Thursday, October 18, 2012

Around the Table

By the time that our Fulbright students arrive in the United States for their Fulbright program, the staff at AMIDEAST already feels like we know them - at least on paper.  We’ve been the keepers of their graduate application files, read about their aspirations and goals, and have created their immigration records.  We know their parents’ names and what class they didn’t do so well in during their sophomore year of undergrad.  We’ve likely volleyed emails back and forth between time zones for months, finalizing their university placement, helping them connect with their new campus.  However - as is custom in our students’ homelands - it is by sitting, sharing a meal or a cup of coffee, that one truly starts the process of knowing someone.

That is why I was so excited when my colleague Ethan and I were invited to travel to Carlisle, PA for a Gateway program at Dickinson College.   Through this orientation program, we were able to meet six of our students who had just arrived to the States the night before and watch them as they experienced the U.S., many for the first time.  In the two days that we were on campus, we attended great lectures on a variety of topics and volunteered at a vibrant community food bank.  My favorite part of our time at Dickinson though, was the unscheduled moments where we could talk to our students, answer their questions, allay their fears, and learn from them and their stories.

It was in the breakfast hour, when the students debated the merit of each Olympic sport, with their national bias shining through.  It was at lunch, when the students shared the changes in their countries since the Arab Spring while simultaneously coming to terms with their first exposure to a plain, baked potato.  (Ethan and I quickly shared the joy of butter and sour cream).  It was at dinner, when the students discussed their academic interests and professional goals with local community leaders, gaining insight into the way business and community is perceived in the US.

We drove away with an energy and excitement for the adventures our students were just embarking on.  If our two days were any indication of the next two years for these students, they will learn a great deal, and share even more.  For me, it seemed the perfect way to start an exchange program designed to instill mutual understanding between nations.

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