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Anna Tran: Strauss Scholarship Winner, Blog Post #1

According to the 2011 U.S. Census Bureau, over 40 million baby boomers reached the age of 65 in 2010. Within Orange County, approximately 360,000 individuals were 65 years or older in 2010, and it is predicted that Orange County’s senior population will increase by 94% by 2030. Seniors tend to have less control over their lives due to physical and mental degeneration such as impaired vision, hearing loss, and reduced judgment, which can result in negative emotions such as anxiety, lowered self-esteem, sadness, and loneliness. Chronic depression is a recurring and persistent illness that disproportionately targets seniors, especially seniors not living with family members.

In my experience with senior patients at Joshua Medical Group, a medical clinic located in Buena Park and Cerritos, I am constantly faced with seniors who suffer from many chronic diseases. However, a discomfort acknowledged on a daily basis by the senior patients is their mental and social health. In a research study in 2009, psychologists observed a significant relationship between depression and sociability. “Sociability plays an important role in protecting people from the experience of psychological distress and in enhancing well-being. Social isolation is a major risk factor for functional difficulties in older persons. Loss of important relationships can lead to feelings of emptiness and depression.”5 From my interactions with my senior patients and the research I have conducted, my solution to this growing epidemic is The Pay It Forward Program.

The Pay It Forward Program aims to enhance the lives of the elderly and bring generations together through three major goals:

  1. Companionship: A schedule of activities will allow seniors to interact and connect with the younger generation (reduce feelings of despondence and lowered self-esteem).
  2. Preventative Health: Health talks by trained medical professionals will provide seniors with a clear understanding of their health and actions that they can actively partake in, which will allow them to comprehend their medical conditions (reduce anxiety and misunderstanding).
  3. Active Learning: We will introduce seniors to activities that will improve their health, such as participating in non-strenuous exercises and learning how to browse the world wide web to keep in contact with family members and student participants (improve mental health and sustainability).

Thus far, I have appointed coordinators for the three senior homes that will partake in the project sponsored by the Donald A. Strauss Foundation Public Service Scholarship. I have been able to set senior activities with each senior home for the next three months. Over the summer, I was able to schedule health talks at each senior home with providers at Joshua Medical Group to meet the seniors and educate them on various topics such as depression, diabetes, antioxidants, etc. The senior facilities are requesting more health talks than I initially planned to provide to them. However, I have been very fortunate to have the support of Joshua Medical, a family practice located in Buena Park and Cerritos. My interns have all been very accommodating and enthusiastic about this project. The physicians at this clinic have also volunteered a lot of their time to shape and allow the intentions of this program to be met.

During the health talks, the seniors are a very inquisitive bunch, which makes the whole educational purpose even more worthwhile for my interns, physicians, and myself. The last 15 minutes of each health talk seminar is left to answer all the questions the seniors have relating to the topic (e.g. Stroke Prevention, Diabetes, etc.) or simply questions relevant to the senior’s personal health.

All of the activities have been very enjoyable for the seniors since it is the holiday season with many festive arts and crafts to do. It has been a delightful journey for my interns and myself to get to know all of these seniors during the past three months. We were recently able to purchase the laptops and computers to begin the technological aspect of this program. Last Friday was my first test run at one of the senior homes. I must admit I was a bit too ambitious with the agenda I had planned for my first computer’s activity. I did not know that my “first computer class” with the seniors literally meant FIRST computer class for the seniors.

After surveying the seniors to briefly understand their computer knowledge of laptops and Internet, I realize my agenda for that class should have been an introduction lecture. Usually, my events with the seniors last about an hour to 90 minutes, but for this computer activity, I ended up staying with the seniors for almost four hours. It was quite the challenge guiding each senior to use the mouse to navigate on the computer screen and answering all the curious questions that seniors had. Nonetheless, this was easily the favorite activity with the seniors. Their curiosity and lack of knowledge of how to use computers and its purposes further emphasize the need for this program.

During the last 30 minutes of this computer class, I introduced the seniors to Spotify, an online music application that is filled with all the songs that you can imagine. Each of the seniors took turns to call out an artist or song for me to look for them. This was the first time my interns and I have ever heard of musicians such as Chuck Berry or Bobby Day. Once the song went on, there were always one or two people shouting out, “I know this song!” or “Oh, I haven’t heard this song in ages!” Some would close their eyes, smile, and hum to the tune. It was such a precious moment for everyone. I look forward to making more memories like these with the seniors at these homes and growing this program to its highest potential.

Felipe Hernandez: Marshall Scholarship Winner, Blog #1

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Felipe Hernandez and Rudy Santacruz, Assistant Director of SAGE Scholars, at the screening of the Road Trip Nation documentary Why Not Us? on April 14, 2015

Reflections on the Marshall Application Experience

The Marshall Application process was long and arduous but also enlightening and rewarding. Although I had already gone through two similar long application processes for the Truman and Fulbright, this application process was different in terms of my approach.

