This past week I had the opportunity to meet with other Yes Abroad students and program administrators at the national pre-departure orientation, “PDO”, held in Washington, DC. We spent the weekend examining our own identity as Americans and the cultural responses and adaptations of exploring a new community as well. From eight in the morning until ten at night we were occupied with various presentations and seminars by the entire YES staff.
After a lengthy delay out of Hartford, I arrived at Dulles excited, a little exhausted, and maybe even a little frantic. Delays really do strain a person! The next morning we met our fantastic resident YES alum from Oman, Emma, before heading off to Amideast. We barraged her with countless questions, discussed some logistical things and heard about her experiences and personal insights. Later we visited the Omani embassy and with extra time to spare, stopped at DuPont Circle; the entire time trying to absorb as much Arabic as we could, in preparation for our coming travels.
As far as my Arabic is concerned, I’m making progress! Slow but steady.
Asalamu Alekum. Ana isme Talya. Kayf halich? Ehh… it’s something! There are two sounds comparable to R’s in Arabic, one of which is a French type more gutturalr coming from the back of your tongue and then, in addition, there is a Spanish type trill. This is proving to be very challenging. I have spent the last few days alone rolling my tongue up in down with little success. Should I be concerned if I sound vaguely similar to a walrus? I will learn to roll my R’s if it is the last thing I do!
On another note, while in DC, we also made a stop by the state department. It was incredibly motivating to hear people who have made careers out of their passions. It also was really interesting listening to Peace Corps volunteers speak about the impact their work has had on them as people and how their experiences have helped garner them relationships around the world. It really made me excited for my own exchange year ahead and the reciprocal impact the exchange can have on my own life.
Rick Ruth, the keynote speakerof the PDO, works with the Bureau of Educationaland Cultural Affairs at the Department of State. He addressed all the students with optimism and a few words of advice. As a kid he was always very intrigued by language and took it upon himself to learn Russian. This really framed his line of work and prompted him to become active civically and ultimately work for the state department. Since then he has learned Arabic and collected an impressive travel resume.
After 9-11, the federal government came to Rick’s department to draft a new educational initiative to build tolerance, understanding, and dispel misconceptions with the Muslim world. They drafted the YES program to bring kids from predominantly Muslim countries to the US. To their success, the programs was received very well and really filled a gap for this type of cultural exposure and citizen diplomacy. Spearheaded by senators Kennedy and Lugar, this bipartisan bill was passed with flying colors. As Rick’s department traveled to the grass roots and hometowns of the incoming kids from the predominantly Muslim countries, they noticed a common theme. All of the students’ families expressed a deep desire and enthusiasm to bring U.S. kids to their homes, to show their own perspective on the world as well. If they were sending their kids off to the US, where were the American kids in their communities?
In his address, Rick noted the importance that citizen diplomacy has on the government. We are empowered to determine the future of our country in such a globalized world if we choose to listen to and observe those around us. These interactions, seemingly small, shape the course of civil discourse and resolution of conflict for years to come. Being an ambassador is not some sort of grandiose title or pretentious signification; it is instead a very human quality, to actively participate in the world around us and by doing so, enrich one’s own outlook through multiple perspectives and relationships. This really hit home for me and really epitomized for me why at that moment I wanted to be in that room.