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  • Writer's pictureCharlene Holkenbrink-Monk

Reflections on Wanderlust Thanks to the Fulbright Award

I sat in the airport next to my friend, B.  He was crying, fearful of the plane ride. Like him, it was also my first flight ever. We were two of approximately 40 8th-grade students eagerly awaiting our trip to the East Coast. Of course, we had the added anxiety - we were traveling in May, specifically, May 17, 2002, and we were one of the first schools to travel to the East Coast since 9/11 for this trip. Some of us, like myself and B, had never experienced security flights before 9/11, so when this was all new to us, we had nothing else to compare it to. Alas, that didn’t matter. I sat there, feeling alone in an airport full of people, having already finished security, realizing that my first flight would not be with my parents and I would be on the other side of the country without them. Little did I know that this would ignite an inextinguishable flame of wanderlust. Probably why I struggle with the idea of home anyway.

This was not the first time I’d traveled, but it would be the first time by flight and only my second time in the big picture. The first time I traveled was when I was about 11. My dad, mom, and I loaded a cooler and packed bags into his 1987 Chevrolet Camaro iRoc-Z28. With my legs crammed in his 2-door muscle car, off we journeyed 2,000 miles to Central Illinois. Before this, travel and time off from work for my dad were not in the cards. But, this opportunity - one my grandpa had suggested and offered - arose, and we knew we had to take it. That was my first experience with travel - staying in hotels, swinging into gas stations, stopping into restaurants as a family, and seeing new landscapes for the first time. This would also be one of the first moments I would see how culturally diverse our states were, as my bubble had been limited to San Diego. This diversity would not encompass simply food, regional language, and mannerisms but also assumptions, mentalities, mindsets, and ideologies.

That was my first taste of travel, but for many years before, my dad would say that he felt like a bird needing to migrate during the change of season. He would tell stories about his times driving to Illinois and back with random stops along the way from when he was a child. His biological mom had passed away when he was only 14 months old, so he either spent the entire summers with his grandma, or they’d load up in their cars and drive to the exact location where we would find ourselves during that summer. This feeling of needing to explore and leave was something I held deep in my core for years before and still persists today, hence the name of my website - perpetual wanderlust, or the wanderlust threader. These feelings have led me to this post and in turn, my time in Spain next year. 

I’ve been restless for most of my life, yearning for adventure, but I was rarely presented with opportunities to explore that until that 8th-grade year. This was a significant year for many in the United States as shortly after the start of that school year we would experience 9/11. Due to heightened anxieties and fears, my mom was hesitant to send me to the East Coast in May 2002. My dad eventually convinced her, telling her that they could not keep me from this experience, so my mom rallied her friends, and we fundraised beyond belief. Beyond belief. The school had a fundraiser set up for this exact reason: to sell pies and bread for a regionally local company. My mom went to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, which she attended regularly, and many of her friends purchased pies. I remember many weeks the pies stacked at our dining room table, with the smell of bread and sugar filling the air of our house. Sometimes, we ended up with pies because my mom’s friends or acquaintances would tell her they just purchased a pie or two to help, and we could have them. So. Much. Pie. A classmate and I were also working for one of our former teachers. That year, he anonymously donated money to our accounts to help support our efforts - all of those things together allowed me to finally explore this yearning for adventure that I had trapped inside me. I eventually learned it was him through some pretty solid deductive reasoning skills, but that’s a different story. somewhat

Last night, May 16, 2024, I reflected on receiving the Fulbright award. I went digging for the photo album from my trip, preparing to write this post today, May 17, and as I went page to page, I found my original plane ticket, dated May 17, 2001. I found it rather serendipitous that as I felt this strong urge to write, it would mark 23 years since I had hopped on a plane for the first time, without my family, and would experience an adventure that I would never forget. 

I remember landing in New York. We traveled through New York, Pennsylvania, Washington D.C., and Massachusetts. I felt alone a lot then - I didn’t have a lot of friends, everybody had a group or click, and I stared out the window a lot. But, the historical moments, the sights, and all of the adventuring made up for the loneliness that I often felt. It was no longer a matter of feeling like an outsider but rather writing my own story of exploration. We went to the Smithsonian, the Liberty Bell, I was 1 of 4 students who laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and I saw my first NY show, The Blue Man Group. It was unbelievable. 

While I cannot explain it, though, Boston took my heart. Perhaps it was the history of the Salem Witch Trials, the historical buildings and architecture, or the very Boston hospitality, but there was something magical as I walked along the roads, saw the Cheers bar, actually named The Bull & Finch Pub, I knew I wanted to move here. This would nest in my brain and heart when I was applying for college and be something I would never achieve. 

In 2005, I recalled how important Boston had been to my perpetual wanderlust. I also loved music, so the Berklee College of Music was at the top of my list. Unfortunately, my boyfriend at the time would convince me not to apply because he wanted to pursue acting and told me that I would have no future in music if I went to Boston and, therefore, should go to Los Angeles. Logically, it made sense. My grandpa was sick, and Los Angeles was far enough away from San Diego to be away but close enough to be home. But then my grandpa died, my parents split, and my dad would later move to Illinois. I struggled in Los Angeles, and in 2009, when I was considering alternative routes, I applied to Berklee again. You see, I had never planned to return to San Diego once I left, even before my parents had broken up. San Diego was not it for me; I remember sitting in my former band director’s office in 2005, crying, terrified that I’d never get into college and be stuck in San Diego. He assured me that would not happen, and yet, fast forward from then to almost 20 years later, and here I am, aside from 5 years in Los Angeles. 