I never planned on applying for the Marshall Scholarship. It was never something that I had factored into my career. In fact, I did not know that the Marshall Scholarship (along with the Rhodes and Mitchell Scholarships) existed until I received the Fulbright Scholarship and the Scholarship Opportunities Program at UC Irvine recommended that I apply for it. Although I initially dismissed it, I came to the realization that this was the best option for me after reflecting on my work as an ETA in Colombia. In Colombia, I found that I wanted to pursue a master’s degree in education and policy in an international context to figure out how to help entire communities mobilize economically and socially via education, particularly low-socioeconomic communities. My work in Colombia served as my motivation to apply for the Marshall Scholarship because I was working with underprivileged communities that unified around education as the catalyst for change. However, these communities faced several systemic barriers which severely hindered the mobilization of those most in need, which, in this case, were children affected by the ongoing civil war. I also knew that I wanted to comparatively analyze social policies from various governments to learn about effective and ineffective policies in varying contexts. This provided my motivation and focus to apply for the Marshall.

The more I researched the more I discovered that I would fit in well with various UK programs with support from the Marshall Scholarship. I compiled a list of suitable programs that fit my goals. Next I researched the curriculum, faculty, research papers, alumni, current student profiles, and the city to refine my decision. At this point, I knew that I preferred faculty with educational policy and leadership experience specifically focused on serving underserved and low-socioeconomic regions inside and outside the UK. Ultimately, what helped me make my decision was a combination of the program, country, city, and the fact that my roommate, who was currently teaching English in Colombia with me, happened to be attending the University of Bristol and had nothing but great things to say about it.

The SOP staff were key throughout the entire process. They not only helped refine my choices and helped me research various programs but also constantly provided support in the form of mentorship. The best advice I got from various people, including the SOP office, was to continually ask questions and do as much research as I could.

During this process, my focus was not on getting a Marshall Scholarship. Rather, I focused on fit and whether the program met my goals and personality. Once I narrowed my choices to four or five top programs I proceeded to contact current Marshall Scholars in those programs and faculty in those programs. I asked about their experiences and sought advice. This was crucial in refining my choices. They all echoed what the SOP staff had advised to focus on fit. At the same time I contacted faculty members who taught the courses that I would take and asked them questions about their backgrounds and the course(s). Later, when I was selected as a finalist I looked at their research papers, previous work experience, and current work.

At the same time, I was constantly reevaluating and reflecting on my choices and reasons for applying until I submitted my final Marshall Scholarship application. I was fortunate enough to participate in Road Trip Nation’s First Generation Roadtrip* across the US which provided me with the perfect opportunity to ask questions, reflect, and work on my essays while on the road. After spending a couple of months in Colombia, the most difficult aspect was spending time away from my family and hometown. Spending two years abroad in another country away from my family and California would be a challenge within itself. I would advise all potential applicants to take time away from the hustle and bustle of your daily activities to meditate, reflect, and ask yourself “Why do I want to apply for a Marshall?” Throughout the process I was able to select my affiliates, programs, courses, and extracurricular opportunities that I would partake in by doing just that.

Preparing for the First Year of Graduate School in the United Kingdom

I am most excited about doing what I spent a year planning and researching. I am excited about integrating myself into a new community, meeting the other Master’s students, and challenging myself in a new community with different barriers. I am also excited about traveling across the UK and Europe, befriending other Marshall Scholars and British students, and taking advantage of the new opportunities available to me. To prepare, I contacted both universities (University of Bristol and King’s College London) to obtain information on pre-arrival tasks to complete and have been reading the suggested reading material, continuing my conversations with current Marshall Scholars, and reaching out to faculty and community organizations. I have also been watching documentaries that relate to the subject that I am going to study as well as about life in England in general.

*The Road Trip Nation special will air on PBS in spring 2015 and can be viewed for free here: http://whynotusfilm.com/.

Eliza Collison, Fulbright, Nicaragua: International Women’s Day in Nicaragua

March 8th marked International Women’s Day which was quite publicized here. There had been a series of events going on at the Central American University or UCA (pronounced “oo-ka”) to commemorate the day. This whole past week was a jornada or conference to cover different topics important for women in Nicaragua and internationally. For example there was one event that focused on family dynamics and another that discussing leadership among young women. They were all lead by a Mexican anthropologist who is apparently quite a superstar, because at every presentation there was not one empty seat. In fact, people were lined up against the walls. At one point during her presentation on family roles she asked the audience “Raise your hand if you know a woman who had their first child when they were less than 18 years old,” and almost the whole audience raised their hand. The woman next to me whispered “Me too…that’s why I’m here. So I can educate the next generation, so they don’t go through what I did.”  Reproductive rights and teen pregnancy are definitely critical topics in Nicaragua. There was also a cool moment before the presentation started when a woman who worked for women’s rights in Honduras received applause as she joined the audience. According to her bio she had received numerous threats from the work she was doing…that’s one brave lady! The highlight of the week was definitely a bailatón or dance-a-thon to stand up to violence against women. They opened the event with a contemporary dance performance. At first the dancers were just dancing around joyfully to salsa and bachata, portraying new, happy couples. The crowd was half paying attention, chatting amongst themselves and laughing and shrieking out whenever a dancer did a particularly sensual move. Then, the performance took a more serious turn. The music got dark and the male dancers began acting out violently towards their partners, pretending to punch them, chokehold them, and throw them to the ground. The giggles turned into serious looks and the conversations fell silent. The dance ended with the women laying on the stage with the guys extending a hand over them. It was pretty powerful stuff,but overall an artistic way to show the seriousness of domestic violence. The rest of the bailatón wasn’t so bleak. They had two different instructors get the crowd moving.

bailaton
Can you spot me?…Ok, so I made it easy and circled myself.

