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Felipe Hernandez: Marshall Scholarship Winner, Blog #3

A World-Wide Community

I never thought I would be here today. As the first to attend college in my family, the hurdles seemed endless. After graduating from UCI, the road was full of endless possibilities but also uncertainties.

During the Marshall Scholarship orientation process, I kept my experiences at UCI close to heart. I remembered how nervous I was when I first arrived to UCI but also how amazing it felt when I graduated. I knew that these next two years would be similar. In two years, I would become the first person in my family, including extended family, to obtain a master’s degree.

I’ll be honest, I was seriously considering deferring or forgoing the Marshall. I had just finished my year as a Senate Fellow in California and I was not too sure about how I would do in the UK. I did not think I would be able to do well. Honestly, I felt like I would not belong. These were some of the same feelings I felt when I first came to UCI. Over the years, I’ve learned that the reasons for these feelings and thoughts are complex but common among first-generation students like myself. However, I kept on looking for excuses to not accept the Marshall. I would be thousands of miles away from my family once again and they relied on me for help. While they still struggled with accessing basic services and navigating the US as immigrants, I would be away traveling and attending school. I couldn’t help but feel guilty.

I even contacted the Marshall Scholarship Commission and asked them about deferment possibilities. I reached out to everyone I knew but no one affirmed my self-doubt. Instead, my friends and mentors all endorsed the decision to accept the Marshall. They all reinforced the idea that these next two years would be an incredibly rare opportunity to learn, travel, and grow. It is because of this community of mentors, friends, and family that I decided to stay with the Marshall. Like at UCI, a community of support is what would help me get through these next two years.

At orientation, I was nervous. It did not take long for the conversations to quickly become academic with a slight tinge of competitiveness. Immediately, I felt like I did not know nearly as much as the other scholars and the feelings of insecurity crept in. However, I soon found out that the other Marshalls were just as nervous as I was but everyone coped with their nerves in a different way. I was silent; others talked endlessly. After we all realized that everyone was just as nervous and excited, everyone let their guard down and started talking like old friends. Though our narratives were different, we all had a similar vision: to take these next two years to figure out how to make a positive impact in the world within our respective fields. At the end of the orientation process our community spirit blossomed and we were in this together.

When we arrived in London to complete our orientation the feeling was surreal. It then finally hit me that I would be in the UK for next two years of my life. Aside from leaving sunny California for the cold and gloomy UK weather, I constantly kept asking myself if I had made the right decision. I was preoccupied with thoughts of my family. Again, I couldn’t help but feel guilty that I had this incredible opportunity while they were still struggling to deal with various problems most immigrant families face. They were the reason why I went to UCI, to help them deal with these problems. My family was also a part of this Marshall journey and would also be making an emotional sacrifice. Though they did not understand the significance of the scholarship, they did understand that these next two years would be difficult for all of us. These are feelings that I am still dealing with today even as I write this blog.

When I arrived to Bristol the energy of the city was amazing. We were welcomed with great esteem and community. Once I started my course, life started coming together. My classmates were from all over the world, had inspiring stories to tell, and were incredibly thankful for being here. I was too. They were also nervous being away from home (some for the first time in their lives). Another community was formed. The best part of experience has been befriending these folks and learning from their experiences.

At the same time, the program is amazing! I am deeply engaging with issues of social justice, empowerment, and activism in education for students from marginalized backgrounds within the context of my previous work in Irvine, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Colombia. The opportunity to focus entirely on something that you love is rare and well worth the sacrifices. As I reached out to the Bristol student community, I came across amazing people. I’ve joined various societies including the expedition society which ventures out for weekend trips around the UK national parks. Being outdoors free from daily distractions and tasked with climbing/hiking mountains brings people together. We all share our stories as we hike and form a community of outdoor explorers who climb regardless of the rain and freezing cold weather (especially for a Californian).

I also happened to come into Bristol as the Mayoral elections for the city ramped up. I immediately reached out and I am now working on the Mayor’s reelection campaign. This has given me a unique perspective into the politics and government of the UK and Bristol. This is a great opportunity to make a meaningful impact, especially since the campaign team is only made up of four people (tiny in comparison to the US). I have also met incredible people in the community and I am learning a lot about the lives of Bristolians. I have drawn many parallels to my family’s and community’s experience in Los Angeles. As I’ve learned before from traveling, human beings are the same in the sense that one of their main priorities is providing the best for their families, themselves, and their community. Bristol’s diverse community has reinforced this. My conversations with Bristolians from wealthier areas to low-income neighborhoods have reaffirmed this perspective. For me, getting involved in politics in Bristol has been an unexpectedly life-changing experience.

Another exceptional and amazing opportunity has been traveling around (pretty cheaply) and meeting people from different regions of the world. As one travels, the world becomes your community and those in it become like family. Soon one cares for those communities as one’s own and for those in it as if they were family.

Community is what keeps me going. From my time in Colombia as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to working in Sacramento as a CA Senate Fellow to pursing two master’s degrees in the UK, none of this would have been possible without a strong and diverse community supporting in Los Angeles, UC Irvine, and around the world. Though I greatly miss my family, tacos in LA, and the beautiful sunny weather, I constantly count my blessings to be here.

