Thursday, March 14, 2013

Why Europe? Part 3: When a Door Opens

[This is Part 3 of a three part series entitled "Why Europe?" Read Part 1 | Part 2]

In my last post, I attempted to outline the practical reasons that led me to come to Europe. While you might have considered these reasons -- well, reasonable -- you might be thinking, is that all? Because surely there were other good opportunities I could have considered...right? Certainly. And another person with the same opportunity and same lifestyle as me might have made a different -- and valid -- choice. So, if you're still asking me "Why Europe?", maybe I have other reasons I haven't mentioned thus far.

Here goes. I mentioned in my previous post that I was "eventually" accepted into the LCT Erasmus Mundus European Master's program. This is important. So, let's rewind back to 2009 again, back to one early morning in the office at my previous job. I had submitted various applications for PhD programs in the United States and also to this lonely master's program in Europe. I had already received a few acceptances and rejections from American universities (C'mon, let's be real. You wouldn't really expect me to get accepted everywhere, would you?). I had also been accepted to the LCT master, but I was on the waiting list for the LCT scholarship. I was told that I would find out by the end of May whether or not I would receive a scholarship -- but that email never came. So about a month before this day, I had resolved that I would not receive a scholarship and thus my pipe dream about going to Europe had ended.

But apparently, this was not the case. At 8:00 am (EST) on July 2, I received an email from the LCT secretariat:
We have had a cancellation from the main list, and are therefore able to advance your name and offer you the Erasmus Mundus scholarship under the following conditions:
- Your choice of partner universities has been changed to: year one University of Groningen, year two The Free University of Bozen/Bolzano.
- Due to the late date, I have to set a deadline for you to confirm your participation in the program by Monday, July 6.
Congratulations, I hope you will be able to join the program.
Wow. I was shocked. I had just arrived at my office, doing my normal email scan and found this beauty. My life had just changed in an instant. I was on an emotional high. I knew my decision: Yes! I took the next 20 minutes to call my wife and my parents to tell them the great news. I played through the million scenarios involving sharing the news with my manager and resigning from my job. It was a great job, but this was the opportunity I was waiting for!

A few hours later, I received another email:
Let me clarify my mail from this morning by giving you more details: We would like to advance your name to the main list PENDING FINAL APPROVAL from the European Union, which observes certain national quotas. Generally they can only approve 3 scholarships for any one country. We already have 3 Americans on our main list, so your name may not be accepted by the EU. Therefore, I am waiting not only for a reply from you, but also for a reply from the European Union on this matter. So, in your own interest, do not cancel any other program you may have been accepted to until we have a final notification. I am trying to contact our program officer now and will keep you posted.
Okay, a bureaucratic hurdle. No need to get upset, right? These things happen all the time. A few minutes later, I received a follow-up email.  After contacting their program officer, they could not offer me the scholarship, since there were already 3 Americans receiving the scholarship and that they must observe national quotas. I was crushed.

A lot of thoughts went through my mind. "God, why did this happen? I had already settled the matter in my mind before today." This was one of the worst emotional roller coasters I had ridden at this point in my life. A feeling of acceptance, followed by a swift rejection. I couldn't let it go.

I talked with Jenn and we prayed about it a lot, but I just wasn't satisfied with the situation. The next day, I asked the LCT secretariat if there was anything else they could do. Nope, case closed. But I had this deep feeling of incompleteness and I needed closure to move on. So I did some research. I couldn't find anything in the flood of information about the Erasmus Mundus scheme that described scholarship quotas. Only this quote from an obscure PR article from Brussels advertising the LCT program.
"Graduates from around the world can apply [for an Erasmus Mundus scholarship], and winners are selected on merit, with no national or regional quotas, commission officials said."
After trying to sort out these mixed messages in my mind and spending more time praying about it, I decided to contact the European Commission. I didn't expect any replies any time soon -- from my experience with US bureaucracy, I expected a reply sometime in November, where they would briefly cite the fine print about quotas. That would have been enough for me. Instead, I received an email reply 2 days later, saying that the commission would look into the situation.

I spent more time praying about it. I prayed the following:
God, you are a God who makes all things possible. You open doors that others have sealed, and you close doors that others have opened. If it's your will for us to go to Europe, please open this door again. I just need closure. Please, let your will be done and help me to accept the decision.
In the meantime, Jenn was at the local library, looking for travel books on Latin American countries for her students in her Spanish class. Her eyes stopped on a travel book on The Netherlands. She browsed through it for a while and decided to bring it home. That night, we looked at the book a little bit and prayed some more.

The next morning, at about 6:00 am, I rolled out of bed to check my email. For some reason, I felt like it was necessary to check right away. In my inbox was an email from the LCT secretariat, stating that their officer clarified the issue with the secretariat and that they were now able to offer me the scholarship! Praise God!

After my prayer was answered, Jenn and I knew what we had to do. After many talks with our skeptical parents, I accepted the scholarship within the razor-thin response period and we planned our hasty exit from the United States -- tales of which will follow.

This is why we came to Europe. Not just for pragmatic reasons; not just to be different from other Americans. We came to Europe because we believe that God made it clear to us that we should go. In the past, I had never imagined leaving the US. I even scoffed at the idea. "Programmers can do their job anywhere. Why should I go somewhere else?" But I'm not just a programmer. For some reason, God decided that Europe was for me, at least for a while. And I thank him for this opportunity, because I know that I've changed so much because of this door he opened in my life.

[Just to clarify, LCT is an outstanding program and the administration is very competent. I do not blame anyone in the LCT consortium for this miscommunication. Like I mentioned earlier, I believe there was a reason for this and that the experience made me aware of my desires and where I should go in my life.]