Looking back on this week, I am glad to have celebrated International Women’s Day in a foreign context. It makes me think how my life would be if I were a woman in Nicaragua or any other country. To a certain extent, women and all human beings across the world are struggling for the same rights, such as equal pay, ending violence, and reproductive rights. Some are just more prevalent in certain countries, where the local context brings them under a stronger light. Although there is technically only one official day celebrating women, the struggle for women’s rights in Nicaragua and across the world is constant.

For more about Eliza’s Fulbright experience, visit her personal blog.

Christine Pham, Strauss, “My Healthy Start”

Food is subsidized for many low-socioeconomic families in the United States. However, the food provided is usually not the best quality in terms of nutrients, minerals, and vitamins. Many items are high in fat and sugar, leading to an ingestion of low-quality food items amongst not only the parents but also the kids. Children are being exposed to foods with a higher content of fat and sugar at a younger age, leading to the onset of illnesses such as diabetes at an early age. At the same time, government campaigns have been advocating a healthier lifestyle to the communities. With these conflicting ideas, how can one take charge in improving one’s health?

My Healthy Start: An After School Program for Elementary Students aims to teach kids about moderation. Santa Ana is a city in Orange County where 20% of the city’s population lives below the poverty line. Approximately 34.8% of children living in Santa Ana are obese, the second highest in California and double the national average. I understand that eating healthy can be difficult when you are on a budget. It’s easy to indulge on fast food after a hard day’s work because you are too exhausted to cook or buy lower quality products because it is cheaper. Therefore, this program tells them that it is OK to eat unhealthy foods as long as it is in moderation. Instead of focusing on what they should be eating (going over the food pyramid. etc), we emphasize more on teaching them the skills to understand what they are currently eating, how it plays a role in our body, and how you can incorporate those foods into a balanced diet. For example, we’ll go over how to read and understand food labels of their favorite snacks, digesting complicated words such as high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oil into more relatable terms, sugar and trans fat.

So far, the organization of the My Healthy Start program has run as planned with some alterations. I have been working with the THINK Together after school program in coordinating the schools that we would be visiting in Santa Ana. However, unfortunately, complications have arisen and so we moved our first few rotations to the Orange and Tustin districts—both districts with a large population of childhood obesity. We had our first rotation in October and my team and I GREATLY enjoyed it. We worked with twenty 5th graders from Heideman Elementary School. I had fun working with the kids and it amazes me how intelligent and insightful this group was. The first session went really well. We started off with a calisthenics activity, handed out a survey, presented the lesson, and gave them the booklets. In addition, the next 3 sessions also went smoothly as well, with physical activity components added to them.

To be honest, working with 5th graders in the beginning scared me. 5th grade is when you are at the peak of your elementary school! It’s when kids start thinking they’re super cool and start giving some attitude. However, I was so delighted that the students I worked with were polite, talkative, and most importantly, interested to learn. I feel truly blessed to have been able to work with these smart and charismatic kids as they provided such an unbiased and refreshing viewpoint on things! I’m glad our program was 4 weeks long so that my team and I were able to interact with the kids multiple times, thus providing more support and guidance to the kids in nutrition.

As the end of the first school rotation neared, I was sad to say good bye. I was speaking to the teacher and she told us that she hears her students talk about what we teach them during lunchtime. This compliment put a smile on all our faces and made me happy to know that the program is serving its purpose of teaching children about nutrition. The committee members were sad that our first rotation with Heideman Elementary School has ended because we all had a lot of fun working with the kids! We were thinking of possibly coming back for one session where we make healthy snacks and check up on their progress. I am still working on the logistics of coming back, but, in conclusion, I think it was a very successful pilot program!

With the end of each school rotation, changes are made to the lesson plans in order to make the next one an even greater experience for the kids. So far, we have completed the programs at two schools and are currently in the process of visiting our third. Each group of kids has a different flair about them and I have enjoyed my experiences working with all of them.

Eliza Collison, Fulbright, Nicaragua: First Month and a Half: Research and Travels

It’s hard to believe that it has already been a month and a half. That just goes to show that time flies in another country.

Research Progress

In the field of research I am still in the stages of building contacts that work with Nicaraguan youth and voter participation. What I have found out so far about research here is that many people are more than willing to give an hour or so of their time to talk. I also have discovered that Nicaragua is an incredibly polarized country, making it even more important to gather information from both sides of the spectrum. For example I spoke to one organization that is notoriously anti-government that gave me a long explanation on the issues of getting a national i.d. card. On the other hand, a young adult I spoke to from the Sandinista Youth, Nicaragua’s ruling political party told me they do not see an issue with getting an i.d. card. It is both frustrating and interesting to see the varying perspectives of the locals with respect to civic engagement. As important as it is to have various opinions, I wonder if those with different perspectives can learn to work together. In the coming months I look forward to speak with young adults from a variety of educational, political, and socioeconomic backgrounds about their level of civic engagement.

