Finding that Thing

Fulbright and the Chicago Skyline

It seems like everyone’s searching for something that makes life worthwhile. I think we all share the common things—friends, family etc—but there’s always the extra thing that’s unique to each person that makes you feel like you’re really contributing to something bigger and more exciting than yourself. In my college essay, I wrote about my “thing” being fashion, but really at the deeper level, I was writing about culture and how different fashions exhibit different expressions of both individual and societal cultures. Fast forward, 6 years and at the root, my interest has not changed, but rather evolved to look at cultural comparison in the context of social issues—mainly in education.

Downtown Chicago from Above
Downtown Chicago from Above

This is why I was super excited to find out that a few weeks ago I was selected to volunteer at a Fulbright Enrichment Seminar for the foreign Fulbright scholars studying in the United States that was focusing on “Youth Engagement and Empowerment.” Yes, I was in heaven. Thank you to the U.S. State Department for allowing me to spend a weekend in Chicago surrounded by 139 international scholars from 68 different countries, discussing and gaining exposure to different solutions to global issues that center around education.

The Chicago River
The Chicago River

I was attending the conference as one of six Fulbright alumni volunteers and even within our little mini-group, we had had very diverse Fulbright experiences. Four of us had been English teachers in the Czech Republic, Colombia, South Korea and Croatia, while the other two had done research in Togo and Norway. Our conversations alone and comparisons between experiences were fascinating! Add to that the 5 Institute of International Education staff members who had organized the Seminar with their own host of international experiences and perspectives.

Cafe Brauer
Cafe Brauer
Parker Hilton Hotel Lobby
Parker Hilton Hotel Lobby

Then the real fun began with a jam-packed schedule from Thursday night to Sunday morning that led our group through an alternative form of sightseeing around Chicago in the company of fascinating people from fascinating places and perspectives. I think the last time I had been to Chicago was in 2009 and before that sometime in 2003—both very short trips where I looked at universities or the major sights (and mainly the original American Girl Place). Yet, this trip to Chicago involved visiting some of the most beautifully historic places—Café Brauer near the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Berghoff Bar and Restaurant and the School of the Art Institute Chicago Ballroom—and some of those places you would never go as a tourist including the infamous “South Side” of Chicago.

At the Sweetwater Think-Do House
At the Sweetwater Think-Do House
Fulbrighters at Growing Power (Armenia, Malawi, Pakistan, Indonesia)
Fulbrighters at Growing Power (Armenia, Malawi, Pakistan, Indonesia)
Shoveling and Wheelbarrowing Wood Chips (Ecuador, Kosovo, Burkina Faso, Turkey)
Shoveling and Wheelbarrowing Wood Chips (Ecuador, Kosovo, Burkina Faso, Turkey)

For the first time as a Northeastern girl, I really took a look at the social issues afflicting an unfamiliar city, making Chicago actually one of the most socioeconomically and racially segregated in the US. The weekend involved one Site Visit and one Community Service visit to different youth initiatives around the city. While some people went to schools or community centers, my two separate visits both went to urban agriculture initiatives with youth empowerment initiatives called the Sweetwater Foundation and Growing Power. Both places use urban agriculture to address several issues afflicting the impoverished areas of Chicago— the lack of healthy and locally grown food options, youth disengagement and resulting crime and education problems, and generally low morale as other parts of society continue to resign these areas to ruin. The awesomely empowering leader of the Sweetwater Foundation told us that businesses, such as supermarkets have even stopped investing in these communities, as they are labeled “blighted” and incapable of growth. These initiatives have started to prove to both the outside powers that be and the community itself that these ideas are wrong by literally growing something where it was thought to be impossible.

Being Introduced to Chickens by Chicago Youth Volunteers at Growing Power
Being Introduced to Chickens by Chicago Youth Volunteers at Growing Power
Aquaponics in a Revitalized Shoe Warehouse
Aquaponics in a Revitalized Shoe Warehouse

Both of these organizations are also experimenting with the concept of aquaponics (something I definitely had not heard of before). It’s a method of growing plants that can be done all year round involving constant circulation through plants and fish. I’m not a scientist, but this method of farming seems way more sustainable that the traditional use of water to irrigate fields, especially when so many parts of the US are experiencing crazy droughts!

Opening Dinner
Opening Dinner

Yet while the program of the seminar itself was inspiring and insightful, the opportunity to experience these things and perspectives through the lenses of people from other countries and cultures was truly amazing. Actually, the concept that all of us could be in one room—people from the USA and Afghanistan and Iraq, people from India and Pakistan, people from Germany and Poland, people from Russia and Ukraine, sitting at a bar with a group from Guinea, Spain, South Africa and Japan—seemed surreal.   I felt like this gathering of people would only be possible at the United Nations, yet this was better because we were together as ourselves, without the outside of interests of governments or history to represent. It was weird that this group of people from everywhere formed such a strong bond; we now all have a Facebook group that’s full of Fulbright love and people’s posts about how meaningful and amazing this experience was. I’m glad I wasn’t alone in that feeling.

