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Where have you been?
“I have to admit, when Saroopa told us that our days at MSU would go by in the blink of an eye during the pre-departure orientation I didn’t believe her. 4 weeks…that’s an entire month, right?”
This is how my closing remarks, on my last day at Michigan State University, started. Needless to say, Saroopa Taylor, our extraordinary Program Coordinator, was right. My SUSI experience began in Washington D.C., where I had the opportunity to meet every participant from each of the three Institutes (Civic Engagement, my own, Journalism & Media and Environmental Issues) through the program launch conference. We were also introduced to the staff of Meridian, our program administrators, and in particular Program Officer Andrew Barbagallo, with whom I had the pleasure to exchange some words in Italian. It was in Michigan, however, that the real adventure took place, eventually ending with a short stop in Atlanta for our final study tour.
Tell us how it went
Those in the capital were days of constantly getting to know new people whose perspectives were often really different from mine and who not only had come from other European countries but also from the U.S. itself, like the students of the Community College Global Affairs Fellowship program with whom we shared a BBQ dinner. Taking in the majesty of the White House and all the Washington landmarks for the first time was an indescribable emotion, just like the ones I felt while leaving the city and everything I wouldn’t bring to Michigan with me. Michigan State University became my home for the following four weeks, and the 19 students I spent them with, my family. Together we dove into the American college experience, an immersion that wouldn’t have been complete without the due 4th of July celebrations. We had the honor to represent the MSU VIPP during the Lansing parade and to witness a Lugnuts victory crowned by a spectacular firework show (and by a good old hot dog). Kind enough to show me what a typical day in the USA is like were Rod and Kim Friesen, who welcomed me into their home as if I were part of the family and whose immense house preserves the memories of students from all over the world.
The Civic Engagement Institute culminated in the presentation of our Community Action Projects (CAP), action plans aimed towards our home communities and on which each of us worked and perfected thanks to the help of Graduate Student Assistants Stephie Kang and Madiha Ghous, as well as of professor Salah Hassan, Academic Director and host of many of our sessions. In Atlanta, we retraced the life of Martin Luther King Jr. through a tour of The King Center, where the activist is still buried today. One sip of Diet Coke at a time we then walked down the halls of the famous Coca-Cola museum and, for those of us who hadn’t had enough, checking out the Georgia Aquarium seemed like a great idea. After one last dinner together – and after exchanging an Arrivederci with Andrew – the only thing separating us from our respective countries was now a flight.
How would you describe a typical day?
Each day could not begin if not after a generous breakfast at Snyder-Phillips Hall, also called The Gallery or Sny-Phi, as suggested by our CAs. The latter is short for Cultural Ambassadors, a group of four amazing MSU students our own age tasked with escorting us across campus, often on board a van. Engaging academic sessions in the morning gave way to afternoons dedicated to volunteering, either spent helping adult or child refugees learn English at the Refugee Development Center or giving an extra pair of hands to the activities of the Cristo Rey Community Center. Numerous were occasions to explore the mitten state: from site visits to Detroit and Lansing, where we visited the Capitol and the Supreme Court, all the way to Grand Haven on the eastern coast of Lake Michigan. The campus and the city of East Lansing left no room for boredom. Whether we wanted to spend a night with a basketball game, experience the thrill of kayaking or discover innate talents through archery Michigan State was there to make our sports dreams come true. I remember every corner of Grand River Ave by heart, with its endless merch stores and ever-present fast food chains, from which you could get a glimpse of a fraternity house. And when the weather was against us, the Owen Hall basement was always there to welcome us with open arms… or tables: a table tennis one, a pool one, or one good enough to keep others from stealing a look at your cards during UNO games.
What did you learn from this experience?
This program has taught me what it means to be a true leader, making me aware of my strengths and my weaknesses, and showing me the value that civic engagement has – and has had – in the American world as well as our own ones. It also made me understand that bonds between people go beyond every barrier: linguistic, cultural, geographic or anything we believe can limit ourselves. I’m writing this article after coming back from a tour of the major Italian cities I just gave to one of the other participants. One, in fact, of those I can now call some of my best friends. Every single reality, every single individual I encountered has enriched me on many levels and has left indelible memories in my mind. When people ask me how my SUSI experience was I often find myself inadvertently replying “It changed me”, but the truth is it pushed me to change. To quote my closing speech one more time: “[…] I was already a different person, I just needed a push. SUSI has been the pat on the back that makes you start running, that voice in your head that says ‘You’re free.. to be yourself, to live your life, and to speak your truth.’ This program has helped me embrace the new person I was becoming, shaped by the past but grounded in the present and open to future possibilities.”
What will you not be able to forget about your month in the USA?
Unfortunately for me, or luckily, I won’t be able to forget anything. Ever since I came home from the U.S. my mind has made a habit of going back in time of its own accord, taking me on a walk with the others across the Red Cedar while I’m busy doing something else. And not a day goes by where I don’t think about those five weeks and how lucky I am to be able to talk about them. I owe this privilege to professor Vincenzo Bavaro, without whom I probably wouldn’t have discovered this opportunity and who encouraged me to seize it from the beginning, guiding me through any doubt or difficulty. Great source of motivation and inspiration was also professor Alfonso Gruosso, whose priceless lessons ave not only helped me improve my English but also understand the importance of investing in my future and believing in myself. I would also like to thank everyone who has made this experience possible, as well as those who contributed to turn it into an unforgettable one. If I haven’t already mentioned you, you know who you are. I am and will forever be grateful to the Fulbright Commission and the U.S. Department of State for choosing me to represent my country in what turned out to be not only an important cultural exchange, but a turning point in my life.