“What lies behinds us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” This quotation echoed in my mind in May 2014 when I finished my Master of Engineering Management from Duke University as a Fulbright scholar and headed to start my one-year academic training at a pharmaceutical company in New Jersey. I knew that the memories, experiences, and influences of this year would be different from the mysterious future. However, I thought that as long as I had my “lighthouse principles,” a concept that was discussed in a management class based on a reading by Stephen Covey, I would be fine.
The story started years ago when I dreamed as a child of receiving a scholarship and studying abroad. I did not know about Fulbright then. All I knew was that my father received a scholarship and studied in the U.S. back in the sixties, and that was my role model story. I promised myself that I would do the same. Now, as I look back, I think it is the “sincere will” of a young child mixed with hard work that made this dream come true.
It was a cold and rainy day when I attended a career fair held back in Jordan for students interested in studying in the U.S.. I asked at an AMIDEAST booth about the steps needed to start my applications for applying to U.S. universities. The staff advised me to attend a session held every week to answer questions of students like me. I attended that session, and at the end of it, I heard for the first time about the Fulbright scholarship. While it looked so far away from me then, I realized that life offered me information at the right time. It took me two and a half years after that session to prepare, apply, and receive the scholarship and to finally join Duke University in August 2013.
One of the most exciting parts of my Fulbright experience was the seminars that I participated in throughout my studies with other Fulbright students, sometimes from sixty countries around the world. The first of these seminars was my Fulbright Gateway Orientation at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. During that seminar, I became more aware of the privilege of being a Fulbrighter: you become part of a network of hundreds of thousands of students, each one having their own story and their own dream. You are not alone and a lot is expected from you. I also learned about the academic culture, American history, and, most importantly, I learned about myself through some character tests. The second seminar was during my winter break, an enrichment seminar in New Orleans, Louisiana. The theme of the seminar was climate change. We heard live jazz, ate delicious desserts, and discovered the rich culture of New Orleans. At the end of my experience, I went to Washington D.C. for the departure seminar to wrap-up my experience. The last seminar was dedicated to helping us continue our journeys successfully when we reach our countries.
In two of these seminars, I asked myself what the Fulbright team would schedule for this fine mix of students. The answer was not only lectures, but also community service and interacting with the community. In my gateway seminar in Pennsylvania, we worked at the warehouse of project SHARE, a food distribution effort for needy families founded by a lady who believes in sharing love with people who are in need and lonely. In the enrichment seminar in New Orleans, we worked with the St. Bernard project on rebuilding houses struck by Hurricane Katrina. After our team finished our building tasks, we saw appreciation and positivity in the eyes of the neighborhood locals. Deep inside through both experiences, I felt satisfied, as I was part of a slight encouragement to the society who is supporting my education. These two experiences, although short in time, inspired me to use my time not only to work hard for my own goals, but also to slow down and search for someone who is in need of help, without asking for anything in return. Return happens eventually, especially when we grow as a result of experiences. Being part of the Middle East region, I look forward to the value that I will bring home when I return.
My Master of Engineering Management cohort at Duke University was a mix of over 120 students from all over the world. One of the highlights of the program was the weekly seminar in which a student presented his/her country and then shared his/her home country’s food with the students. I felt honored to dress in “Al- Toab” and talk about Jordan’s history, culture, people and attractions. I shared some kebab, hummus, and tabbouleh. In the program, students were always looking forward to learning from each other about global issues and to ask a myriad of questions without feeling judged or afraid. We carved pumpkins for Halloween, danced like we were in Bollywood at the Spring Formal, celebrated the Holi festival, danced Salsa, and tasted food cooked by students from all over the world.
Being a Blue Devil, Duke University’s mascot, I enjoyed being part of the school’s spirit and cheering for my university’s basketball team: “let’s go Duke” in Cameron stadium. We would dress in “the correct shade of blue,” head to the stadium, and then wait in the walk-in line of graduate students. Sometimes we would head back home without getting in because the game was sold out. It was a lot of fun.
During my studies at Duke, I attended Catholic mass on Sundays and Friday prayers at the Duke Chapel, the same place! As part of that environment, I talked with Christian friends about Easter, received a Bible as a gift, and also taught my Christian friends prayer and concepts in Islam. Sometimes I would talk with my Pakistani and Turkish friends about their efforts to learn Arabic in order to understand Islam, which left me thinking about how they are trying to learn what’s natural to me.
After residing in the U.S., I know that it is not filing taxes, getting my driver’s license, or speaking English that makes you feel part of the society. It is, however, small details that enter your life subconsciously. Saying “awesome” every second, gaining weight and then realizing that you should eat healthy, getting lost and trusting that your GPS will get you back home, trying Mexican food, celebrating Halloween and Thanksgiving, talking with different people, shopping on Black Friday, and trusting a new person to cut your hair. Most importantly, I learned from Americans that I am never too old to work hard and that I should always work to create opportunities.
Last but not least, I feel honored and blessed to be a Fulbrighter. It was a dream come true and a chance that changed my life. There is nothing better than working hard on what we want, and then trusting that life will lead us to where we can make an influence. Giving back is the harvest of my Fulbright. May we never lose our passion for our dreams, confidence in our abilities and empathy to our global world.
Amal Said is a Jordanian Fulbright alum who graduated from Duke University with a Master’s in Engineering Management.