Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at Politécnico de Leiria, Hannah Bernier, represented Portugal in the 2023 edition of the Fulbright EU-NATO Seminar and shares her reflection on her participation:

“As February eased into March and Leiria’s hopes for spring bloomed into daffodils planted along the streets, I traveled a few hours north by plane to get a small taste of winter in Belgium and Luxembourg. Really, I was traveling to these chilly places for the annual Fulbright Seminar on the European Union and NATO.

In a whirlwind four-day journey, a cohort of around 40 Fulbright grantees traveled from their grant locations in various parts of Europe to convene in Brussels, where we learned about the structure and function of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). I was lucky enough to be the U.S. grantee from Portugal representing Fulbright Portugal and my home institution Instituto Politécnico de Leiria.

I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor’s in international relations, so I was no stranger to the EU and NATO as important supranational and international institutions. However, I never imagined that I would visit their headquarters in person, to get an inside look into how these organizations create and implement decisions.

The seminar began with an opening reception at the US Embassy in Luxembourg, where we were welcomed by the U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg and other officials at the embassy. The Fulbright grantees, Fulbright alumni, and stakeholders from the Luxembourgish government and education system were able to connect and share experiences during this special event. While we were in Luxembourg, we also visited the European Court of Justice, which was a personal highlight as next year I’m planning to attend law school back in my home state of Arizona. We watched the introductory proceedings for a case on family reunification in Belgium and learned about the structure and decision-making processes of the ECJ.

Upon our return to Brussels, we visited the European Commission and European Parliament. At the European Commission we were presented with a broad overview of the roles and functions of the Commission, as well as its specific climate action and digital economy projects. I was particularly interested in the comprehensive climate action plan of the European Commission and its ambitious goals to reduce fossil fuel emissions and become climate neutral by 2050. After the Commission we visited the Parliamentary hemicycle of the European Parliament, feeling the weight of the deliberations occurring in that room. It was incredible to see the large amount of translation work necessary for international collaboration at the EU, as there are 24 official languages between member countries.

On our last day of the seminar, we ventured out to NATO headquarters, where we discussed NATO’s political agenda and emerging security challenges in Europe, namely the Russia-Ukraine War. It was inspiring to see the amount of coordination required to achieve consensus on important and urgent political issues such as the conflict in Ukraine. We also discussed the emerging role of technology in aiding security and defense strategies. From the visits to the EU institutions and NATO headquarters two common priorities emerged: technological innovation and climate change adaptation. I can attest that in our classrooms at IPL, technology and environment are two of the foremost issues on students’ and teachers’ minds, and this is reflected in the goals and priorities of large political institutions.

We went through our final security check at the US Mission to the EU, where we learned from US Foreign Service Officers about the unique role of the Mission in Brussels, and possible foreign service career paths for aspiring diplomats. At a closing dinner at Aux Armes de Bruxelles, we dined on traditional Belgian fare and shared reflections from the week. Meeting fellow Fulbright grantees from around Europe and sharing our experience was a true joy; it was wonderful to exchange ideas with my fellow English teaching assistants about how to incorporate our new understanding of European politics into our respective teachings.

As with all transformative experiences, I left Brussels with more questions than I started with, but I returned to Portugal with a renewed passion and energy for my role as an ETA in Leiria. I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to deepen my knowledge of political and social realities in Europe, and to connect with others over a shared vision of peace, health, and international collaboration.”