Being a Fulbrighter will always be an important part of my life. The opportunity to study and immerse myself in a culture abroad opens your horizons and makes you grow in every way. Even still, I never imagined that Fulbright would have an impact on my life in an even more profound way. I am from El Salvador, and in 2011, I was awarded a Fulbright grant to pursue a master’s in tourism at the University of Florida. Upon graduating, I returned to El Salvador, but soon after, I was offered a job with an international organization based in Washington, DC.
During my Fulbright, I was involved in Fulbright-specific networking opportunities such as gateway orientations, enrichment seminars and the Fulbright Association Chapter events. I made a lot of friends through these events and I have visited them both in the United States and around the world whenever I have the chance.
New to the DC area, I joined the Fulbright Association National Capital Area Chapter. In November 2014, I attended one of the chapter events: an open house reception at the Goethe-Institut. There is where I met Martin. Martin was at that time a visiting researcher on a Fulbright grant from Denmark, doing a one-year research project at the National Institutes of Health. During our first conversation, I recognized the same spark in his eyes when we talked about our dreams, passions and careers. Despite being from very different countries and cultures that speak different languages, have different professional opportunities and different social norms, we found in each other a partner with the same values, goals and dreams.
Fulbright-MTP participant Rodrigo Moran from El Salvador on board the Millennial Trains Project
For some reason, I have not been able to sleep lately. Maybe I miss the coziness of my room on the train. Maybe I miss the rocking motion and the sounds of the wheels on the tracks that lulled me into a profound sleep every night. Maybe I just miss all of my MTP friends…
Check: All of the above.
Besides the nostalgia I have been feeling, I hit the ground running as soon as we got off the train in Washington, DC. I started a summer internship in the field of international development at Creative Associates International, a company “providing outstanding, on-the-ground development services and forging partnerships to deliver sustainable solutions to global challenges.”
Disclaimer: As I write these words, I am in the middle of Texas (between El Paso and San Antonio) after more than 15 hours of enlightening, intense and humbling learning experiences with the MTP class of 2015. So yes, I am extremely tired, but my desire to share these feelings goes beyond my body entering autopilot mode.
The U.S. Department of State selected the following six Fulbright Foreign Students to participate in the third Millennial Trains Project (MTP) voyage across the United States — leaving from Los Angeles, California on May 21 and ending in Washington, DC on May 31— as an enrichment component of the Fulbright Foreign Student Program. The six Fulbrighters will join 19 American riders on the MTP journey to gain an in-depth understanding of life in the United States and to strengthen their skills in leadership, social entrepreneurship, and communication.
Meet the six Fulbright participants:
Saja Al Quzweeni is a Fulbright Foreign Student from Iraq
Saja Al Quzweeni is a Fulbright Foreign Student from Baghdad, Iraq, currently pursuing a master’s in environmental science and policy at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Saja’s MTP project is an extension of research she completed last year at Growing Power, a nonprofit organization in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that works in urban agriculture as an approach to increase food security in lower income and food desert communities. Small plots of land are used for intensive growing to offer healthy, affordable food to inner city communities, while merging agriculture and wise environmental practices to revitalize urban areas.
Aaron Owen, 2012-2013, El Salvador (back row, fourth from left), with his jiu-jitsu teammates in El Salvador
Jiu-jitsu comes from the Japanese expression meaning the “art of being gentle, yielding, or giving way.” I began training Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) in Milwaukee, and at the time wouldn’t have imagined how it would come to shape my philosophy of cultural immersion during my Fulbright grant in El Salvador.
So how does “the gentle art” come into play in your Fulbright project? In BJJ, the idea is that instead of meeting force with force and quickly becoming exhausted, you leverage your opponent’s energy to your advantage “Cultural jiu-jitsu” is the act of giving way to the new experience. This means recognizing that you are becoming overwhelmed, accepting it, and finding ways to redirect that stimulus overload into something positive. In my case, when I realized I was becoming overwhelmed with the unfamiliar, I found a gym in El Salvador to start training BJJ again.
If immersing myself within another culture wasn’t enough, I also realized I was becoming overwhelmed by my project. I was attempting to interview hundreds of locals to study how modernization impacted their dietary habits. I had worked with my affiliates for months to craft a strong interview script, and I had even done a pilot study. The pilot interviews were successful, but highlighted the logistical and cultural difficulties I would have trying to expand to a larger sample. Logistically, I wouldn’t have the time to interview as many people as I wanted or the language skills to effectively communicate with the diverse population I was targeting. Culturally, my blunt way of inquiring about people’s dietary habits was sometimes considered intrusive. I had the choice to either callously plow through these barriers, or to look for a more creative solution.