10pm, 24th Sep, we was picked up from the airport after 24-hour-flight. Sophie was the first student mentor I met. It was super cold outside, maybe because of the rain. I already missed home and felt so complicated. It was a mix of a little bit tiredness, also happiness and excitement because…. this was America, with amazing opportunities of which I even have never dare to dream before, worries and somehow stress because I thought I didn’t prepare myself well enough to join those talented young leaders… But, anyway, I was in America and I would do my best! *yay me*
I wish my writing can be better to describe how wonderful this trip is to me. Five weeks is just right enough for me to study something interesting, to make close friendships, to explore new land, to refresh myself and to bring those experiences back home, too. The following pieces of writing as my diary are just some highlight of this YSEALI program.
I. I am a student again – School in Nebraska
In the very first day, we all had a quick tour in the campus and I did not literally close my eye and … mouth, too. Compared with my 2-building-university back home, UNO is too much for me. Omaha welcomed us with a beautiful sunny day, which intentionally made the campus brighter and much more attractive for me. I tried to catch up with all friends and listened to Cassidy’s detail introduction but could not prevent myself stop here and there to contemplate for a while, in front of those big buildings.
If I can choose one place in campus as my favourite, it would be the UNO library. This is the best library ever for me. Library with books (of course and a lot) and a lot of spaces for studying, both for group study rooms with boards, projectors and screens as well as private rooms just like a phone booth. There are many chairs and tables where students can take a seat and read books as long as they want. Lights, pictures, furnitures and decorations are just so right for reading. The library opens everyday from 7am to 9pm and till 2am in weekend! They have bookshelves can literally move as in Harry Potter film series. I suddenly remember those times in my university, how difficult to find a place to study together and coffee shop sometimes is a little bit expensive for us. Our library is just a rooms and books are out of date and closes at 4pm as well as weekend. I personally like the creative lab within the library where they provide 3D-printers, special computers for designing, audio devices, etc.
About classes at UNO, we did not have many chances to join their regular classes except for Prof. Patrick’s ones, it is actually the class in my imagination. Professor does not teach, he guides his students to study by themselves. They read news, watch TED videos, meet speakers…. During class time, they raise a lot, I mean a lot, questions and openly discuss with very little hesitation. I also did enjoy a lot with Prof. Alizabeth’s lecture about climate change. I think I can feel every single sentence she said was fulfilled with passion. By the way, I have never know that climate change can be considered through political lense, in term of developing and developed countries with a bunch of different perspectives.
Not only at university, we also had chance to visit an elementary and a high school in Scottsbluff, Western Nebraska. There were 3 things making me impressive the most. First, even in rural area, school’s facilities are just uber amazing, so many times better than my university, especially for practical classes, art potential developments such as musical classrooms, fine art clubs and physical health facility (gym and playground). Second, respect to individualism: no uniform for school, personal locks, blanket in class if feeling cold, raising hands for questions anytime in classes. Third, decoration in each classroom, maybe because each room is used for a specific subject (students move, teachers stay), fits so well with the theme of the subject they study. Somehow, this could activate and help psychologically students to concentrate and desire to learn during classes. We have a elementary teacher as YSEALI delegates, from Indonesia, Akbar and the only sentence he said to me during the visit is “What? They tell us this is rural area. Really?” *Yep*
II. When I was guided to get an insight of me – Gallup session
Personally, they brought me a new perspective of personal development. I just realize that I have been caring too much about my weaknesses and trying to find a way to improve them. However, as they told “Improving your weakness helps you avoid failure, but increasing your strengths leads you to excellence”. Thus, it’d had better to do both but pay more attention and put more effort in things leading you faster. Some of those ideas, somehow, are different to “growth mindset” theory (A book I haven’t finished yet), but I still can find it interesting and how to use both of these beliefs.
