A Vistan for a Year, A Vistan for Life

It’s strange how life surprises us sometimes. Just when we know exactly what the future holds for us, things can change instantly and life can give us a new adventure.

Coming to the United States as an Atlas Corps Fellow to work at Cultural Vistas, as a Communications Fellow was an opportunity that came to me as a surprise. Although very comfortable in the space where I was, I decided to take it up because I think it’s right what they say about comfort zone – it’s a beautiful place but nothing ever grows there.

In hopes to grow and in search for a new adventure, I packed my life in two bags and got on a plane to come and spend a year at Cultural Vistas. As I end my fellowship, I can easily say, I made the right decision.

Colleagues from Cultural Vistas and neighboring organization, Global Ties U.S., share meals and conversation during a taco potluck.

The Warm Welcome

I like to think I came to Cultural Vistas at the most ideal time – the beginning of spring when the weather was perfect and the days were long, with lots happening at work and more to explore in the evenings. On my first day, the External Affairs team gathered for the first of many team lunches we had over the year and welcomed me warmly, making me feel like I belonged there instantly. Later that week, Laura introduced me to Cava, which became one of my favorite Mediterranean places to grab a quick bite at over the year.

Late April was an interesting time to begin my fellowship with the staff retreat and the taco potluck for lunch club lined up in the coming weeks.

Not only did these activities give me an opportunity to get to know everyone, it also helped me understand the vision to get started at work.

Spring Reception & a Week of Adventures

Me, Emily and Abir, an Atlas Corps Fellow based in our NYC office, at the Spring Reception in May 2019.

Three weeks into my time at Cultural Vistas, I got the opportunity to visit the New York City office for the spring reception. Although I had visited earlier, working from New York and witnessing how a reception is hosted in the city was a different experience. I ended up staying for the weekend and spent time exploring museums, hunting bookstores, walking around central park, finding hidden gems in West Village and enjoying the great weather and vibrant nature of the city.

Becoming a Voice for Cultural Vistas

Over the course of the year, I became a voice for Cultural Vistas, learning about its programs, speaking to alumni and telling their stories for our blog. Coincidentally, learning about the experiences of participants in different programs and narrating the stories of the impact these exchanges had on their life is what brought me the greatest joy during my time at Cultural Vistas.

Cultural Vistas Staff Retreat 2019.

Telling these stories was an enlightening experience for me too. It opened my eyes to how a Muskie alum introduced modern education to the ancient city of Bukhara. I saw how a YSEALI alum used the power of his lens to photograph for advocacy and how a Korea WEST intern brought late Korean artist Don Ahn’s legacy to life. I realized how exchange participants impact the communities at large when I witnessed how the TEACH USA helps connect American students to the outside world by bringing in foreign teachers to the U.S.

A firm believer of using diverse voices for storytelling, I convinced other team members to be storytellers for the blog and over the course of the year, many debuts were made. It is this diversity of voices that made our storytelling stronger and as I transition out of my fellowship, I will continue to come and read stories that the team shares on the blog.

Expanding our Outreach

Flags of the world in display during our office Halloween celebration

While our own blog was a strong platform to tell our stories, last summer we experimented with outreach and connected media to Cultural Vistas Fellows, giving them an opportunity to share first hand experiences with audiences in their local communities.

To see participants share their experiences on platforms with a wider reach including publications and university portals made the effort worth it and strengthened my belief in advocating for the benefits of international exchange through our work.

Building Transatlantic Connections at our Women in Business Summit

USA-Central Europe Women in Business Summit in New York City.

I had always heard about the strength of connections and the remarkable work meaningful connections can lead to. I understood it when I attended the USA-Central Europe Women in Business Summit.

Hosted by Cultural Vistas in October 2019 in New York City, the summit brought together leaders representing Central Europe and USA from all sectors and industries for a day that included a full program of speakers and dynamic panels interspersed with one-on-one professional mentoring and breakout sessions.

Taking notes and photographing during the event for our external communications opened my eyes to how this summit gave an opportunity to business leaders to build transatlantic connections and find new opportunities.

A Once in a Lifetime Experience at the Cultural Vistas Awards Gala

Team Cultural Vistas at the Awards Gala in October 2019.

The highlight of my fellowship was being a part of the team that organized the Cultural Vistas Awards Gala. The event brought together more than 250 leaders from across the business, education, government, and diplomatic communities for a special evening recognizing leadership in advancing global skills and celebrating the diversity of people, ideas, knowledge, and skills shared through international exchange.

Held at the Tribeca Rooftop in New York City, the event yet again reminded me of the strong impact international exchange can make on the lives of participants who venture out of their homes for a global experience.

I’ll always remember Cultural Vistas Fellow Malia Simon’s words that reiterated my belief in chasing dreams and the importance of storytelling – “In Hong Kong I learned the importance of the power of stories and how using your voice and truly chasing the dreams you seek your whole lifetime will take you places you can never imagine”.

Cultural Vistas Fellow Malia Simon speaking at the CV Awards Gala.

For many, the gala was the culmination of months of hard work, for me it was an opportunity to feel like I am amid coworkers who turned into family; ensuring everyone got time to have a meal, found a comfortable space in New York City, were able to get home on time and are safe and healthy.

A Holiday Season to Remember

Cultural Vistas holiday soiree in Washington, D.C.

Last year gave me my first ever experience of the American holiday season, one that I’ll remember and cherish always. From the fun and competitive Halloween celebration at Cultural Vistas to the thanksgiving meal and the holiday soiree, putting together events and being a part of them was a memorable experience for someone who was witnessing this side of the American culture for the first time.

The Adventures Along the Way

One of my main goals when I came to United States for a year was to explore and travel as much as possible. I came with a goal of going some place new every month and although skeptical because that was aiming a bit high, I was able to do it. I spent many weekends in New York City experiencing the city like a true local.

My adventures spread from the West Coast to Niagara Falls and across the border in Quebec and I’ll always look back at these adventures with fond memories.

Watching Phantom of the Opera on Broadway – one of the many memorable experiences of my year in the U.S.

While I may have changed in more ways than I can count over the course of the year, I have gradually become an advocate for what Cultural Vistas truly stands for – international exchange and its ability to make the world a more inclusive place. I look forward to sharing the experiences I gathered last year with the world and moving our mission forward.

After all, Vistan for a year, Vistan for life!

Hafsah Sarfraz

Hafsah Sarfraz

Hafsah served as Communications Fellow at Cultural Vistas in 2019-20. Prior to that, she worked at World Learning, USAID, M&C Saatchi, and Express Tribune, an international partner of the New York Times. She is passionate about storytelling, travel, arts, culture, and learning.

View all posts by Hafsah Sarfraz

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