My message to my fellow anteaters, particularly if you’re a first-generation student, is: accomplishing your goals will be difficult emotionally and physically, sometimes seemingly impossible, but always keep at heart your community for that will be your driving force. Also, whether you think you have your life figured out or have no clue what comes next, embrace every possible experience that comes your way in a positive light.

 

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Marshall Scholars Family Thanksgiving dinner.

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Felipe’s adventure in Morocco.

 

 

 

Christopher Galeano: Capital Fellows Program Winner, Blog #1: Motivations and Expectations

My motivations and application process

At the root of my motivation to apply for the Capital Fellows Program as a Senate Fellow was my research and community organizing experiences while at UCI. As I came to see it, researchers made policy recommendations for lawmakers and community organizers pushed policymakers to pass legislation. It was clear that an in-depth understanding of policy was pertinent to further advocate for policies that helped communities I had worked with throughout these experiences – including low income, migrant and working class people.

What further enticed me to apply was that the California State Legislature is one of the most progressive legislative bodies in the U.S. In many ways it is the most responsive to its communities’ needs in comparison to other state legislatures.

Upon deciding to apply for the Capital Fellows Program I knew that I could not do it alone. I reached out to prior and current program participants to ask them about their experiences and advice. I spoke with Senate Fellows who were alumni from UCI, Assembly Fellows whom I met in other fellowship programs, and even “cold” emailed Judicial Fellows who participated in the program more than five years ago.

In addition to asking prior and current fellows for feedback on my application, I asked the UCI Scholarship Opportunities Program (SOP), professors, mentors and peers to review my essays before submitting my application. When I found out I had made it past the second round of selection, I asked SOP and others if they would conduct mock interviews for me to help me prepare and give critical feedback for the real in-person interviews. As a result of this preparation, I was offered a spot as a 2015-2016 Senate Fellow – I was elated.

In this position I would either work as a Legislative Aide in a State Senator’s office or as a Consultant in a Senate Committee for the 2016 legislative session. After much consideration I accepted the offer. In terms of impact and reach, I saw that each Senator represents the most people per district compared to other state legislatures and can establish more meaningful connections with communities given their four-year terms. Accepting this position would also give me privilege to practical and institutional knowledge of how and why policy goes from just an idea to an actual law.

Reflecting on the first months, my privilege and community

A year passed since my initial application submission. Now, and after the intense, six-week long orientation, I find myself placed in a State Senator’s office as a Legislative Aide. While I am relatively new to the Capitol, I have thought much on my experience so far as a Senate Fellow. I have struggled and reflected on my community, the privilege of this experience, and the next nine months here in the Capitol.

 The first couple of months in Sacramento were challenging for me as someone from a low income, working class family. Indeed, it was financially challenging getting money together for a deposit, rent and food in order to move up here – thankfully with the support of my family I made it happen.

Furthermore, I carry with me, wherever I go and in whatever I do, my family and community experiences. Arriving as a Latino used to seeing people of color around them, I was not sure what to expect working in the Capitol – would there be people who looked like my community in around and the building? Fortunately, just as Sacramento has a reputation for racial/ethnic diversity, there too is visible diversity in the Capitol building.

Fortunately, through the program’s racial/ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, I have met people from all over California. Since the start of the program I have met people of color within the program, Capitol staffers, and state legislators. In many instances these individuals, especially the Capitol staffers, have been willing to share their experiences with me and offer mentorship. Surprisingly, I do not feel alone like I thought I was at the beginning of the program.

Outlook in the Capitol

I am cognizant of the privilege that comes with participating in the program as a Senate Fellow. More specifically, the program is consistently voted a top ten internship program in the nation, with almost 500 applicants and only 18 winners each year. Furthermore, I am one of only two Senate Fellows selected from Southern California this year. Since the start of the program I consistently reflect on this. I constantly think back to those in my community who are not afforded access to these kinds of programs because of numerous social, economic and educational barriers – and it humbles and keeps me grounded as I walk and work in the Capitol halls.

This month the state legislature will begin the second session of the 2015-2016 legislative year. Despite only being the beginning for me as a Senate Fellow/staffer in Sacramento, I feel I have grown from this experience. I have developed an appreciation for critical issues to California, such as health, criminal justice, and agriculture; learned about the political and legislative process with some practical experience already under my belt; and am placed with a highly respected legislator and staff. Reflecting on this experience so far, I am confident that I made the right choice in applying to and accepting this position as a Senate Fellow. I know that at the end of this experience I will not only have developed professionally, but will have personally grown tremendously.

Quick words of advice to potential applicants: Apply to all four fellowships within the program – logically, you increase your chances of getting into the program. Stay in CONSTANT contact with the individuals you ask to write your letters of recommendation – ask them two months prior to the deadline if they can write the letter, check in again one month prior to the deadline, and again two weeks before the deadline. Make it easier for them to write your letters by emailing them your (1) personal statement (as best a draft you can get to them and email them any updated version in a timely manner); (2) resume; (3) transcript; and (4) setting up a meeting/call to discuss qualifications/why you want to apply to the program. Remind them that they will need to write different letters of recommendation for each fellowship. Lastly, if you are accepted into the program, SAVE money ahead of time for the first three months of the program; they will be financially challenging, especially if you are considered a low-income student.