Outside of Research

Another part of Fulbright is getting out and exploring what the host country has to offer. Therefore, this past weekend I got out of the hustling and bustling city of Managua and headed to the much more tranquil León, about an hour north. A friend of mine from university lived in Nicaragua many years, so she put me in touch with her cousin who lives there.

I got in Friday afternoon and immediately noticed the sharp contrast between Managua and León. For one thing Managua is a crowded, capital city that is almost impossible to navigate on foot. León is a quaint, colonial city with the loudest noise being the church bells of the cathedral. This probably explains why there were a lot more tourists there. I swear, I saw more tourists within the first five minutes in Leon than I had my whole month and a half in Managua.

After wandering around a bit, I met up with my friend’s cousin and we relaxed at a restaurant in the main plaza for the afternoon. Later, we met up with a friend of hers who was also visiting from the States, and we grabbed dinner at a Mexican restaurant. It still wasn’t the Mexican food I’m used to in California, but it was close enough. At night we went out to a bar with live music. They made a slight effort at reminding the patrons it was Halloween by hanging inflatable spiders and cobwebs. The bartender also had a skeleton mask on. However, Halloween is not really celebrated here, so this may have been to appeal to foreigners. Afterwards, we went to a nightclub that was on the more upscale side. There was even a cover charge and VIP area. Even still, a night out on the town in Nicaragua is much more economical than, say, Los Angeles. The check for our whole group was less than the price what one person’s drinks in the U.S would be! I’m in for a rude awakening when I come back… They also played a good mix of American and Latin American music. The DJ clearly loved the sound of his own voice because he seemed to make announcements every five minutes over the loudspeaker. We would be really into the song and suddenly hear Sábadooo noche! (Saturday night!), followed by some announcement about a costume contest the next day. Despite Sir Talks-a-Lot we had a lot of fun.

Saturday

The next day we had a late start and met up for lunchtime by the beach. I ate fried fish…with the head and eyes and everything! It was covered in some garlic sauce which made it very tasty.

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Fried fish with garlic sauce, with a side of fried bananas

In the afternoon I took a solo adventure to El Museo de Cuentos y Leyendas or the Stories and Legends Museum. This museum actually used to be a torture prison during the Somoza dictatorship. The original buildings and guard towers are still intact. Now, it is a museum dedicated to popular Nicaraguan myths and stories. I had a museum guide show me around and explain each story. They had life size statues of the characters depicted in a series of rooms. Some stories are told to children to make them listen to their parents, because a few of the characters rob children. Other stories were clearly in response to the Spanish Conquistadores. For example, one woman was seduced by a Spaniard who actually only wanted her father’s gold. After finding out where the riches were he trapped her in a cave. Now, legend has it her spirit will seek out foreign men, seduce them, and trap them in a cave. I would say about 70% of the stories the guide told me had to do with women seeking revenge. Moral of the story(or stories that is)…don’t mess with the wrong woman.

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Pictured (Right to Left): Spaniard, Vengeful Woman, Her Father

On Saturday night we had dinner at my friend’s house with a few of her family members and friends. They made amazing homemade chicken and guacamole. After dinner we played a few rounds of Heads Up, the charade-like game on the iPhone. A few times there was a mix up in translations or cultural references, which made the game even more entertaining.

Sunday: Día de los Muertos

On Sunday morning I went to mass at the big cathedral in the plaza. The priest’s homily went with the theme of Day of the Dead. He summed up why it was celebrated pretty well by saying “The dead are here to remind us we’re living…So what are you doing to live your life right now?” That’s what I like most about Day of the Dead. This holiday doesn’t make death seem scary and ominous. It’s just another part of life that is meant to be celebrated. Ok, I think that’s enough reflection for one blog post…

The rest of the day was pretty laid back, since everything is closed on Sunday. We had lunch at a restaurant called Carnivore or Carnívoro. I finally had a burger and fries I had been craving ever since I got here. Then, we parted ways and I got on the bus back to Managua.

Overall, it was a really relaxing weekend in León and it definitely won’t be my last. I was asked on multiple occasions “So…when are you coming back to León?” Soon I hope!

For more about Eliza’s Fulbright experience, visit her personal blog.

Eliza Collison, Fulbright, Nicaragua: Preparing to be a Cultural Ambassador

When I opened the email my first reaction was to jump out my chair, run out of the office (I was at work when I received the news) and pace back and forth calling Mom, Dad, friends, family, etc. Later in the day the initial shock wore off and the reality set in. You have a “Why me?” moment where you realize that something so abstract and supposedly far fetched becomes a reality. Then you get over that moment and begin to look forward to your preparations ahead. It is a lot of emotions for one day!