It’s impossible to capture all of the amazingly interesting conversations I had with people all throughout the weekend so I’ll just list some of them here, with my new friends’ home countries in parentheses:

  • Comparing American and Vietnamese education systems (Vietnam)
  • Discussing the historic relationship between (Bahrain)
  • Changing the Malawi education system through teaching and despite democratic government corruption (Malawi)
  • Treatment of animals in agriculture (Argentina)
  • The difference between poverty in Latin America versus the United States—what it means, how you can see it versus what is hidden (Ecuador)
  • Japan’s representation of World War II and the atomic bomb explosion at Hiroshima and how they have rebuilt and look at this event to advocate for peace going forward (USA)
  • Having parents as friends or parents, leaving home and the distribution of people in Mongolian in urban areas versus cities (Mongolia)
  • The use of social media to advocate change versus the confidence to fight publically for it (Pakistan)
  • The combination of folk tales in video games (Ukraine, Mongolia, Pakistan)
  • Using comedy to discuss issues surrounding race (South Africa)
  • Participation as an aboriginal in activism against the Australian government taking over aboriginal land (Australia)
  • Learning about the history and diversity of Indonesia while at a post-seminar coffee meet-up with my new friend from the weekend (Indonesia)
  • Hearing everyone’s experiences and reactions to living and studying in graduate programs in the United Sates

I was learning so much so fast about the world and it was hard to tear myself away from any opportunity to talk to just about anyone there!

A Spontaneous Performance of "God Save the Queen" with Colombian Accompaniment
A Spontaneous Performance of “God Save the Queen” with Colombian Accompaniment
Learning a Song from Azerbaijan
Learning a Song from Azerbaijan (with help from Lithuania)

I think the most special part of the weekend was the final dinner, which turned into a cultural talent show of sorts. There was magic in the room as all of these people from different cultures stood up to share and collaborate with each other for messages of peace and happiness to be together. There were groups from Africa, numerous Latin American countries, Pakistan, but the others were duets that showed the friendship that this weekend inspired:

  • A woman from Lithuania supporting her new friend from Azerbaijan to teach the crowd a song from Azerbaijan, then two of the students from Mongolia stood up to support her since they knew the song
  • A duet of songs coming from a man from Colombia and a woman from Denmark that they had practiced while bonding over music the night before
  • A man from Jamaica singing “One Love,” but accompanied by his new friend from Japan since he was hesitant to go up on stage on his own
Singing "One Love" (Jamaica and Japan)
Singing “One Love” (Jamaica and Japan)

While talking to a pair of guys who had been matched as roommates, one from Hungary and one from Tanzania, one of them commented about what were the odds that they would ever see each other again. My immediate thought was what were the actual odds that they had the chance to meet in the first place.

Dancing to Songs from Mexico
Dancing to Songs from Mexico

It was crazy that we all became so close in the span of a weekend and that these were people that I had some of the deepest and exciting conversations with in months and yet had only met at that moment. It’s hard to say what it is about traveling and living in another country, but it makes you so open and curious to the world around so that you are driven to connect with other people in a way that is so different than even with some of the people you’ve known your whole life. I was talking with a girl from Spain who studies Linguistics and when I asked her how many languages she knew she said, “It’s not how many languages you know, but how much you can understand.”

The Bean
The Bean

It doesn’t take knowing all the languages of the world or the customs or traveling there, it’s simply being open to cultures that are different than your own—whether from another culture or within the same city. And so this is my “thing”: wanting to bring people from different cultures together so that we can learn from each other and ultimately create a more harmonious and understanding world. Now let’s see where to go from there…

ESL Write Away:

Institute of International Education:


5 thoughts on “Finding that Thing

  1. What an insightful post – I love that quote about understanding each other being more important than speaking multiple languages. Beautiful. Keep walking your path Mariel. It’s leading you to wonderful places.

  2. This one is really well done and beautifully written honey! Bravo!

    Sent from my iPhone

  3. Mariel: Loved your blog. So interesting.descriptive and reading it makes me so proud of you. Keep on writing—so good. xxxGpa.

    Samuel P. Sporn, Esq.

    Schoengold & Sporn, P.C.

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  4. That was fascinating Ms.M. If each person you met can give back to one or two others, think of how much better the world would be. Love gma

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