Fulbright Spotlight: Gregory @ U.Debrecen

The Fulbright Program is one of many opportunities that allow students, faculty and young professionals from the United States to study, research, and teach abroad while allowing people from one of the 150 participating countries to do the same in the United States. In this Fulbright Spotlight we will be featuring Gregory Gaskel who is studying Cybersecurity in Debrecen.
Interviewer: Joe Anguiano

What motivated you to apply for a Fulbright Grant?
During my undergraduate studies at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, I developed a strong interest in mathematics and research. I saw just how powerful mathematical models can be in solving real-word problems, and I knew I wanted to continue exploring this field at the graduate level. Upon graduating from the Academy, I commissioned as a military officer and received my first assignment to U.S. Coast Guard Cyber Command. There, I also developed an appreciation for the importance of cybersecurity. I saw the Fulbright Grant as the ideal avenue for continuing to study mathematics and explore the relationship between math and cybersecurity, while having a true international experience. Growing up, I hadn’t travelled much outside of the U.S., and I was excited by the opportunity to be a cultural ambassador and spend significant time living abroad.

What has receiving this Grant meant to you?
It has been a great honor and privilege to be a part of the Fulbright program. Living in Hungary has been an incredible experience thus far, and I am enjoying every minute. I have had the pleasure of meeting so many amazing individuals, including local Hungarians, fellow American grantees, as well as other international students at my university from all over the globe. Being able to experience a completely different culture and meet people from such a diverse set of backgrounds has been extremely rewarding, and I will always be grateful for the opportunity.

How did your education or experience in the U.S. prepare you for this experience?
The Coast Guard Academy provided me with a strong foundation in mathematics that prepared me well for my ongoing graduate studies. I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to complete a variety of different research projects during my undergraduate years, which developed my ability to leverage mathematical theory to address real challenges. At Coast Guard Cyber Command, I was responsible for protecting Coast Guard network infrastructure from a vast array of threats, gaining cybersecurity experience invaluable for my Fulbright research project.

Why choose to come to Hungary?
Hungary is renowned for its contributions in the fields of mathematics, science and technology, which initially drew my attention when I became interested in furthering my studies abroad. Many of the great mathematicians in history, including John von Neumann and Paul Erdős, were Hungarians. I became fascinated by Hungary’s very rich, unique culture and language in the heart of Central Europe, and I knew it would provide the perfect opportunity to experience a part of the world unlike anything I had seen before.

Were there any difficulties adjusting to life in Debrecen? Why or why not?
The biggest challenge I initially faced when I moved to Debrecen was the language barrier. Outside of the academic setting, English is not widely spoken in Debrecen. However, after I developed some basic Hungarian language skills and spent more time in the city, this became significantly less of an issue. Fortunately, Debrecen is a relatively small city and easy to navigate, so it did not take too long for me to settle in.

What has been the biggest differences between U.S. and Hungary in general and academics?
One of the differences that immediately stood out to me was the architecture. Hungarian cities, including Budapest and Debrecen, have a beautiful architectural landscape, with a lot of buildings in the eclectic and baroque styles which are not very common in the U.S. There is also a significant difference in scale. Unlike much of the U.S., most places are easily accessible by public transport. Additionally, small shops and marketplaces are much more prevalent in Hungary, whereas the U.S. is highly dominated by superstores. Completing my graduate studies in Hungary, I have noticed significant differences in academics too. Unlike my undergraduate program, there are far fewer grades and assignments, with most classes simply having a final exam. I have also found it interesting that courses at the University of Debrecen are separated into distinct practical and theoretical classes, which I had never seen before.

After living in Hungary for six months, is there any difference in your mind about culture shock compared to the first month?
During my first month here, I definitely experienced some difficulties adjusting to my new environment. At times, I would be frustrated not being able to easily do simple things like ordering food from a restaurant. I was worried that I would never fit in or fully understand the language and culture. Over time, however, I learned to embrace the concept of “being comfortable being uncomfortable.” I realized I did not need to speak fluent Hungarian or be a local expert to enjoy and thrive in my new surroundings. There will always be things I don’t understand or new things to learn, and that is what makes the experience a wonderful adventure.

Have you been able to participate in activities outside of your studies and research?
One of my favorite activities has been participating in events hosted by American Corner Debrecen. Attending their weekly English Conversation Club meetings, as well as their movie and game nights has been a great way to meet both local Hungarians and other international students. I’ve also enjoyed participating in events and services hosted by The House Church, attended by locals and international students alike. Additionally, the monthly Fulbright program events have been a great opportunity for me to experience other parts of Hungary that I don’t often get to see living in the countryside.

What are your future plans and what role will your time in Hungary play a role in that?
Upon completing the Fulbright program, I will begin my next assignment as a Coast Guard officer. I hope to return to U.S. Coast Guard Cyber Command to continue working in cybersecurity and leverage the knowledge and skills I have been developing during my Fulbright studies and research project. Later in my career, I am also interested in pursuing an opportunity to become a rotating military instructor at the Coast Guard Academy to teach mathematics to cadets. I am excited to share my Fulbright experiences with my fellow Coast Guard colleagues.

Do you have any advice to someone that is about to study/live in a different country?
The most important piece of advice I could give is to keep an open mind and trust that in time, you will successfully adapt to your new surroundings. It is very easy to get overwhelmed by language and cultural differences when you first arrive to a new country. However, this is only temporary, and you will learn to appreciate and embrace these differences. It is also very important to get involved and become active in your host community as soon as possible. Some of my favorite memories in my host city came from spending time with friends I met through places like American Corner Debrecen.