Every year, the Department of State and Institute of International Education (IIE) organize special enrichment seminars for first-year Fulbright Foreign Students studying at universities across the United States.
From May 4 through May 9, 2016, IIE organized a “democracy in action” seminar in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to acquaint visiting Fulbrighters from more than 100 different countries with U.S. politics and elections. As a U.S. Fulbright alum, I was invited to participate and facilitate the conference, and to provide mentorship to the visiting Fulbright students. This conference, in particular, is only done every four years to coincide with the U.S. presidential election. This year provided the participants a fascinating look into how the media and changing demographics are influencing the race. The keynote speaker was Susan Milligan of U.S. News and World Report who spoke about how America’s racial, ethnic, and religious minorities are influencing the election and changing the face of the nation.
Other speakers included Tom Healy, appointed by President Barack Obama in 2011 to the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, who talked about the history of the Fulbright Program and the significance of international educational exchange in forging relationships between countries. William Rosenberg, professor of political science at Drexel University led a panel discussion with author Gary Woodward and reporter Bruce Gordon about the role of media in presenting information related to elections and the responsibility they have in shaping public opinion and political discourse. The visiting Fulbrighters who attended the conference were able to engage with the speakers and asked thoughtful questions, allowing everyone in the room – myself included – insight into how the rest of the world perceived the state of the presidential race in the United States.
On Friday evening, all the visiting Fulbrighters were invited to stay with local host families. Saturday morning, I helped manage a group of students in a community service project. We planted a peace garden and created a refuge for children living in the poverty and crime stricken neighborhood of Kensington, Philadelphia. This turned into one of my favorite aspects of the trip as I watched a run-down, empty lot transform into a colorful space in a short amount of time. I liked knowing that we were making a difference and helping give a community that has been plagued by drugs and violence a small ray of hope.
The culmination of the seminar was a simulation of the U.S. elections in which two foreign Fulbright students would be nominated and run for president and vice president. The rest of the students represented the ten swing states that typically decide the U.S. elections. They were given two issues: environmental and immigration policy and were given information about how each state relates to these two issues. The candidates had to campaign in each state and explain how they would address these issues as a whole and how they might impact each of the states. I helped facilitate discussion in the “state of Ohio,” answering student questions about electoral politics and how presidents are elected in America. The results of the simulation highlighted just how complicated U.S. elections really are: the popular vote was split 50-50, yet one candidate won due to earning more points in the Electoral College.
This Fulbright Enrichment Seminar is just one of many that the Fulbright Program puts on each year. Fulbright aims to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United Sates and the people of other countries, to foster personal growth, and to forge lasting relations with people around the world. It can open many doors and indeed has opened many for me. I owe a debt of gratitude to the program for not only sending me overseas, but for all the experiences that I have had as a result – graduate school, a U.S. Department of State internship, this seminar where I was able to connect with students from around the world, and so much more. These are experiences that I will take with me wherever I go.
Greta Starrett is a second year MA student in the REECAS program at UW. She completed an internship in summer 2015 for the U.S. Department of State at the embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia.