Matching names with faces. Profile pictures and speech bubbles on a Facebook group chat come alive. Last weekend, I spent four days in the busy capital of the nation, Washington D.C., for the 2018 NSLI-Y Alumni Representative Workshop.
NSLI-Y Alumni Representatives lead the NSLI-Y Alumni Association, and work to bring alumni in their region together through networking and professional development events, as well as conducting outreach efforts to make the NSLI-Y program more well-known. As an Alumni Representative for Virtual Engagement this year, my job is to help realize the goals of the Alumni Association at a virtual level, through webinars and online events that are accessible to the NSLI-Y community. I left for DC with a mixture of excitement and nervousness, and came back with knowledge about my role as an Alumni Representative, new friends from across the nation, and a sizeable collection of NSLI-Y “merch”. 😀
On Friday, I left early for the Austin airport, to catch a flight to Chicago. It was there that I met two other representatives: Emma Potts and THE PAULA ZHANG! 😀 Ever since I’ve come back from Jordan, not a day goes by that I don’t mention “Jordan” in a conversation. My family and friends have long grown tired of this, so it was wonderful to be in an environment where everyone was just as passionate (or obsessed) with study abroad as I was us! Paula told us about her experiences while studying with the Critical Language Scholarship (a government-funded language study program for college students), while Emma, also an avid blogger, gave me some great advice about the Virtual Engagement Representative role, which she had served as last year. (Thank you so much! ❤)
In a typical blog post, I would skip the details of my flight, but it would be a disservice to ignore my crazy flight story! While in the airplane, waiting anxiously for landing, I decided to study some Arabic on Quizlet.
The man next to me, who had been quiet all the while, turned to me and questioned: “Why are you studying Arabic?”
I became tense. With the unfortunate controversy associated with studying Arabic (especially on an airplane), I thought I had run into someone, who, out of ignorance, was afraid of the language. I told him about NSLI-Y and my summer in Jordan, and made sure to mention “SPONSORED BY THE US DEPARTMENT OF STATE”, as to put him at ease.
To my extreme surprise, he responded that he was actually Jordanian!! The odds of sitting next to someone who comes from a country that has a population 34 times less than the United States is quite slim, but it was a pleasant surprise and a good chance to practice my Arabic!
When I landed, my mom called me to check to see if I had arrived safely. I told her about the flight, and mentioned that the person next to me was actually Jordanian! (I did so in Hindi, and said that he was from the “country where I studied”, so that he wouldn’t know I was talking about him.)
Upon ending the phone call, I was surprised when my Jordanian neighbor asked me if I spoke Urdu. I nodded, and he told me that he “used to speak Urdu” as he had lived in Karachi, Pakistan for a year. As a language learner myself, I have always enjoyed eavesdropping on conversations of those speaking Spanish, French, or Arabic; what I didn’t realize is that the same could happen to me!
After arriving at our hotel in DC, we were given the chance to hang out with some of the other Alumni Representatives there, and I also had a full Arabic conversation with Selin, who is serving as the Austin rep this year!
Later, as if one embarrassment was not enough for the day, I found a way to run into another faux-pas. While taking the elevator with five other reps, a friendly man in the elevator asked us where we were going.
I responded with a brief spiel: “We’re heading to a training event for alumni of a State Department funded exchange program.”
The man stared blankly and clarified, “I meant which floor.”
The elevator erupted in laughter as I turned red. Looking back, it was quite hilarious, and a good way to fulfill the goal of “spreading the word about NSLI-Y”.
Stepping inside the American Councils office after six months was like taking a look at the past. It reminded me of Pre Departure Orientation (PDO), where 18 students from across the nation exchanged smiles of excitement, participated in icebreakers, and absorbed information that would equip them for a life-changing experience abroad. Now, sitting at the same table, staring at the same projected board, many things had changed. The 16 others with me were all seasoned study-abroad alumni. We had explored different corners of the world and could hold conversation in different languages. Uniting us was our common love for language study, culture, and our passion for furthering the impact of the NSLI-Y Alumni Association.
On Friday night, we spent time watching presentations by State Department staff while eating Arab food for dinner. The food wasn’t anything close to Jordan, but it felt good to eat falafel, hummus, and pita again. The presenters gave us a lot of information regarding resources we had available to us through the US Department of State, as well opportunities that exchange alumni could pursue.
