On July 19, Cultural Vistas hosted an event highlighting the impact of professional fellowship programs, which included a panel discussion on the benefits and opportunities of career-focused overseas programs.
The event allowed attendees to network with like-minded international professionals who have completed programs like the Alfa Fellowship Program, the Robert Bosch Foundation Fellowship Program, and the Edmund S. Muskie Internship Program.
During the discussion, panelists revealed several things they have been able to do thanks to having completed one of these programs. Read on to find five things you will also be able to do after successfully completing a professional fellowship.
1.) Tell a good story
Before Steve Sunderland became a Program Specialist at USAID, he participated in an Alfa Fellowship program to Russia from June 2014 to June 2015. For him, the program was a great opportunity to be able to put the relevant differences and practical realities of a foreign country such as Russia into perspective.
“Although we did have a lot of fun, you also learn a lot. It’s kind of a visceral experience that helps you understand, for example, the vastness of Russia,” Steve said.
To highlight a moment where he had this realization, Steve told a humorous story about being trapped in a blizzard along the relatively isolated coast of the White Sea, near where the popular 2014 movie Leviathan was filmed.
“It was Super Bowl Sunday actually, we had missed our flight and there was a local American football club in Murmansk that was screening the Super Bowl. It started at like 3:30am. So instead of going to work on Monday in Moscow […] we were sitting in Murmansk on Monday morning eating oysters at like 11am waiting for our outbound flight.”
Steve told the attendees, “If you’re in this room, experiences like that are in your future and you should definitely apply.”
2.) Understand your value to an organization
Andrew Bogrand, Senior Communications Advisor at Oxfam America, described being surprised at the particular way in which his fellowship enabled him to grow professionally. He described how being out of his comfort zone in a foreign language environment during his Alfa Fellowship with Human Rights Watch in Russia put certain things into perspective.
“We have a tendency—certainly in the United States, I think—to kind of do it all,” Andrew said. “For me at least, I think working day-to-day in another language really kind of forces you, or helps you, focus on what is really important in your work—and to find how you can really contribute.”
By being limited in the scope of what he was able to do, Andrew was able to better understand his own strengths and figure out how best to contribute at his job. He said that this understanding has proven particularly relevant in his current role with Oxfam America.
“I think it provided me with a real sense of how to work in a global organization and a global workforce in a way that I didn’t anticipate,” he said.
3.) Do what matters
For current Muskie fellow Lela Akiashvili, who previously completed a Fulbright Fellowship at the UN, participating in fellowships has been a humbling experience because they have enabled her to work in roles with the potential to make a real impact.
“I had this experience both at the UN and now at Save the Children. What you do matters, what you do really matters and that makes you feel somehow valued and good,” she said.
Lela described the real and measurable effects of her current role with Save the Children USA in a sincerely serious tone.
“I see how what I say today can affect what happens to children in Bangladesh or Indonesia in two weeks. That makes you, first of all—think about what you do and what you say, and also feel that you are doing something important.”
Lela advised all the event’s gathered attendees that wherever they go to work, regardless of circumstance, they should “try to get to the place where what you do matters.”
And, of course, if you don’t know where to begin—consider following Lela and the other panelists’ lead by pursuing a fellowship.
4.) Get a better job
Before applying to be a Robert Bosch Foundation fellow in 2013, Elizabeth Johnson questioned whether participating in the fellowship could significantly benefit her existing career.
“Because I had done a Fulbright program right after college, I had interned, done internships abroad, I thought ‘Okay, I’ve lived in Germany—I’ve done that. I’ve graduated from graduate school now, maybe I’ll just stay here and get a job.’ I wasn’t entirely sure yet how moving abroad again and doing that other fellowship would help me.”
But Elizabeth now works as the Manager for Global Programs at the U.S. Trade and Development Agency and feels very fortunate in having made the choice to continue to pursue the Bosch Fellowship.
“Luckily, I had some very smart contacts—very smart colleagues and friends who said ‘No, we really encourage you to do this fellowship.’”
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Though her other qualifications and professional experiences have certainly helped shape her career, Elizabeth credits the Bosch Fellowship for opening the most doors for her back in Washington, D.C.—and her perspective on the value of fellowship experiences versus local job experience has clearly changed.
“It’s such a short period of time in your life, but the amount you gain in that one year [of a fellowship] is exponentially more than you do in one year at your normal job.”
Fellowships provide excellent opportunities for individuals to advance their careers but they are also intended to foster increased global cooperation and understanding. One of the most important things you will be able to do upon completing your fellowship is to continue the exchange of ideas and values as you connect with other internationally-oriented professionals.
“There’s a lot of really smart people that you’re going to be on the fellowship with and they all know something different that you don’t. I think that is extremely valuable and it’s really fun too,” said Steve. “It’s really enriching on a lot of levels socially, but the social […] mixes with the professional.”
For Elizabeth, the blend of social and professional connections has allowed her to continue to exchange ideas with contacts at a very high level—relationships which she hopes to leverage in the future.
“I still maintain very close contacts with lead German trade negotiators. I know them personally, they come to DC, we meet up for dinner,” she said. “These [are] very deep relationships that no one else can really have in DC, I don’t really know anyone else who would go to dinner or go to lunch with a lead German trade negotiator—those relationships are really hard to come by.”
Of course, not every person who completes a fellowship to Germany stays in touch with top German trade negotiators—nor does every person who travels to Russia on a fellowship have a story about eating oysters while missing work due to a blizzard. But as with our panel of successful fellowship alumni, your own benefits and unique experiences from completing a professional fellowship could yield social and career dividends for years to come.
“Cultural Vistas and Alfa […] Bosch and Muskie, have all these continuous events. You can reach back to people who have done these programs 15-20 years ago and then you get to talk to new people coming through the program,” Steve said.
His words proved true after the panel discussion wrapped up and was replaced by a number of smaller but lively conversations around drinks and food. Even as the attendees were leaving, the networking continued as they exchanged business cards and made plans to meet up after.
For those of you who might want to also help #ExchangeOurWorld, we hope to see you at the next event!