Archive for September, 2014

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.