The result of personal strength-test surprised me not because they weren’t true but the fact that, they exactly described me as a person I am and I want to be. I have already known that, but I think I just a little bit ignored. Those parts of me deserve more. As an individual, I am restorative, responsibility and disciplined. And in entrepreneurship, I am an activator. I was asked for a commitment to develop and unlock my full potential.
Follow up, I did enjoy the indeep discussion with Val about each of those 10 first strengths and how they are related to each other. My confidence was boosted and my belief was consolidated that I am on the right track of my life. There is a lot of things needing to be done but it helps me make the right decision or, even make every decision right.
In addition, from employees’ perspective, it would be an ideal place to work and really love your job IF your supervisor is someone who understands your strengths, appreciates your life values, and is willing to give you a hand pushing you much further than you can do by yourself. In the shoes of a leader, I should understand and treat my teammates in that way, too.
III. Another America that I’ve never known before – Social organizations
“American is not a fantasy land. We have a lot problems needing to be solved and are struggling dealing with it. But, we are making progress with hard efforts!” – Patrick McNamara.
During 5 weeks of YSEALI program, we were educated, introduced within academic program, or through visit various social organizations, or even just by reading a piece of news, talking to someone on the bus. The program was perfectly designed for us to explore America, especially in term of civic engagement. The following notes are those highlight for me, personally.
1. Life of a non-citizen in the land of the great America
America is known as the great land, the fantasy land or whatever people believe, where they can have a better life. The stories turn out so different in reality. I do not remember exactly but we had a lot of classes, discussion and experience related to refugee in the US. This was brand new to me, though. Among those activities and organization, YATES made me impressed the most.
YATES, a public school for refugees, provides amazingly holistic education and services. Refugees come from over 40 countries and cultures, speak in 50 different languages, from kids younger than 3 to seniors over 60s year olds and uncountable stories in their life. Here, they study in the same classes, live together in both their group and common community. Classes include law instructions, English, sewing, nutrition and parenting classes, health and safety seminars, special need for disadvantaged children, seniors program (help the old learn English, build relationship with each other to prevent mental disorder and depression due to loneliness at home) and etc. In term of service, they have community garden, donate center and bunch of different program for refugees. There is no specific reason but I am so in love with Mrs. Suzanne’s introduction presentation. It is beyond passionate.
Another surprise for me is Thrive club, a club for young leaders among refugees community with variety of activities including giving back to society. That is just so inspirational because while struggling with their lives, they still hold a spirit to pay it forward.
In addition, even their decoration along the corridor, up along the stair and inside every single room also amazed me a lot. It is not only about school or lessons but also express cultures, places where they come from and art work from kids and adults (art and culture again,you know what, it’s powerful). I wanted to buy some sewing products but unfortunately, they haven’t had any product available for sell yet.
Visit to Malcome X, South Omaha also reminds me of the society diversity here and how hard they fight to keep their voice up while live peaceful with others. It’s easy to say but the process is years to years, generation to generation and endless conflict, preconception included.
2. Youth education and development – Boys Town
“He ain’t heavy, Father. He’s my brother.”
Although education in the US has been considered as one at the top and is a priority of investment, not every child here has the same chance to be educated equally. Boys Town Omaha can be called as a village dedicated to provide education, care and treatment for at-risk children. There are 2 points I would love to noted down. Firstly, the family approach model. Children live with their “new” family and parents whose job is to take care of, be accompanied and share daily life closely with those kids. “Parents” are recruited, trained and make commitment during the time of program. As family plays an undeniable role in the development of a kid and it is not only about genetic (or blood, whatever!) relationship, but all about the love and care. Secondly, they mention about the research hospital downtown where studies and research are conducted for specific health problems among those children (mental health and youth development).