Preparation, in the most traditional sense consists of…

1. Paperwork. Lots and lots of paperwork. I know it’s boring, but it’s true. Before you leave for any country for a long period of time you have to make sure you’re well and able. Then you have to prove you actually graduated, so there’s another form to fill out. Then, there are certain forms you turn in within certain time periods depending on your date of departure. I have a running spreadsheet of all of the documents I had to turn in order to avoid driving myself crazy with questions of “Wait, did I turn that in yet?”

2. Orientation: I think the best preparation I have had so far is the Western Hemisphere orientation. I spent an entire weekend in a hotel in D.C. with other students who were in the same boat as me. It was also amazing to hear how diverse people’s projects are! The projects range anywhere from studying an endangered sloth population in Panama to discovering locals’ reactions to foreign medical aid in Honduras. I also had the opportunity to speak to a young woman who had also done her Fulbright in Nicaragua. Hearing from someone who had gone through the experience was comforting as you learn that they had the same doubts and fears before the experience and eventually made the most of it.

I also had the opportunity to meet other Fulbrighters coming to Nicaragua. There are two other people doing the student program and two professors doing the scholar program…and not a single one of them will be in Managua. This is both comforting and nerve wracking. Comforting in the sense that I can go about my research and fully immerse myself in the culture but also nerve wracking because I will have to navigate through a new city on a more independent level. Still, if there’s anything I’ve learned from being abroad before it’s being alone and feeling lonely are two completely different sensations.

3. Reading: I scour blogs of former Fulbrighters (nickname for Fulbright grantees) in Nicaragua. I signed up for something called Nicaragua Dispatch which sends me the top headlines of the day in Nicaragua. I also been keeping a record of publications relevant to my research.

4. Talking: A big part of preparing for Fulbright is to be able to talk about your research in two phrases or less, so you don’t lose your audience. I spent this past summer in Washington D.C. for an internship, so I had many opportunities to practice my Fulbright “elevator speech” at various networking events. I was also surprised to meet a lot of people who have connections to Nicaragua, a country of barely 5 million people. For example, I was at my visiting my brother’s university and met two people who had lived in Nicaragua at one point. One of them was able to give me handy safety and travel advice while the other had a friend who lives there and has agreed to show me around when I arrive.

A more abstract form of preparation

As important as it is to prepare oneself for living abroad a key aspect of preparation is actually to expect the unexpected, as cliche as that sounds. I have to strike a delicate balance between coming in with as much prior knowledge as possible while also understanding that not everything is as I imagined. You can read dozens of articles on a subject or current situation, but it will never be the same as seeing it firsthand. For this reason I hope that diplomacy continues to exist. I don’t doubt that technology and social media have changed how quickly we can assess what is going on in the world. Take the Arab Spring for example. Social media was crucial in disseminating information during these events. However, I cannot confine my understanding of another culture to 140 characters or a 2 minute news story. Understanding another culture requires one’s full attention. I plan to be constantly engaged in the sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and overall feeling of the host country. As a “cultural ambassador” I hope to embrace the idea of diplomacy as a multi-sensory experience.

Nicaragua, I look forward to meeting you.¡Nos vemos el 21!

For more about Eliza’s Fulbright experience, visit her personal blog.

Soraya Azzawi, Fulbright, Jordan: Entry #1

Even as the sun sinks behind the buildings, life flourishes in the streets of the Hashemi district of Amman. Crowds churn as families return from Sunday mass or head off to Maghrib prayer; local eateries ready their stoves for rounds of dinner.

We watch the bustle from our place on the porch of Collateral Repair Project (CRP), an organization that aids impoverished urban refugees in Amman. In addition to my Fulbright project, I have had the opportunity to volunteer with several refugee service organizations. At CRP, Sunday is typically dedicated to administrative work and we’ve just finished outlining prospective program ideas, stepping out to catch the fading rays of sunset.

Suddenly a man approaches us, trailed by a little girl. He shuffles up the steps in a dusty coat that hangs loosely off his frame. It is clearly not tailored for him, two sizes too large. His fingertips just barely escape the sleeves as he warmly gestures hello.

They are new refugees, he says. Syrian, and he heard this place can help.

Syria. Once it used to refer to a rich cultural heritage and a host of ancient civilizations. To finely crafted armoires inlaid with seashells, to Damascus’ world-famous delicacy of Booza ice cream. Lately, it seems the only headlines mentioning ‘Syria’ are those followed by the word ‘crisis’.

It defies reason that the man is still smiling, having just fled a war-ravaged country, but somehow he is—a battered building that refuses to crumble in the storm.

My supervisor, Rami*,  has the difficult task of explaining that registration for new beneficiaries isn’t until tomorrow. A closer look at the pair before him changes his mind. The man is clinging to Rami’s every word as though the sounds themselves will provide relief. His daughter’s eyes never leave him.

Going hungry is one thing. Watching your own child go hungry—while powerless to ease their suffering—is something else entirely. I cannot possibly imagine what this man feels when he looks at the family he must support.

“Why don’t I take your information?” Rami offers instead.

I turn my attention to the little girl, hoping to occupy her as they work through the details. A chance to practice colloquial Arabic, I figure. In a very businesslike manner, she informs me that her name is Huda and that she is six years old. Huda has large, inquisitive eyes, the color of freshly brewed coffee.

