Less than an hour after their flights landed, our 2018 class of Cultural Vistas Fellows returning from summer internships in Argentina, Germany, and Hong Kong were met with a welcome reception at Cultural Vistas’ NYC headquarters on August 8.
The returning fellows and assembled guests were treated to an engaging discussion on how to take full advantage of the opportunities and connections now available to them through Cultural Vistas Alumni Network.
Our esteemed panelists revealed the vast and sometimes unexpected benefits of staying engaged as alumni.
Getting your hair done on the border with Turkey and Iraq
Before she had worked at NPR, CNN, the UN, and in her recent role in Strategic Partner Development for News Programs at Facebook, La Neice Collins was a Robert Bosch Foundation Fellow using her go-getter personality to solve a problem she had while abroad in Germany.
“My friends will joke with me now that no matter where in the world I go I can find somebody to do black hair,” La Neice said. “I did this whole list of like where you could go if you were a woman of color in Hamburg… anywhere in Germany like I knew any place to go to get your hair done and I can tell you now—I can tell you in Bangkok, I can tell you on the border between Turkey and Iraq there’s somebody I know who did my hair.”
The tenacity revealed in La Neice’s pursuit of finding suitable hairstylists may help explain her impressive professional resume.
“I just made a thing out of being like, ‘oh I’m gonna go to Leipzig and see if I can find someone…’ and that was like part of my travels there—just going from town to town finding, you know, small communities of black immigrants.”
Getting your hair done as a black woman in places like the Turkey-Iraq border might still be close to impossible for anybody but La Neice. Luckily, she is willing to share the fruits of her labor from her years spent living abroad with those in her alumni network—and make the impossible possible for you too.
“I love being able to say ‘No, go [abroad] because I’ll tell you someone in Zurich who’s going to be able to do your hair… or in Congo I noticed the one in Kinshasa can get your hair done—not to worry!’”
Convincing your foreign dad that Americans are OK
Gulshat Maatkerimova, a recent alum of the Edmund S. Muskie Internship Program, found that the benefits of being part of her exchange network made her an especially effective cultural ambassador for the U.S. back home in Kyrgyzstan.
“The most significant and powerful experience that I had was building a network—a personal and professional network among others—and being also like a cultural ambassador, not only to the visiting country but also coming back to your country.”
These skills as a cultural ambassador were put to the test when Gulshat tried to convince her dad about Americans and America—whom she carefully described as being one of those people from post-Soviet Union countries who “might have a different perception of the United States.”
Having previously completed other U.S. Department of State exchange programs, Gulshat used examples from people in her network to make her case.
“They’re just like us, they’re hospitable and they are always hoping to help you,” she told him. “I shared all the amazing stories that I had when being in the United States and he changed his mind.”
Being unfriendly and still getting a surprise birthday party with new friends
Raigon Wilson, a 2017 Cultural Vistas Fellow, described her surprise at how easy it was to make lasting connections during her exchange program.
“I celebrated my birthday when I was in India. One of the girls who I was on the fellowship with, one of my coworkers, and another American who was working in that office—they threw me a surprise party.”
The strangest thing for Raigon was knowing that she was receiving this amicable treatment despite her own self-described lack of effort to be friendly.
“I’m not friendly! But just for me to be able to see, people who I knew for just a few weeks here, felt compelled to celebrate my birthday with me on the other side of the world—without really knowing me and me not being that friendly—was a really powerful experience because I did [then] push myself to be friendlier while I was in India.”
Most people benefit from having a support network while abroad and the bonds formed during exchange programs develop quickly, even without our own best efforts.
“Even just like the relationships I’ve had with Cultural Vistas staff since then—that was probably my most impactful experience—like ‘Wow! I have friends!’”
Winning a $100 million bid in NYC to build an applied-science campus
Regardless of how finicky your hair is, how anti-American your dad may be, or how unfriendly you are—Cultural Vistas’ support and alumni networks have the potential to make the impossible possible. But Khoa Ma, a former CBYX alum and Assistant Studio Director at Cornell Tech, also encouraged future and current alumni to try utilize their networks in other ways.
“There’s a lot of things that you can do and organize on your own—like send an email saying ’Hey, I’m hosting something in the city coming out; let’s chat!’” he said. Networks are “a good way too to send an email and have people show up and have a conversation around whether it’s work, or things that you’re interested in doing.”
To demonstrate the possibilities, Khoa shared the story of how the Cornell University alumni network helped secure a historic $100 million bid for an applied-science campus in NYC thanks to a 10,000 strong petition delivered to the city’s Mayor’s office.
“You can leverage the same way,” said Paul. “Wherever you may be, look up Linkedin or tap into the actual network itself, send an email, and do meetups.”
Exchange programs are short-term and frequently leave their participants wanting more. This is why some of the greatest benefits of participating in exchange programs through Cultural Vistas come from the well-developed alumni networks which continue to serve the professional interests of former participants for years to come.
Whether it’s finding a hairstylist, visiting friends in a new place, or advocating for a cause, being part of a professional network of people who have completed highly competitive and selective exchange programs is a resource that you can tap into time and again—long after you have moved on in your career.
And as the Cultural Vistas Alumni Network continues to expand, the possibilities of utilizing these networks will become even greater.
We hope that you too will get involved and be a part of these great things to come.