The past month has brought about the end of summer with colder weather and darker days and a busier work season—a reminder of the routine of winter. It’s hard to believe that a year ago this past week was my first week at my job and the first week of making the routine that has now become the norm. While it’s only been a year, it feels like a long time with a lot that has happened within a world of office life I knew nothing about a year ago. I remember my first days at my desk were monotonous and physically painful. Happily, I’ve gained more responsibilities and a variety of work tasks, however at the same time I sadly have become accustomed sitting in a chair for 7 hours each day and staring at a computer screen.
After the crazy months of summer I was almost looking forward to having many weekends in NYC to explore different neighborhoods and stabilize life a little bit. My only major excursion in a few weeks has been to visit my university, William and Mary, again for the annual Homecoming celebration. Whereas last year was an overwhelming weekend of first times reliving memories, soaking in school spirit and reliving my college days, this year, my approach as a bit more reserved. I started my long weekend in DC visiting my awesome friend and co-founder of Number One Sons (check out their pickles and other fermented foods if you’re in DC!!). I got to do some new and appropriate DC activities such as going to the Old Ebbitt Grill near the White House and stumbling on a Hillary Clinton rally in Old Town Alexandria. Next, I stopped to visit family outside of Richmond. Finally, I spent my last 24 hours of the weekend in Williamsburg spending time with good friends and focusing on quality over quantity.
Otherwise, I’ve been focusing on life around NYC—seeing friends and family, working a bunch, trying new restaurants and soaking up city experiences. One of the coolest was going to the Halloween parade in the West Village. It was amazing to see all of NYC dressed up with such a sense of humor. Imagine getting on the subway with people in all sorts of costumes, yet standing around in the normal quiet. Then on the street for the parade there were all of us marching in costumes being watched by other normal people in their costumes. The streets were packed with so much energy, happiness and creativity. Last year, I had stayed in my friend’s apartments and had no idea that so close by the city was brought together in this way. That’s a strange thing about New York, there’s so much going on that it’s impossible for everyone to really be a part of anything.
One community I’ve become lucky to be a part of is at the community organization El Centro based out of the Hartley House in Hell’s Kitchen. It started when I went to a Meetup group for international people living in NYC last January and met a girl from Spain. When telling her that I was looking for ways to practice my Spanish, she told me about Intercambio, or the weekly language exchange at El Centro. For a few weeks I was intimidated to go, but ever since February I’ve gone almost every week and look forward to seeing a lot of the same friendly faces each time. El Centro also offers classes in English, Spanish, Computers and Citizenship and so I also now have been a volunteer English teacher for level 3 adult English learners for 2 semesters. My students are from all different countries and every week in class we find ourselves genuinely laughing and I realized this week that I was laughing more than I have in a while. NYC can be a pretty isolating place to live, especially in winter. I’m thankful that I’ve found such a unique community to keep me motivated and surrounded by happiness and support in the upcoming months.
With the attacks in Paris, Beirut, Syria and beyond in the past few weeks and months it is this sense of community and exchange that continues to prove increasingly important on the world stage. I am not always the most enthusiastic about my job, but this week I am driven to know that the work I do each day and in my free time is working to my personal philosophy on foreign policy and world peace. Bringing people from different backgrounds, nations and cultures together will promote understanding and tolerance. As a result, people gain empathy. When you see yourself in others, how can you harm them? How can you reduce the value of their lives? How can you mistrust them at the fault of a stereotype?
I like this quote by Senator Fulbright himself: “The essence of intercultural education is the acquisition of empathy–the ability to see the world as others see it, and to allow for the possibility that others may see something we have failed to see, or may see it more accurately. The simple purpose of the exchange program…is to erode the culturally rooted mistrust that sets nations against one another. The exchange program is not a panacea but an avenue of hope….”
There are many valid courses of action in response to violence and of course, safety always comes first when conflict has already started. But it has been shown that lack of community and lack of understanding drives extremism in the conflicts that afflict our world today. Education is a two-way street. We must educate native populations on the world outside their borders so that they see the effects on their home communities with a human context. We must offer education to immigrant populations so that they feel connected in new communities and cultures. Finally, we must promote educational exchange with foreign populations and thereby establish connections so that a sense of otherness is unable to foster and fester over time. Through community building and education at the local and global levels, we create empathy.
We will see what the coming days, months and years will bring. Stay warm. Stay together.