First Day of Fulbright Orientation

I am attending the Fulbright Orientation for scholars and students going to the Americas. Yesterday was the first. Here is the schedule and here is what we did the first day:

I’m in Washington D.C. for the Fulbright orientation (at the Grand Hyatt in Washington, DC, 38°53'58.34"N, 77° 1'35.79"W) for students and scholars going to central America and the Caribbean. There are about 100 Fulbrighters here and 2 dozen of them are Fulbright alumni from the region.

During the welcoming remarks we were told that the Fulbright award is among the most competitive in the country. The remarks were important to hear to set the tone for our future experience in the host country. The program is 63 years old and the Fulbright objective has always been “to build mutual understanding between people and places.” We were told that the program is built on soft diplomacy and for building relationships among countries.

The Fulbright program is ‘at a high-water mark’ in terms of funding and solidity but to remember that the U.S. taxpayers are paying my way. My responsibility, however, is not to defend U.S. foreign policy and I am not an official representative of the U.S. government. They do expect all Fulbrighters to be mindful of what we do and say, especially in the context of blogs, Facebook photos or Twitter tweets. I am the face of America and should get out and mingle with as many people as possible while in my host country.

The significance of President Obama making one of his first international visits to the Trinidad and Tobago for the Summit of the Americas meeting was underscored and should be of particular interest to all of us traveling to the Caribbean. This kind of regional presidential attention has not been paid of late and the opportunity for diplomacy with and among the United States’ nearest neighbors is ripe.

The keynote speaker, Dr. Joan Dassin, is Executive Director of the International Fellowships Fund at the Ford Foundation, highlighted the fact that we are leaving for a region at a particularly positive time and we are traveling as ‘citizen-diplomats.’ Latin America has welcomed the election of Barack Obama. Dassin asked the hypothetical question ‘How far do the U.S. presidential policies point to real change?’ We will live out that answer as we move and act as citizen-scholars and citizen-diplomats. There is an important shift in hemispheric relations, where Obama says we “seek an equal partnership in which there is no senior or junior partnership.” As Fulbrighters we have an opportunity to listen and learn from the rest of the world. We must learn as much as we teach and reach beyond individual specialization.

This is going to be a fantastic experience, this Fulbright year ahead of me.

Oddly enough, no one seemed to be Twittering the event. People were paying attention! I did do some Twitter searches only to discover that there were simultaneous orientations going on (in addition to the orientation for China scholars going on at the same hotel as mine).

Click here for days 2 and 3.

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