I resort to the nifty toolkit of conversational phrases we’ve practiced over and over and over again in class. I’m pretty sure I’ve started hearing them in my sleep.

“How are you?” I ask.

“Fine, thanks to God,” she replies, smiling.

I can barely contain my complaints (and they are loud) in a Los Angeles traffic jam and this girl, who has just left behind her only home, is fine and thankful.

She turns to face me fully, eyes wide like she’s about to reveal the wonders of the universe. In the most eloquent classical Arabic I’ve ever heard, she proclaims, “It is an honor to make your acquaintance.”

And I am floored. With a rich, literary tradition, Arabic is regarded as one of the most challenging languages to learn in the world—particularly Classical Arabic. And this six-year-old refugee girl speaks it perfectly.

Working with underserved refugees for the past few months has proven a challenging exercise in emotional resilience—but also, and more importantly, in humility. Even for those with the best of intentions, it is easy to forget that many of the individuals you serve are highly educated, versatile people who have simply found themselves in unfortunate circumstances. The relationship between the aider and the aidee risks giving way to paternalism, relegating the aidee to little more than an object of pity. It’s interactions like these, the words I exchanged with Huda, that lend perspective, that lead me to marvel at the extent of human perseverance in the face of hardship.

Watching news segments about world events like the refugee crisis is informative. Studying international affairs in the classroom is useful. Completely immersing yourself in the situation, in the context and in the language is indescribable. In addition to the chance to study the impact of war trauma on psychosocial health, the Fulbright Program has given me the unparalleled opportunity to experience history in the making, to not merely learn about other peoples and cultures but to live them. It is a dynamic, once-in-a-lifetime experience that enriches your worldview like no mere course, textbook or news soundbyte can.

“The rapprochement of peoples is only possible when differences of culture and outlook are respected and appreciated rather than feared and condemned, when the common bond of human dignity is recognized as the essential bond for a peaceful world.”

— Senator J. William Fulbright

* Names have been changed for privacy purposes 

Armaan A. Rowther, Fulbright, Jordan: Engaging Contradictions – My Fulbright Experience

Heart-warming stories, awe-inspiring photographs, cute yet meaningful trinkets… these are the souvenirs that friends and family expect me to return home with after my Fulbright fellowship year in Jordan.  Their expectation, however, is mistaken on two fronts.  Firstly, through eight months of living and studying in Amman with my wife, this has in many ways been my home, the home I will be leaving when I depart three months from now.  Secondly, no number of stories or photographs could represent my year abroad as truthfully as the questions and contradictions I will take with me, which have come to define my Fulbright experience and that I hope to share in what I expect to be my final blog entry.

Cultural Exchange, or Human Connection?

To explain these contradictions, I must start by relating my own path to the Fulbright program, which I believe began with the following words: “And do good to others, as God has done good to you.”  Originally from a verse of the Holy Qur’an in Surah Al-Qasas (The Stories), I found this quote on the final page of my late grandfather’s journal, which he kept during his 23-year diplomatic career in the Pakistani Foreign Service and eventually in the Pakistan Mission to the United Nations.  My grandfather Ataullah Khwaja, whose name in Arabic means “gift of God,” chronicled a life committed to the idea of serving others with every opportunity that his education had afforded him, privileges that he understood as unearned and as blessings.  Having lived through violence in Indian-occupied Ladakh and exile from his home in Chinese-occupied Tibet, he sought to empower communities that, like his own, had been uprooted and marginalized by conflict.  As a young boy, I internalized the ethic of service inherited from his final journal entry, and it has since guided me toward a life dedicated to this same conception of service.  A decade later, it would form the basis of my project proposal to the Fulbright U.S. Student Program in Jordan.  My motivation was simple: to use my education in public health to promote health among families that, like my own, had been displaced by conflict and military occupation.

Through this story, I hope to share the layers that exist beneath and beyond my own identity as an American: I am an American, and I am also a Muslim; my project and studies are motivated by a verse from the Holy Qur’an; my family traces its roots to Muslim communities here in the post-colonial Third World.  The collective result of these layers was that, after travelling thousands of miles away from the place where I was born and raised to arrive in Jordan—where I hear the Qur’an being recited in taxis and grocery stores, where halal meat is available everywhere, where I can hear the call to prayer and walk to the mosque from my home—I felt a connection rather than distance.  I felt a shared heritage, a belonging.

I am led to ask, in the words of Walt Whitman, “Do I contradict myself?  Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”  The express purpose of the Fulbright program is mutual understanding, and I thus believe that my personal experience poses a larger question that pertains to all Fulbright scholars, which is: is our goal of mutual understanding really about cultural exchange, as though we have crossed the boundaries of two mutually exclusive worlds?  My own story would suggest otherwise and leads me to further questions: when my Fulbright peers interact with their students, their research subjects, their neighbors in Jordan or other respective host countries, do they view them as the Other, or do they also see in them a heritage that is shared by people like myself, who are their compatriots and neighbors back in the place they call home?  Is our experience solely about cultural exchange, or is it truly about making this human connection?

Objective Observer, or Active Participant?