3. Non Government Organizations (NGOs) panel
NGOs panel discussion is one of my favorite highlight during the YSEALI journey, too (I just wonder why is so many highlight/favourite, tho :D). Four hours sharing and discussion were pretty short for those amazing work they have been contributing. Each organization is an individual and unique story to tell, but all of them share the same passion and enthusiasm in putting best efforts they have to help others, to make Omaha a better place. “Child protection” with co-ordinated model, in which every case they approach was involved by multiple social and governmental organizations: child’s parents, social workers, medical providers, polices… “Girl Inc” with one-by-one ear and eye approach: their work is not about statistic on report only, they develop mentorship one-by-one and care about how much each girl progress during the program by close relationship and daily activities together, always celebrate small victory. “College possible” with the story about media power: how to use media tools to make community get involved. And “HIV-AIDS program” with one of the best advice in term of government relation: make our idea become their, so they will invest in THEIR idea instead of our. Afterward, do not stop trying because you do not know someday, your voice is loud enough to make a change in policy for the whole country.
During the discussion, I was trying to call one of my sis who is working with her mind and heart in a community center back in Vietnam but I could not make it. I wished she were there to share her stories, too. All those social workers and volunteers there are the most amazing and bravest people I know.
4. When all you need is a shelter – Homeless people in Portland
I still remember the wet eyes looking at me as a smile and saying thank you when I tried to give some cookies to the old man at Central City Concern in Portland. I do not know why that image is so powerful in my mind. I feel regret that not stay a little while and listen to his story.
Homeless people can be anyone no matter how old they are, what their occupation is, which education level they have archived or where they come from. Portland is a big city with tons of high buildings, advanced public transportation, rows of tasty food truck, crowded chinatown at night and beautiful bridges but, I can easily see so many people lying down on streets, sitting at the corners or trying to cover themselves by old blanket under those huge bridges.
The Central City Concern is working to provide Home – Health – Jobs by Communicate – Consider – Collaborate. The Center has They have been trying a lot, making improvement but the issue keeps rising…
IV. Community engagement
1. When the old get involved with their wisdom
Omaha World Affair’s Council is a group of Omaha citizen, most of them are old, meeting once a month or every two months and sharing knowledge/experience or discussing about “World Affair”. To me, that’s how they protect themselves from bias information, I mean “media trap” and learn to listen to others perspective. In such a short dinner we had together, there were a lot long stories to share. Some of them, like Mr.Rich, travel to grow up and old. He has been in 107 countries (seriously?) and revisited some places for several times (nah, he is serious!). The feeling when you talk to someone who knows every single place you mention or ask about, it’s just beyond cool!
2. Police meeting, Omaha town hall and Douglas county meeting
During 4 weeks at UNO, we learnt a lot about the governmental structure, both at national level and local level and how it works to implement the best of democracy. That is about transparency and deep-understanding through sufficient communication between residents and governmental organizations. I was so surprised how straightful they communicate about every issue and discuss to find solutions.
V. Live in an American way of life
1. In the Heartland of America
Before I came here, someone told me about a America super busy and most of them live an individual life – keep being busy with work, moving all the times, eating fast food… I may see those things in Washington DC, not in Omaha. People here are so nice to each other. “Good morning” “Have a nice day!” “Thank you” “Im sorry” …. are on the list of most frequent spoken statements. Personally, my heart always melt a little bit when catching the smiling eyes and nod from someone inside the cars while I am trying to cross the road in rush.
2. Let’s have dinner together
Speaking of dinner for special guests, my mom usually has to spend a lot of time preparing and serving foods and cleaning up everything after that. Although I really love my mom’s food, it is too tired for mothers, sisters, aunts for a dinner all about foods. I can see a little difference here, we have great dinners together with simple foods, serve ourselves and spend most of the time for sharing stories, singing some songs and getting to know each other better. I think I’ll do this kind of dinner back home from now on.
The very first beautiful dinner we had was with Patrick family in Omaha. We learnt a little bit about ceremonials of religion – culture, share our own geography – history – national anthems and have some live music from Patrick’s family music band, during dinner time. I enjoyed a lot, felt like my mind can be fuller than my stomach, though. It was such a sweet welcome for us to Omaha – the heartland of America.