 

Felipe Hernandez: Marshall Scholarship Winner, Blog #2

Editor’s Note: After winning the Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to Colombia, Felipe returned to the US, filming a documentary with Road Trip Nation over the summer and then became a California Senate Fellow in Sacramento. In fall 2015, he traveled to the United Kingdom to begin graduate school as a Marshall Scholar.

The California Capital Fellows Experience

I am a Senate Fellow for Senator Richard Pan who represents the greater Sacramento area. I staff Dr. Pan on the Senate Education Committee because he is a voting member of the committee. I also staff issues in Banking & Financial Institutions and Transportation & Housing. In addition, I manage six bills for Senator Pan. This means that I am responsible for ensuring that these six bills successfully make it through the legislative process. I am responsible for helping craft the language in the bill, engaging stakeholders throughout the process, managing all support and opposition on the bill, and working to gather support from other legislators on the bill. This is a unique experience because we, Fellows, are in the belly of the beast in Sacramento. This has been formative for my career in public service and has also clarified my perspective on how government can facilitate or stagnate progress for Californians. At the same time, it has demonstrated the value in engaging a broad network of stakeholders for the sake of ensuring a comprehensive policy solution to a complex social problem. I have also learned what leadership can look like in the face of adversity and strong opposition. This experience has also reinforced my passion for public service and broadened my understanding of how all sectors of our society can work in concert to solve various policy challenges. As a fellow, I am able to observe and be a part of the unique public policy process in California under the mentorship of senior staffers who step out of their way to help you. The mentorship is the most enriching aspects of the fellowship because the culture in “the building” is to help fellows grow, learn from their mistakes, and help propel us to be effective public servants in government or in our communities.

This knowledge and experience will play a vital role in my studies at the University of Bristol and Oxford because I will contribute a unique understanding of California public policy to the classroom. California is the 7th largest economy in the world and home to more people than some countries. My understanding of social policy at this macro-level will compliment my learning of social policy in the international context.

While in Sacramento, I also serve on the Student Development Council for United Latinos, which focuses on increasing opportunities in key areas such as STEM, policy, business, education, and health for K-16 students from underrepresented regions in Sacramento. I also teach, and helped develop, the “Know Your History Institute”, a history course on the plight of African and Latino people in America, for Improve Your Tomorrow, a Sacramento based non-profit that provides mentorship, tutoring, and support for high school boys of color who are at risk of dropping out. I also serve as the Internship Coordinator for the Improve Your Tomorrow Capitol Internship Program which places ten junior and senior boys of color in legislative offices to serve as interns and provides the interns with educational seminars, brown bags, and career exploration trips meant to develop foundational communication, analytical, and professional skills. Finally, I am also founder and Vice President of the California Renters Caucus with the California Young Democrats, an organization that focuses on increasing the availability of median and affordable housing through policy and community initiatives.

Filming Road Trip Nation: First Generation

During the first couple months of my Fulbright, I started to plan for the upcoming year because I knew that the year in Colombia would go by very fast. So I started to research opportunities in California and opportunities abroad. I ended up finding two great opportunities that I knew I wanted to participate in. One of these opportunities was with Road Trip Nation, a California-based production company that provides the opportunity for young people to travel across the US in an RV interviewing leaders under a common theme. In particular the “First-Generation Road Trip” caught my attention because it reflected who I was, a first-generation college graduate out in the real world trying to figure it out. I and three other first generation students from other states were selected to travel across the USA to film a documentary of interviews with inspirational first-generation American leaders, like US Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan, Chairman and CEO of Starbucks Howard Schultz, and singer-songwriter and actor John Legend. In total we drove a total of 3,851 miles from Los Angeles to New York City and interviewed a total of 19 leaders. This was an amazing opportunity to ask leaders, who were also the first in their families to attend college, questions that we always wanted to ask. We also had to drive a 35 foot RV from Los Angeles to New York with only a day of training, and we had to live in the RV for five weeks with five other people (including the director and videographer). This was one of the most challenging things I ever had to do because I had to live with five other people in a cramped RV but also because the trip required a lot of soul searching and required us to ask a lot of difficult questions of ourselves. Throughout the road trip, I grew close to the other road trippers, and we became like family. Also we received important and powerful advice from other leaders across the country like Alejandra Ceja, the Executive Director of the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for Hispanics. Alejandra said that we must “Dare to dream,” that we must dare to be bold to pursue our true passions and live in service of others. Throughout the trip we received valuable mentorship that helped clarify our vision and provided us with the motivation to take the next step in our lives, which for me was pursuing the Marshall Scholarship.

The special aired on PBS in spring 2015 and can be viewed for free here: http://whynotusfilm.com/.

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Felipe Hernandez answers student questions at the screening of the Road Trip Nation documentary Why Not Us? on April 14, 2015

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.

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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