|My roommate, a PhD in chemical engineering from Barbados|
As an alumna of a State Department international exchange program, I was invited to help out with an enrichment seminar for incoming foreign Fulbright fellows from around the world. When I found out that I was chosen to be one of the volunteers I was ecstatic, not just because of a free trip to Washington D.C. but also because of the chance to see up close how the Institute of International Education works and spend a week with 140 students from 73 different countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Siberia (Russia), Azerbaijan, Ghana and Yemen - so cool!
I was one of six volunteers and we arrived last Tuesday, a day before the seminar, to get set up. Our hotel was right down town in Metro Center, a mere four blocks from the White House and right in the middle of all the action pertaining to the Cherry Blossom Festival. The week was jam-packed, intense, fun, stressful, and very social. I learned a lot about different people and places along with how the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) and the Institute of International Education (IIE) works. I also learned that along with being an entirely new world, in order to survive in D.C., one had to be able to keep up with the alphabet soup jargon of omnipresent acronyms - it got a little out of hand.
Some of the highlights:
-A private tour of the Capitol and individual meetings with our state members of congress to talk about maintaining funding for international exchange programs.
-Leading a group of 25 students to dinner at a Thai place in the city on my own.
-Community service on Saturday morning for the Potomac Watershed Cleanup project.
-Site visits to "Green" projects in urban environments such as Community Forklift and and Eco City farms CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).
-Meeting various representatives of the State Department including Assistant Secretary of State Evan Ryan (a woman!) who recently announced the opening of a new branch of ECA to cover study abroad (exciting! hello, dream job).
-D.C. nightlife (so that's what Dupont Circle is).
-Moderating a group session of 25 students during a mock debate concerning waste management problems in Mexico City.
-Lots of creative, ethnic and fancy food along with the chance to have dinnertime conversation with people from all over the world.
Some of the challenges:
-Cultural and communication differences X 73 countries.
-One of my duties was to call rooms/cell phones of students who did not show up on time. Yep, I was on the phone A LOT. (This job was a bit ironic seeing as I was the only person out of about 160 who did not have a smart phone which would have made this job a lot easier in many ways one of which being not having to erase messages or call information due to consistent lack of memory).
-Constant small, seemingly meaningless decisions and tasks such as gift placement on table settings, any table setting or centerpiece in general, stuffing folders and making name tags, getting people to sign photo waivers etc.
-Being one of the people to herd participants back into a session after a too short coffee break. Lots of dirty looks and stink eyes were directed my way.
-Having to get up really early and stay up really late working behind the scenes on details that would never be noticed by participants as everything went smoothly.
-Having to be well-dressed with actual hair done and makeup on. Being fashion forward is not one of my fortes and I struggled with this one a lot. Also, no messy buns or pony tails during this week which was rougher than it should have been.
In sum, it was a fun albeit challenging week in which I learned a lot and made a lot of new friends. Also, Evan Ryan, or anyone from ECA or IIE, I want your job. That is all.
(Photo credits all belong to seminar participants and were found shared on Facebook #fulbright)