The second time we were invited to a dinner was at Mrs. Noreen’s home. She made me miss my grandma, though I did not have many chances to meet my grandma frequently when she was still with us. One of the best moments we had there was when we sit around, listen to her life story and share our thoughts about “What do you stand for?”: Kindness, Forgiveness, Passion, Empathy, Responsibility….. We also talked about the book named “100 life’s changing the worlds”. I felt a little bit embarrassed for my limited knowledge and did not know some of those great people. It took me several weeks to find inside me the answer for the question “What do you stand for?”, very carefully and seriously!
And I know I’ve just felt in love with American’s warm dinners when we went to Katie’s house! It was like a break for us to sit down together and have talks between busy schedule. I love Katie’s laugh a lot (and Mardihyah also), they really know how to wash away all worries and sadness in my mind by just laughing with me.
The last dinner we had together was with Patrick’s parents in Portland. The moment when we stepped in, I felt so familiar, just like Mrs. Noreen’s: cozy home filled with love from heart and wisdom from mind. They asked us even tougher questions “What kind of leader you want to become?”, “Do you want to work for your government?”… I don’t know how but I felt they would know the answer just by looking at our young and ambitious eyes. By the way, it was so sweet to see how Patrick and his parents have talk: he is always still their beloved little kid 🙂
3. Keep moving around and forward
It is just happened for me to start asking everyone I met about how many places they lived before moving to their current place or how many countries they have travelled to. It is just amazingly talking to someone who travel, understand culture and is able to answer non-stop-asking girl like me. As mentioned above, I would love to talk about Mr.Rich again, with his record of 107 countries. I also had chance to talk to Mr. Tom, who used to work for the air force. Because of both the job requirement and his enjoyment in moving, his journey of life is across the US and to so many different countries, too. It’s just so beautiful!
4. I can feel my right brain dancing – Art in life and inspiring architecture
Art galleries: LiDun walked with me to some art shops and galleries, downtown in Omaha (and I can also easily see some galleries here and there during every trip). Some of those pieces of art are made by students who need money for colleges. I wish art lovers in Vietnam also can find a way to live with their talents in art and children with art creative potential should be appreciated and nourished. At the end, I finally visited a photography gallery of a naturist who spends his life traveling, capturing and telling stories of the nature and wildlife.
Performing art daily: Students at UNO also organize art activities themselves. The first play we watched here named Shakepeare’s Dog to raise fund for an animal center. Their performance was indeed impressive for me. There is a community playhouse pretty close UNO where they perform art on stage, like plays, musics, dances or ballets. I did not have chance to enjoy so much performing art this time, but it is a must next time for me.
Building and architecture: Each building here looks just like a museum, for me. In Omaha, I love the dark or grey color of bricks and stones they use, love each small gardens in front with green grass and those yellow leaves fall from the other trees. When going downtown, I really love the Old Market area. They keep the outside appearance but reconstruct inside for stores, restaurants and art shops. My English is so terrible that I cannot find a proper word to describe how amazing it is, like a big photography studio. Then, I exploded with the capitol building of state Nebraska in Lincoln. The building is a story itself, a story of Nebraska inside out amazing.
Woala, Washington DC seems to be a big museum complex! I wish we could have had a little bit time more there. We visited most of the famous places: monumentS, museumS, newseum, the library of Congress, the White House, the Capitol building… but I cannot feel enough. I almost run in and out each huge museum. They are speechlessly amazing!!!! Although my knowledge about art is very limited, my heart beats a little bit faster and my right brain starts to dance, I think.