That same boyfriend told me he wouldn’t go and wouldn’t support me, and I wasn’t sure how I would make it without him since we could barely make it. By then, I was 21 and could have made my own choices, but I had internalized so much negativity and belief that I could not do anything on my own that I skipped my audition. Still, that was a choice I made. I knew that if I did not go, there would be no way that I would get stuck. Despite being unable to study abroad because I worked 48 hours a week and our apartment depended on my income, I would somehow make it out of Southern California. The closest I have come has been staying entire summers in Central Illinois, a fantastic reprieve, but I have felt something missing. 

In 2023, I finished my PhD. A colleague and friend had talked about the Fulbright frequently, so I quietly applied. A few people knew. The entire time, my daughter asked me when I would hear and discuss the fantastic place we’d go if I received the award. Something tugged at my heart, telling me I should prepare, but I did not want to go into it arrogantly, assuming I would receive the award. February 22, I walked into my living room, looked at my kids and mom, and texted my best friend Tanya the same thing I uttered to them:

“Tomorrow I will positively hear back from the Fulbright, telling me that I received the award.” I knew I was a semi-finalist by then, as I’d been told in December, but still, anything could happen. I was attempting manifestation, something I do not necessarily believe in, but what was the harm? 

February 23, one day before my daughter’s birthday and the next day after I had attempted to manifest positive news, I was lying in bed with her next to me. We had a calm day, watched television, and relaxed. Then, I received an email: 

Dear Charlene Holkenbrink-Monk,

Thank you for applying to the 2024-2025 Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program. 

Please review the official letter of notification on the secure portal….

I frantically logged in, still lying down, excited and nervous simultaneously. Logging in on my phone, I see at the top of the portal to view my decision letter:

Fulbright award notification letter email

I screamed. 

“I got it!” 

I threw myself out of the bed, stood up, and started tearing up. My daughter screamed, ran into the living room where my son was playing video games, and told him, 


I called the folks I needed to call and shared the news with a few others. I sat in awe. 

Several months later, I’m still in awe. Not so much because of the award, though I am incredibly honored, but because this opportunity is the start of something more and represents the moments in my past I never go to pursue: the educational goal of going to Berklee and the personal goal of living in Boston, the moments I had to close the browser for a study abroad program I wanted to apply to, or any of the travel plans I never got to pursue because of work. It also represents my educational journey, which has contributed to elements of my personal life that I would never have considered attainable. 

My first international flight, and the reason I had to get a passport, was to travel to Toronto for the AERA conference. My second international flight was to Belize to visit a friend and explore and adventure a short 3 days after I successfully defended my dissertation. Many of the conferences that took me to other states were because of conferences. And this Fulbright would not have happened if I had not chosen the PhD program that I had chosen. In fact, I remember sitting in a Starbucks, having to choose between the joint doc program between SDSU and CGU or the PhD at UC Riverside. I was meeting with a potential intern for the nonprofit I’d started, who had said the reason she turned down a funded PhD was because she didn’t believe in the ways that higher education talks about equity but then fails to provide free access to their research, which ultimately made me choose the joint doc program. The moments we can think of have helped take us to the points we are in, and if it were not for that moment and the choices before, I may not have ended up at this point. 

As I have started to plan my Spring 2025 in Spain, I can imagine the possibilities that exist both during my time in Spain and beyond. Academically and professionally, this is just the start - the ability to pursue the goals that I have set out for myself and my research and to weave together my love of visuals and photography, research, writing, teaching, and travel. My research is focused on participatory visual research from a sociological perspective, so I cannot wait. 

I also suspect this will help alleviate some of the existential spiralings I’ve been engaging in - I have this gut feeling that I will be introduced to a new element of my life, myself, and find ways to pursue the goals that nourish my soul. The reality is that if I had taken any of the opportunities, I would not have my children and perhaps would not be here, and while the “What If” game is a dangerous game, the reality is that I am where I am supposed to be for the time being. And sure, there are moments that I wish I had opportunities before, but how cool is it that I get to share this with my kids, now? 

Monumental events have occurred in my life - good and bad - for me to get to this point. In a little over 7.5 months, I will be in Spain with my kids, researching, interacting with different academics, and exploring the world. I would have never imagined that 11-year-old Charlene, crammed in the back of a 1987 Camaro who was in awe of the midwest as a new world, would instead be in Spain just over two decades later. Stay tuned to this website for more updates, because you better believe I’ll be documenting this adventure. Quite frankly, I'm not really sure I'm coming back to San Diego anyway. I never wanted to stay put, and now that my kids are older and I have more courage, I'm ready for more exploring and passion, and I know myself so much more - nothing is holding me back except myself. Well, and two teaching jobs I love. Heh.

Life is wild, isn’t it? Here's to adventure.

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