Saturday was made up of information-packed sessions about what it meant to be an Alumni Representative and how to carry out events. We also attended a session wherein we assessed our leadership style, and spent time working with different reps to plan events and talk about our ideas for the year. NSLI-Y Alumni Representatives are required to put up three events each year, with focuses such as language learning, community service, cultural exchange, career-related opportunities, networking, or outreach. These events can be regional, or, in the case of Virtual Representatives, online. Our sessions were interspersed with fun NSLI-Y trivia questions and games with which winners were able to claim a prize from the NSLI-Y merch table! I answered the first trivia question correctly, so I was able to pick out the first prize. As I said earlier, we reps were united by our common passion for NSLI-Y, meaning that the trivia and games were extremely competitive! 😀
In the evening, we all went out to Bangkok Joe’s, a very nice Thai restaurant in Georgetown, and later walked around to see the light festival in the city. Granted, the lights were beautiful, but most of us were freezing (especially us Southerners), so some of us went to a cupcake place called Georgetown Cupcake.
Sunday morning was bittersweet as we ended the workshop with a public speaking session, and then said our goodbyes to most of the other representatives, who were departing before lunch. Although six of us were staying in Washington through Monday to present about our NSLI-Y experience, the other 11 reps were all leaving in the afternoon.
Our late afternoon sessions consisted of intensive practice for our State Department presentations, followed by a visit to the Smithsonian Art Museum. Personally, I can’t honestly say that I’m a fan of museums or art, but I had fun hanging out with Nicole and getting insight into what it meant to be a Harvard student. That’s actually the best thing about being part of the NSLI-Y community; you are surrounded by incredibly accomplished students, which means that you have a lot of people to look up to and so many mentors who are ready to help!
Monday was absolutely packed. In the morning, we headed to the Department of State for our presentations. As we entered the building, I noticed portraits of the President, Vice President, and the Secretary of State. I noted with a twinge of sadness that just last year, there would have been different pictures on the wall. As we filed into the conference room, I was a little worried about presenting, but the staff was very friendly, which definitely put me at ease. Personally, I loved watching everyone else’s presentations; we had representation from Arabic, Chinese, Korean, and Russian, so it was great to hear about the diverse programs.
After the presentations, not a moment was wasted as we met our American Councils staff member to head to Congress. It was my first time at Capitol Hill, and it was interesting to see the how the offices of the Senators were laid out. As I learnt, offices are larger and nicer depending on how high the Senator is on the “totem pole”. Senator Cornyn’s spacious suite, with several rooms within it, definitely displayed his place in the hierarchy. While Josh and I were initially nervous to speak to a staffer who, as we had assumed, would not be as receptive to study abroad (or in my case, the Middle East), the meeting went very well, and, to our surprise, the Legislative Assistant seemed very open to the program.
For our final activity of the day, we came back to American Councils to present to the volunteer application evaluators. It was quite exciting to see the “behind the scenes”, as the evaluators graded applications from YES, FLEX, and other study abroad programs. Towards the end, the evaluators asked questions about our presentations. I was caught somewhat off-guard when someone asked me about why my host family was ethnically Palestinian (something I mentioned in my presentation) and if we ever had any political conversations. I explained to her why most Jordanians are ethnically Palestinian, and I was given a chance to talk about some of the very positive cross-cultural conversations I had with my host family. While at American Councils, I also got to see Anna, one of the staff members who had worked on the implementation of my NSLI-Y program in Jordan. I had met her during my Pre Departure Orientation, so it was wonderful to connect with her again!
We spent our final moments in D.C. doing what every tourist does: we went to the White House. Interestingly, I recognized one of the protesters from my Pre Departure Orientation months ago. He has a shack furnished with protest signs, so I think he lives there.
Looking back, the four days spent at DC felt like a blur. It seems as if only minutes passed between my takeoff from the Austin airport to my arrival back home. As I reflect on the alumni workshop, I am excited to say that it is the starting point of my year-long term as a NSLI-Y Alumni Representative. I had an amazing experience abroad in Jordan, and a weekend in Washington equipped me with the resources, knowledge, and skills to do my job to serve the NSLI-Y community and make this scholarship more accessible to others. As I move on with the year, there are many ideas that I have for my virtual events, and I am looking forward to a great year! 🙂