VI. Home stay in Scottsbluff
My host family is a widow living alone with her 4 cats and 2 dogs. We spent 3 nights at her home in a seperated apartment upstairs, but I did enjoy most of the time downstairs in her cozy, vintage-decorated kitchen and living room. She and I had a wonderful time talking a lot about her life story during the time she worked as an occupational nurse for 3 different hospitals. It was a difficult time but the thing keep her stay with the job was her patients. Her favorite character in Grey’s anatomy is Dr. Grey (mother) because of her decision to choose an extraordinary career and to sacrify her personal happy family (I don’t, my favorite is Dr. Karev). She must be strong, literaturely, because of the breast cancer surgery – chemotherapy in 2001, depression and anxiety when her husband passing away one and a half years ago, diabetes and back pain (as she said what doesn’t kill you make you stronger). She also shared about her marriage since the day they were friends in high school, met again in college and so on. She hoped me soon find my loving one, the one mature enough, quite enough in this non-stop talking world and strong enough to stay with me when I cannot stand alone. We talked a little bit about art because I was so in love with the decoration inside the house. She somehow should write a book about her life.
We did not cook or eat at home, but went out for dinner at a typical American steakhouse and bar. The bar is used to be a theater, now equipped with (at least) 6 large screens for different sport matches at the same time, game machines and basketball in a corner and of course, many tables as well as chairs. It was noisy but we can still talk to each others while having “enormous” burger.
Ms.Pat doesn’t like Walmart because their business is all about profit without returning anything back to the community. She drives 10 more minutes to shop at a local farmer grocery other than buying anything in a very nearby Walmart.
Niel is her 8 year-old grandson. He is double-super lovely, never stops talking and doing something. He cannot sit down for at least 5 minutes and only is concentrated in playing lego or domino. We watched Big Hero (his favorite) together and he repeated exactly every single words from the movie (he had watched this countless time before). Niel loves school, except homework, as he said. Niel also showed us his daily “work” at home with his friends: goats, horses, chickens and cats. He is such a smart boy with unexpected questions and statements coming up in so many ways: “I am thinking about my life when I get older. Which one do you want to be when you get old, a farmer or a city-based worker?”, “Let me tell you, I have a girl friend and I’ll invite her to dance in the next prompt party”, “It’s Friday but I have to do my homework because I want to skip my 3rd grade and I am working hard”… Oh Gosh! I am dying wanna have a son just like him.
This is the third time Mrs.Pat has hosted foreign visitors at her cozy home. The last person staying with her was a nurse student. She had studied there for almost 2 years before coming back home in Afghanistan. The thing was after working at a local hospital for a while, she decided to quit her job. The reason, just so true, she had studied in such a model condition here in the great America, she cannot adjust and admit the worse situation in Afghanistan. Some lessons learned for me.
I am out of vocabulary to describe all the moments we have together :D. We come with our stories and would love to share everything together. Just remember, when Srun got hurt because of jumping-shot, we made an epic joke: we have a doctor and a pharmacist to take care about medical stuffs, we have lawer to protect him in front of the court, also have social workers to make sure the follow-up process and journalists start to interview the victim… From that moment, I realize that we do understand our role, ready to go for it, care about each other and willing to work together. #PoorSrun by the way 😀
We eat together every morning at Sonesta home, study together through every class, sleep together on the bus (all in suit), sing together our theme song… Everything together! Some of us are so talented in communication to talk and be the center of our group, the others use the quiet talents to share the feelings and get to conversation one by one insightly. Some of us present idea as experts in the field, the others approach in such a beautifully brand new perspective based on diverse background we have. Some of us can play music and sing to make the moment really into our soul, the others try to catch those memories into a photo frame! Don’t stop being together! “May your adventures bring you closer together, even as they take you far from home”
Coming back after 5-breakthrough-weeks
I am (and we are) suffering a real culture shock and withdrawal symptoms, together again. We keep sending message, letter, notes, photos and finding each other around as usual as the last 5 weeks! I am missing all of you but, I feel happy and optimistic. We have changed ourselves somehow during the time together, and better. Many reunion times are waiting for us ahead! Looking for the next 6 months and afterward, how can we contribute to our community, to be a better place!
Sai Gon, 3rd November, 2016