Moving on from how we as Fulbright scholars perceive the people around us, I also question how we perceive ourselves and our own role in their context.  For those who are student researchers like myself, we are conventionally taught that the scientific ideal demands detached objectivity in our observations and investigations.  The question I faced early on was, assuming that such detached objectivity—in spite of context, positionality, or even power relations—was even possible, would it be ethical?  This was a dilemma I faced early on in my project proposal, which began as an observational study of the barriers to care that exist for diabetes patients among refugee populations.

The question I faced was: what were the ethical implications of examining a life-threatening problem facing a vulnerable population, publishing my findings for academic advancement, and then wrapping up and going home?  The result of my reflections on this problem was a major shift in my project proposal, which was modified to become an interventional program incorporating public health education for diabetes prevention in addition to observational analysis.  I believe that the ethical and methodological question I faced is relevant beyond my field, as the critiques of passive objectivity are well known within the social sciences.  French psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon once said, “For the native, objectivity is always directed against him,” pointing to uses of the notion of objectivity to actually conceal and defend specific power relations and structural inequities.  Even after modification of my research design, the ethical implications of my position and project continue to represent a question with which I struggle to this day.

Privileged Teacher, or Humble Student?

The final question that I have confronted through my Fulbright experience thus far is, do I conceive of myself as a privileged teacher in a foreign land, or as a humble and sincere student?  Once I had modified my project to revolve around a public health education program, this question became extremely relevant.  As a Fulbright scholar from the United States to Jordan, it can easily be assumed that the direction of learning and benefit flows primarily from my First World knowledge and advantages to this Third World, “developing nation” context.  In the case of diabetes, however, the United States is among the worst examples to follow, with a public health crisis stemming from rising rates of obesity and diabetes despite exorbitant healthcare expenditures.  If anything, among the primary factors suggested to be contributing to Jordan’s rising burden of diabetes is adoption of Western or American diet and lifestyle.  In this way, traditional notions of First World progress and Third World development come into question, and I have had to examine what role I play in the assumptions that underpin such notions.

I conclude by reiterating that, rather than providing answers, my intent is merely to offer questions that I feel my Fulbright experience have warranted, and I hope to continue engaging with them through the duration of my Fulbright fellowship as well as long after I return to the United States.  The collective sum of these questions and contradictions for me has been to realize that, however service- or education-oriented as my project may be, this experience has been above all a privilege and a blessing—one that, in the spirit of my grandfather’s memory, I hope will contribute to my efforts to continue serving in the future.

Ataullah Khwaja, my maternal grandfather, in his youth

Ataullah Khwaja, my maternal grandfather, in his youth

This post is based on my presentation at the Fulbright Near Eastern Affairs Regional Enrichment Seminar in Amman, Jordan, on February 24, 2014.

This is not an official Department of State website or blog, and the views and information presented are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program of the U.S. Department of State.

Felipe Hernandez, Fulbright, Colombia: So Much Work To Be Done

It’s hot. No, not just hot but it’s humid and boiling hot. It is 1:55 pm on a Monday and I just had a great big lunch for $3. Now I am walking, drenched in sweat, to Santiago Vila, a school in an underprivileged area in Ibagué, Colombia. As I walk up the steep hill I can see the children at the top. Some are sitting on the library steps trying to cool off. Meanwhile, others are playing by the church in front of the library. They are here after school to attend the free English and Leadership class that I teach every day, rain or shine. There are about thirty to forty children who attend this class every day. We all sit in the library where the only ventilation is the half broken ceiling fan that works only a third of the time. However, their attention is unwavering. They are so focused on the lecture and activities that they forget about the heat and so do I. We work through a series of new elementary vocabulary and play some games in groups. They love it. I love it.  This is how I spend my free time in Colombia.

This is the social program I developed as part of my U.S. Fulbright Teaching Assistantship Grant for Colombia. I have established a community based organization that provides low-income middle and high school students with English, leadership, community organizing, and life-skills courses that enable them to develop strategies and projects to improve their community. After seven months, most of my students have significantly improved their English abilities. Also, they have developed their leadership skills and improved their community at the same time by organizing community projects such as murals to remove graffiti, creating a children’s reading room in the library, and developing creative expression workshops to comment on the violence, poverty, and crime in Colombia (see Youtube Links below). Thanks to our efforts we also received a grant from the U.S. State Department to expand and fortify our program.

This may seem like a typical community outreach program back at home, but here it is not typical at all. For these children, this is a rare and unheard of opportunity that they enthusiastically participate in everyday. Most of these children have never been exposed to leadership programs or free English courses. In fact, some mothers even came up to me a couple of times and asked “This class is free? Really? ” They were also doubtful that I was really from the United States because I look Colombian, due to my full Mexican descent and good Spanish speaking abilities that I acquired growing up in Southern California. However, once their doubts are reassured they ask if they can bring other children from a brother, sister, neighbor, or a friend. I of course never say no. The most kids we’ve had at one session was about sixty and I will admit, that got a bit out of hand. I guess I have a problem saying no to them. I mean, wouldn’t you? However, the fact remains that there is a lot of work that needs to be done.

