Thursday, October 18, 2012

Arriving in the U.S.

Portland, Oregon

I consider myself to be a curious person, but I had never learned the name of Oregon, the state just between Washington and California. I am Lebanese, majoring in Architecture. When my interest grew in sustainable practices in Architecture, I presented my application to the Fulbright Committee in Beirut and a few months later, I officially became a “Fulbrighter”.

So now, Portland, Oregon (a place I had never thought of visiting) is my home—6,813.5 miles*— away from home for the next two years.  (* This is 10,965 km - that’s another difference I need to get used to.)

Columbia, South Carolina

This is yet another place I never imagined I would visit. From September 3-7, 2012, I was one of the many people participating in the Gateway organized by the University of South Carolina. It lasted for four days and was truly an enlightening experience leaving me with friends in every corner of this round blue planet.
September 3rd was the longest day of my life, as I spent 31 hours on my journey to the United States.  Twenty-four of these hours were on the flight to Columbia, South Carolina from Beirut. Thank God for airplanes; it would have taken me longer if i relied on my hiking and swimming skills. I arrived at 10 PM EDT.  It was dark and a little bit cold, but the reception was warm.  Julie (who turned out later to be the miracle worker of the entire event) drove us to the hotel where we spent the next 3 days.
Speed dating is common in the United States.  We don’t want to be the exception for that. In a matter of a few minutes, the 40 of us knew at least half of the attendees, using the “speed meeting” ritual.

Where are we from? I will give you a hint.

Our names were: Basil, Berno, Myo Myint, Marcela, Nenad, Massiel, Natalia, Fayal Abdermane, Eva, Gesa, Martha, Georgios, Stephane, Zoltan, Rakesh, Sylmina, Daniel,Sara, Guisy, Grace, Mohammed, Charles, Melissa, Sumiko, Alexandr, Rubee, Sophie, Mathiew, Sarah, Jenni, Lora, Kyle, Albert Stevan, Mlondi, Kimin, Carlos, Minzu, Jaber, Duygu, Sercan, Caglar, Andrew.
We came from :
 Bahrain, Brasil, Burma, Chile, Croatia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, France, Germany, Greece, Haiti, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Mexico, Moldova, Nepal, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, Tawain, Tunisia, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.
I felt like I had visited the entire world.

The first day, Dr. Alexandra Rowe, Director of English Programs for International students at USC, along with Dr. Michael D. Amiridis did an amazing job welcoming us. Not only that, we had a brief introduction to American history and diversity, starting 200 years ago in the same city we are all visiting. This was for the past.  As for the present, they gave us amazing advice, provided insight into the whole orientation program, and hope for the future. Next came understanding U.S. academic culture, then a session about appropriate interpersonal relationships. Do you think that the day ended that simply?

No! Changing our clothes really fast and bringing along  the ‘country’ spirit (which we did not know we had) we headed to the USC campus. There we enjoyed a group dinner followed by  line dancing lessons with Country Spirit, a community line dancing club, and other members of the Columbia community, including the Columbia Council for Internationals. At the end of the first day I was tired from all the fun we had.

The second day began with discovering our learning style inventory, a very interesting approach to what might seem random, but is actually scientific and accurate: learning behaviors. The following sessions were even more animated, especially when discussing U.S. politics and people, followed by very practical advice concerning our health and wellness for the future months. The closing session discussed our accident and sickness plan as exchange students and researchers.

Later we took a guided visit to the historic South Carolina State House and its gardens and monuments, and to the USC horseshow (every building has a ghost story). Do I need to say more? Even though I come from Lebanon, where 200 years are a small fraction of history, i couldn’t help but admire the history of these buildings constructed over the past 250 years.

The third and last day began with a self reflection and contemplation on how to extend this orientation. We are having fun, we are travelling the world with pictures and stories, and we are making friends. What more does one need? Apparently, we needed to understand U.S. culture to avoid culture shock and to meet Fulbright grantees from various countries studying at University of South Carolina and North Carolina State University. This Thursday happened to be the first Thursday on Main Street:  Art and Community time! The street came to life, starting from the museum of Columbia.

We had dinner for the last time together in the hotel. We heard amazing voices, witnessed amazing coordination from the gospel chorus in USC. Then, climbed to the hotel’s rooftop, where a small party between friends started. The night ended, but our program and new chapters of our lives have just begun.

Grace Aaraj is a Lebanese Fulbrighter pursuing a Master's in Architecture from University of Oregon, Portland.

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