By Kibnesh C. Fulas
Welcome to ‘Aridzona’
I don’t predict the future, but often times I know what my next year will look like. It will be pretty much the same as the previous one. However, that changed last year, when I heard the news from US embassy in Addis that I am accepted for the Humphrey Fellowship.
The news brought mixed feeling for my families and friends who were caught up with the idea of separation for 10 months. I traveled overseas a few times before but I hadn’t been far away from home for that long. As a full time employee of NGO in Ethiopia I spend most of time working extra hours and going to field trips every now and then. So I could not help being elated by the anticipation of a long break to reflect, freshen up my skills, meet old and new friends, see places and get ready to move forward towards my dream.
I started to receive briefing packages and long emails from Institute of International Education (IIE), which manages the Humphrey Program and from Cronkite School to help me prepared for the program and life in Arizona. But nothing would prepare me for the baking sun of Phoenix, when I arrived on first week of August 2012. I felt like I was pushed into a big oven, and began to feel the thickness of the thin top and jeans I was wearing. It was over 110 ͦ F and I could not even comprehend the figure until I did the conversion 42 ͦ C; that is the highest I had ever experienced in my life.
People would often comment however that I must have found the weather easy to cope as am from Africa. But Addis Ababa, my city has over 7,631ft (2,326 m) altitude with average temperature of 24 ͦ C. Of course we have warm climate regions but, Ethiopia as in the rest of African Countries, has diverse climate condition and vegetation.
I guess I adjusted pretty quickly in Phoenix mainly because of my new Humphrey family, eight young, dynamic, fun and interesting fellows from all over the world and our American hosts. We learn a lot about each other’s personality as well as country through our discussions in classes and in many of our impromptu gatherings around our pool.
The program offers different opportunities for us to grow and learn. But, I found lessons from my fellows invaluable. Thanks to them I am now able to replace each of their country’s map with faces and feel much closer. Each of us has been ambassadors of our countries and has been challenging stereotypes. Living close by strengthened our ties and enabled us to understand each others true color. My Humphrey fellowship would not have been complete if it were not for the support I got from my fellows.
‘The mountains are calling…’
The Humphrey Fellowship has four pillars, course work, community service, professional development and professional affiliation. Leadership appears to be at the heart of the program as the Fellowship aimed at fostering leadership skills.
Our theme for this year has been “The Mountains are calling, I must go”. Every now and then the theme was making me think of new and old mountains that I need to climb not just in the fellowship year but also in the coming years as well. We draw the leadership lessons from the speakers we listened, the books that we read and mainly from each other.
We would not pass by a mountain without jokingly making reference to ‘the mountains are calling…’, and I think I will be smiling a lot when I go back to my mountainous country.
Ten years in ten months
I found the fellowship even more exciting than I had thought in terms of traveling and participation in professional conferences. I managed to achieve beyond the goal that I set to myself. Looking at the places that I have been to and the conferences that I attended, my friends have been telling me I was able to fit possibly 10 years of travel experience with in just ten months.
I got the opportunity listen to many renowned journalists and public relations practitioners, executives, entrepreneurs including the co founders of twitter and Pandora, President Jimmy carter, civil right and human right activists. I felt privileged to have visited various states and see successful corporations and non profits operations first hand. I will not do justice to my experience if I begin to describe the lessons that I got from each event. In a nutshell, I can say such interactions have reinforced some of my beliefs and opinions and help me grow personally and professionally.
Roll over your mouse to see where we traveled
I enjoyed my Humphrey year because we got to see and do different stuff. Some of my observations strike me enough to share them with you.
I feel fortunate that my year in the U.S. coincided with the U.S presidential election. Following the presidential campaign from close proximity allows me to see the different sides of American politics and it opened up my eyes to see the animosity between two parties. Even with it’s flaws, the political structure is something that I hoped for my country.
I guess I never gave due attention to the power of networking until I came here. It is one of the first lessons we picked from the beginning and I saw it working in practice. It kind of reminds me of the saying “It is not what you know, but who you know”, but it is different. When you are in a situation that you are among thousands, who seek attention, I guess it helps immensely to have someone pointing to your direction.Like many foreigners, I was first introduced to the U.S. by Hollywood and the media. They are so busy showing us the power of America that I think they failed to direct attention to the beauty of this country. I went to see Hollywood, but I was blown away by the scenic landscape along the coast in California than I was by Hollywood. I must mention the magical places in Arizona, Grand Canyon and Monument valley. I have never seen anything magnificent like these places, which give one almost spiritual experience. Actually the main appeal of Phoenix to me is its proximity to Grand Canyon more than anything.
Yes there is freedom of speech in U.S. but I think the media are not so free. As in the case of the politics, businesses have heavy hand on U.S. media. Even though this is something, which is widely known as a pitfall of private media, I didn’t feel the impact until I witness it from the inside. If it is good for the business, anything can be news. I found similarity with the heavily government controlled media back home in the way they manipulate the audience with their own agenda. In both cases audience has to make its own careful selection of media to get balanced news diet.
One of the issues that the media has been covering in the past months is gun control. It is probably the second to the presidential debates that I paid due attention. I didn’t find it a surprise to see people’s interest to hold on to their right to bear arms. But, I have been keen on understanding the reasoning behind and, I was astounded to hear pro gun right people arguing they need to protect themselves from government. In a country that considered itself as a beckon of democracy, I never thought there exist people who think that their government may turn tyrannical at some point and if that happens they will tackle that with their guns. I am still trying to understand.
Looking a head
As exciting as it is to meet new friends and create new connections, it is indescribable to enjoy the company of old ones. I saw friends and families that I haven’t seen in a while, some even after more than 10 years. But those years seem to melt down immediately once we meet and started talking. Most importantly I learned that in the face of everything new one need some kind of familiarity, which is part of who I am. The St Mary’s Ethiopian Orthodox church in Phoenix has been source of my comfort bringing in that familiarity, which I found very helpful especially in the first few weeks.
People often would ask if the Humphrey experience changed me. My Answer is No! I didn’t come to the U.S to change, I came to grow, build on the experience and knowledge that I brought from home. And the program created opportunities for to do so. Most importantly, it has given me time to reflect and direct my focus towards my passion.
I feel like I have already achieved my goals event if I am left with two months of exciting professional affiliation/internship at the east coast before I go home. As Cronkite Humphrey Fellows we also created a vision ourselves, which goes beyond the ten months. We will continue with our conversation as this year is just the beginning.
click here for review of our year