When I applied for the Fulbright I thought I was just going to be teaching English everyday and maybe volunteering somewhere. However, when I got here there were no non-profits in the region that I was placed in. Also, the culture of volunteerism was nonexistent at the University and in the community. It’s not because of a lack of compassion, but rather just a different country with different customs. So, I faced an immediate challenge. I could give up and take on another simpler project or I could face this head on and create my own organization. I chose the latter and I am glad that I did. In the last seven months I have faced some new challenges but also celebrated some extraordinary gains with the community I now call home. The children here are taking over their own community, which they once deemed too dangerous, dirty, and poor. Now, they are cleaning the streets, painting murals to replace graffiti, and organizing campaigns to improve their community. There is a new energy that has taken over the children and yet I did not do anything extraordinary. They have always had it in them; I merely provided them with simple resources. This is why we need more Fulbrighters to continue to facilitate this kind of powerful community change.

The Fulbright Program is unlike any other program that I have ever done before. My professional communication and organizing skills have been uniquely challenged here because I am responsible for developing and managing the entire program, recruiting volunteers, teaching classes every day, developing the curriculum, cultivating community partnerships, and obtaining funding. Aside from this, I have traveled extensively and formed new life-long relationships. There is much work to be done in Colombia and around the world. This Fellowship allows for that work to get done. As the first in my family to attend college this opportunity was unforeseen when I was a freshman at UC Irvine. Now, I am glad I took that study break during my senior year to look up this Fellowship. It has not only changed my life but also influenced the lives of those that I serve every day.

Homer Simpson Mural
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=feUNGfMLiBk#![/youtube]

Children Reading Room
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0bvrsfNwve4[/youtube]

Gallery

The alley behind the School where all of the children walk through every day.

The alley behind the School where all of the children walk through every day.

The alley behind the School where all of the children walk through every day.

The alley behind the School where all of the children walk through every day.

Clean up Day. During several occasions children cleaned the trash in the alley.

Clean up Day. During several occasions children cleaned the trash in the alley.

Clean up Day. During several occasions children cleaned the trash in the alley.

Clean up Day. During several occasions children cleaned the trash in the alley.

Homer Simpson Mural to remove graffiti and promote clean streets

Homer Simpson Mural to remove graffiti and promote clean streets

Homer Simpson Mural to remove graffiti and promote clean streets

Homer Simpson Mural to remove graffiti and promote clean streets

Partnered with Beyond Violence to host Creative Expression courses in English

Partnered with Beyond Violence to host Creative Expression courses in English

Students in MENTE Program in Ibagué Colombia. 2013

Students in MENTE Program in Ibagué Colombia. 2013

Armaan Rowther, Fulbright, Jordan: My Father’s Name is…

“My father’s name is _____.”  As I noticed this single sentence hiding beneath a conspicuous strip of white paper loosely taped to the poster, I wondered why it had been so haphazardly effaced from the list of English sentences we were to teach the children that Saturday morning.  As I thoughtlessly began to peel away the tape, I suddenly remembered where I was.  I stopped.  Heavy-hearted, I slowly smoothed the strip of paper back over the sentence.

In Baqa’a, Jordan’s largest Palestinian refugee camp and home to more than 100,000 refugees, the Orphan Welfare Association (OWA) provides additional educational programs to children from the eight crowded United Nations Relief and Works Agency schools, which operate on a double-shift basis six days per week.  Most of the children supported by OWA—through financial assistance, medical treatment, and provision of clothing and other basic necessities—are between six and twelve years old, and all have lost either one or both parents.

Many of my students in the English program that morning hadn’t learned past tense yet; many wouldn’t have known how to say, “My father’s name was…”

Later that day, my wife and I shared a seat on the crowded bus back to Amman from Baqa’a, as we have done each weekend while living and studying Arabic in Jordan.  However, this time, as we squeezed through narrow roads between cramped markets and hastily constructed homes, my mind was not occupied with the view from our window as it usually is; all I could think about that afternoon was my father.  As I reflected, I realized that throughout my life, my father’s example had always been my inspiration, his loving encouragement my strength, and his advice my constant guide.  To this day, rooted in his unconditional affirmation and support is my very sense of identity and self-worth.

These were ideas I had previously neither expressed to my father nor even consciously thought to myself.  Yet, as I was reminded of the circumstances of my students at OWA, I found myself unable to fathom life without him.

When I left the United States over four months ago to begin my Fulbright fellowship year in Jordan, I expected to learn a lot about the world.  For this reason, I was not surprised when I encountered entirely unfamiliar realities living in the Third World, or when I was challenged daily to express my needs in faltering Arabic, or when I was confronted with the different cultural norms and expectations of the Middle East.

What I could not have expected when leaving home—the “transferrable skill” I could never have thought to seek—was how much I would learn about myself, about my blessings and privileges, in innumerable moments like that morning with my students in the Baqa’a refugee camp.  These moments have been the most important of my time in Jordan and are the reason I now feel compelled to seize this opportunity of writing, with humility and gratitude: My father’s name is Mohammed, I love him immensely, and I am who I am today because of him.

With my father, one month before departing the U.S.

With my father, one month before departing the U.S.