exchange, bilateral experiences and opening up your mind to new adventures.

– Tracey Steinrucken