Overwhelming, life-altering and extraordinary – these are the words that best describe my whirlwind experience as the sole Global Undergraduate Exchange Program Scholarship awardee sent by the Philippines’ Fulbright Commission to the United States last fall semester.
The Global UGrad Award is a fully-funded scholarship sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and administered by World Learning, Inc. A total of 251 scholars from more than 50 nations were given this scholarship and ranked internationally out of thousands of applicants all over the world for the academic year 2016 to 2017.
In many ways, it was truly a humbling and surreal experience to have the honor to be one of the scholars this year, to learn from my peers’ experiences and insights as we represented our home universities and countries and to be chosen as one of the three student speakers in the annual reception launched by the U.S. Department of State. In sum, what the Global UGrad program does is enable undergraduates to see the world as others see it and allow for the possibility that there are things one cannot see with absolute clarity using only his or her own cultural lens. Together, the UGrads and I studied in our respective U.S. university placements, volunteered in the community, attended trainings and workshops on social entrepreneurship, conflict resolution, personal branding, and so on in Washington D.C. and, prior to going home, we had reverse culture shock briefings and exercises so we can deal with the emotional challenges of homecoming and also to enable us to share with the people what we have experienced and absorbed while in the U.S. If I were to summarize all that I have learned during my New York stint, I would like to think that there are three lessons I have learned during my exchange.
First, I learned that the essence of international exchange is empathy – one that can be found at the heart of intercultural education, which is meant to break barriers and bridge cultural gaps through the provision of common experience to people to eradicate what Senator James Fulbright once described as the culturally rooted mistrust that sets nations apart and robs countries of the opportunity to have strong and beneficial international relationships. This lesson I have learned and constantly proven to be true all throughout the semester when I found friends in Americans and international students, joined organizations such as Utica College’s Tangerine Newspaper, Model U.N., TedX and the like, signed up for a host family, bonded with children with and without learning disabilities when I did a fieldwork as a preservice teacher at New York Mills Elementary, became the secretary of my university’s International Students Club with over 60 members from different nations, attended classes where varying perspectives from international students were greatly appreciated by professors and worked as a marketing intern at United Way.
Next, I learned that the world is young but it has an old cast of mind. After living in a country that serves as a massive cultural hub where so many cultures and nationalities merge into one community, I learned that the world is still young in the sense that so much could still happen. There are so many possibilities on how it can be improved, how countries can develop their ways and resources and how educational systems can work toward international collaboration. However, its old mentality comprised of a few blocks such as generalizations, stereotypes, and battle for superiority seems to keep the world’s potential at bay but, still, what it could be will always be within its reach, and I realized at one point in my exchange that this progress can be made possible by what the UP community has taught me in the past years and that is communication, motivated by the desire to serve. This is because there is a great need for an effective international dialogue among nations at present so countries will not just be viewed merely as separate territories but as peoples.
Lastly, my exchange has taught me that I am more efficient than I give myself credit for – something I needed to realize as a senior student. I was given opportunities during my exchange that helped me boost my confidence to aim high and set greater goals for the next chapter of my life because I can and, apparently, I always could. More importantly, I learned in my travels that wherever I go and whoever surrounds me, I will always be myself and it is my nationality that serves as the constant factor in my journey outside my comfort zone. Being Filipino, in countless ways, gave me comfort, identity and excitement in a foreign environment that I now consider my second home.