My Exchanges Journey

By Parveen Elias, Professional Exchanges Program Manager, U.S. Embassy Dhaka

I first heard about the Fulbright Program when teaching at Chittagong University in 1982. It sounded great and in sync with my teaching goals in English Literature. I decided to apply. Little did I know at the time that this was the beginning of an exchanges journey that would last for decades. I received the news of my selection with joy and trepidation. I had just been married for three months and the prospect of separation for two years was a difficult one.

My Fulbright experience at the University of Tulsa molded me as a person. I dealt with the challenges that face someone who embarks for foreign lands in search of higher education. A different educational system, cultural adjustment, a new lifestyle without family, homesickness, climatic changes –all these elements required new skills that needed to be adopted very quickly. I was doing quite well. Then life threw me a great shock — the sudden death of my 20-year old brother. Through one of the most difficult times of my life, the warmth and concern shown by American friends and colleagues helped me to function normally.

After completing my M.A. in Modern Letters, I moved to Washington, D.C. to be with my husband who had started his Fulbright scholarship program at Howard University. My first observation was the cultural difference between Oklahoma and Washington, D.C. I missed the warmth and hospitality of the mid-west. I noticed that America’s capital city is like a stepping for people of all cultures to their future goals. The exposure to this kaleidoscope of cultures was fascinating and we made many friends.

The spirit of volunteerism was something I greatly admired. I was on a teaching assistantship at Catholic University of America (CUA), and I realized that the best students in my classes were the ones who volunteered regularly at soup kitchens or shelter homes. I became fascinated with Mitch Snyder who created a large facility for homeless people in Washington and lived there himself. We once got to meet him and discussed issues of common interest. It was a terrible shock when he committed suicide. I attended his memorial and saw that many celebrities were also present.

Catholic University offered a wonderful atmosphere for learning. Regretfully, I returned to Bangladesh without completing my PhD. During my program, we lost our infant son. Perhaps I returned without a doctorate, but I had grown much wiser. I came home with a comprehensive view of what exchange programs offer and how these turn into life-changing experiences.

One day in 1993, I was invited to a reception for Fulbright scholars. The Public Affairs Officer announced a vacancy at The American Center. One of our friends insisted that I apply. I did so and was offered the position. Guess what? My portfolio was exchanges! I began working with the Fulbright, Hubert Humphrey and International Visitor Leadership Programs (IVLP).

I love that I interact with people from all sections of society. The biggest part of my portfolio is IVLP, the Mission’s premier exchange program, which has engaged a galaxy of world leaders as alumni including Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from Bangladesh. This versatile exchange program has served as a powerful tool in enhancing the image of the United States and given participants a first-hand experience of American society and values. The IVLP accommodates participants of all professions from high-ranking political leaders to garment workers. I have witnessed amazing stories of success. We nominated one garment worker for the IVLP who was trying to form a union at the time and also taking lessons to improve her English proficiency. Within a few years after her return, her labor union was firmly established and her English had improved dramatically. This was a person who had only Grade-5 schooling in Bangla. Because of her contribution to labor rights, she was invited to give a lecture at Harvard University! Some years later, she also received the Woman of Courage Award.

In the wake of September 11, 2001, there was apprehension in Muslim countries that Islam in America was in danger and Muslims were being subjected to discrimination. To erase these misconceptions among religious scholars who exert such powerful influence on the grassroots population, I designed IVLP projects for religious leaders from Khulna, Sylhet, Rajshahi, Chittagong and Dhaka to gain an exposure to the United States first-hand and learn about the Muslim life there. One specific single-country IVLP had the added goal of alleviating prevailing tensions between conservative Muslim factions and the Ahmediya community in Bangladesh. I included a high-level Ahmediya leader in an IVLP group of conservative religious leaders so that the three-week visit would create new bridges of understanding within the group as well as alter their long-standing misconceptions about the United States.

To promote goals of global and regional understanding, I had sole responsibility for a seven-day unique event. The American Studies Institute for Student Leaders Reunion in Dhaka in March 2005, funded by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), was a first-ever gathering of alumni of this program. (You might now know it as Study of the U.S. Institutes or SUSI.) Participants included 42 students from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and faculty members from Washington College and the Department of State. Besides presentations by internationally acclaimed experts, working groups focused on practical activities through which alumni could engage and address challenges like tsunami relief efforts in the region. Among the highlights of the program was a visit to the Liberation War Museum that provoked an intense discussion about the troubled joint history of the participating countries. This discussion provided the younger generation with a view of historical events that they had been unaware of. This modified perspective is crucial for emerging leaders and will definitely impact their attitude as they take up reins of leadership in their countries.

I initiated and implemented all details for the first-ever Iftar (breaking of fast at sunset during the month of Ramadan) in Embassy Dhaka’s Atrium in 2008. IVLP alumni were invited and 130 total guests attended. This program was a milestone and created a positive image of the Mission in the eyes of Bangladeshis. It was a marked gesture that showed respect for religious rituals of Islam by opening the Mission’s doors to celebrate the breaking of the fast with all communities.

As a Fulbrighter myself, I can relate to anxieties and concerns of outgoing exchange participants and offer tips to alleviate these. I have given support to young leaders who have gone on to be Speaker of Parliament, Cabinet Ministers, lawyers, and journalists, NGO personnel, and business leaders, to name only some professions. It is heartening when they receive international awards and recognition.

I believe that each exchange, each grantee is one step forward in building new bridges of understanding between the people of the United States and Bangladesh. There are moments when I feel especially fortunate to be working with exchange programs — in a room full of Humphrey Fellows with stellar talents or when an unprecedented gathering of high-level civil servants requests a visit to The American Center. I have learned that public diplomacy efforts seldom occur with a bang — these are usually quiet, baby steps that are taken in view of long-term, larger goals.

My exchanges journey continues, for it never really ends, but ripples from one generation to another.

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