Two summers ago, I sat in a cold Norwegian classroom, surrounded by my friends and fellow Peace Scholars as we listened to a presentation on the Fulbright program. Rena Levin, director of the Fulbright program in Norway stood in front of us and talked about the mission of Fulbright: increase international understanding through the exchange of people and ideas. While she talked, I realized that my Peace Scholars experience, which was changing my life, went hand in hand with the mission and goals of Fulbright. In the span of an hour, Rena had done her job well and I had decided to apply to the Fulbright program.
After the presentation, I added a sticky note to my computer desktop and copied a few of Rena’s quotes. This sticky note has stayed on my desktop. Through my application process, motivating me to continue when I was exhausted and calming me while I waited for my Skype interview. Those words provided me comfort when I felt anxious as I prepared to come to Ukraine.
Everyday when I open my laptop to work on something, to check Facebook, or to watch Netflix, my eye catches this note. On the good days and the bad days, the top of the world days and the I wish I could go home days, I see that note and it reminds me of my purpose. Why Fulbright exists. Why I am here.
One of those quotes that I use often is from Senator Fulbright himself. He said, “educational exchange can turn nations into people.” And today, seven months into my time in Ukraine, I sincerely believe in the effectiveness of education in bringing people together and humanizing the people of the world.
Often when I meet new people, here in Kropyvnytskyi, I find that I am one of the first Americans that they have met in person. I am the first real face that they can put with the news coverage, the movies, the music, the books, and what they have learned in school. And that is important because with me standing in front of them, they can no longer deny my humanity. They can no longer idealize or demonize Americans. They are faced with a real American.
I often field the normal and stereotypical questions like do all Americans eat fast food every day? Or are Americans really selfish? But I also have amazing discussions with people of all ages about race, about gender, about empathy, about family, and about the future. These conversations are the ones imprinted on my brain:
The class where I sat down with a group of 10 students and talked about Islam and Islamophobia. The reflection assignment where a student recounted a story of explaining racism to her boyfriend who often used the N word. The English Club where we spent two hours discussing gender and gender stereotypes in the US and Ukraine.
These conversations are very difficult, and they often do not go as planned. In fact, I think they never go as planned. Due to cultural differences and language difference, my students don’t have the same understanding of political correctness that we do. Which leads to really real, really difficult and sometimes uncomfortable conversations and exchanges of ideas.
This is why I am here.
I am here to be a face to American-ness and to American ideals. I am here to encourage difficult conversations. I am here to push people. But I am also here to BE pushed. I am here to be faced with Ukrainian-ness and Ukrainian ideals. I am here to engage in difficult conversations.
Some of you might know that the Fulbright program is facing serious cuts in the upcoming fiscal year. The proposed budget from the administration recommends a 71% cut to this program, a cut that would decimate Fulbright’s ability to be effective throughout the world.
These cuts are a serious mistake. I believe that through these exchanges, my friends, my students, my peers, and I are all part of an important process in peace building. While we have no idea, how far the ripple effects of these engagements will go, I can say that I have met hundreds of students here. Talked about America to hundreds of people. And I also do everything I can to share Ukraine with people at home. And when I return to the States, I will bring with me an understanding of Ukrainian people. Not necessarily in Ukrainian culture or language, but in the people. In how they live their lives, their resilience, their kindness. I will bring my love of this country back with me.
Now imagine, the Fulbright program sends over 3,000 Americans abroad and over 4,000 foreigners every year. Multiple this effect. The effect of the realness, the effect of education, the effect of love by some 7,000 people and just try to imagine the change that those Fulbrighters have and will make in the world. And imagine the change and effect that their STUDENTS and their friends and families will have on the world. The effect is priceless.
Educational exchange, the exchange of ideas, knowledge, and realness, turn faceless nations into humanized people. With this, I beg you to contact your legislator and encourage them to fight for Fulbright. Fight for educational exchange and fight for a peaceful future.