Wednesday, September 24, 2014

VCU Humphrey Fellowship - Jean-Li's August Blog

August – A month of new beginnings and change

Wow! Like the old adage says, “Time really flies, when you’re busy having fun”. It’s been slightly more than a month since I arrived in Richmond, Virginia and so much has happened already. When I first found out I was placed at Virginia Commonwealth University I had to do an internet search, as I’ve never heard of Richmond and didn't know much about Virginia either. All I ever knew about Virginia were the Blue Ridge Mountains from John Denver’s famous song, “Take me home, country road”.
I can now safely say that VCU and Richmond have been very welcoming since the very first day I arrived. Despite being away from family and loved ones, I am not alone as I now have an international family in the form of my HHH fellows as well as the supervisors and IIE staff and their families. Furthermore, my friendship family has also provided excellent American hospitality.
When I touched down at Richmond Airport after a 30-hour plus flight via Tokyo and Texas, I was met by a gentleman with a big smile and big heart – Dwight. He even brought me for my 1st American meal – a bacon burger and milk shake. Yummy! After the meal, I was brought to the place I would call home for the next 9 – 10 months, the GEO apartments. Having had a long flight, all I could think of was a warm shower and bed. As I had arrived earlier than the other fellows, I had the opportunity to explore Richmond on foot. I must say, Richmond has some really gorgeous parks, stately old historical buildings plus a wide selection of international eateries. I also had the opportunity to go with Diane, Randy’s wife to watch a tennis match in Fairfax.
We started the first day of orientation on the 6th of August with an important matter to us Fellows – MONEY. Thanks to IIE, our stipend cheques were already waiting for us at the HHH fellowship offices in Old City Hall. Jordan from the bank helped us to open bank accounts so we could deposit the stipends. That evening, Pam Haney gave us a brief introduction to the GEO housing and the appliances in the apartment. For some of us, a couple of the appliances were totally new as they were not common in our home countries. Following that, we had our first exposure with the VCU GLOBE students. These students not only helped us to familiarize ourselves with the Campus Connector plying between the Monroe Park Campus and the MCV Campus, they also assisted us with shopping for mobile phones and grocery in Kroger and Target. Terima kasih or thank you for a job well done and making our lives a little easier VCU GLOBE!
HHH fellows with the students of VCU Globe and Associate Director Leslie Bozeman

The next few days of orientation included the nitty-gritty such as getting our student IDs and building passes to the more important matters of the HHH program requirements, IIE policies, administrative paperwork and importantly our Individual Program Plans (IPP). We also made a trip to the Social Security office along Cary Street and the visit turned out much better than expected. All but one of the fellows were issues the SSN. We were also briefed on the life and vision of Hubert H. Humprey, the namesake of the program. It was truly inspiring to hear about his life and the legacy that he left which has touched many from all walks of life around the world. I am truly blessed to be a beneficiary of this legacy.
Aside from the above, we attended our first workshop on cross-cultural communication. Dr. Leslie Bozeman facilitated the workshop and it was interesting to learn that communication norms in one culture may not be acceptable in another. Everyone participated and I believe our group does not have too much problems with communication. On our final Friday during orientation, Dr. Bill Newmann gave us a talk on US Foreign Policy. There was a lot of debate on some of the policies that was brought up, especially if it involved other nations.
Classes started at the end of August. For me, the experience of being back in a classroom took some getting used to. Furthermore, the education system here differs greatly from Malaysian universities. Here we are encouraged to participate, ask and comment. The lecturers are just facilitators of the learning process. Also, learning is very much self-directed. I might be making small baby steps but I am slowly but surely making progress in this area!
However, it was not all work and no play. After all, part of the HHH program was to experience American culture. Our first visit was to the beautiful Maymont Park for a picnic and walkabout. The weather was perfect and I truly enjoyed the Japanese garden and water features there. I will definitely be back to enjoy the lovely gardens.

Unity in diversity

Next was a treat for art lovers – the Virginia Museum of Fine Art or VMFA. One visit to this place was not enough as it housed a large collection of both ancient as well as modern art. I have made 2 visits to this place but have yet to completely view their extensive collection. The well-preserved animal mummies particularly intrigued me!

VMFA visit

A canal cruise along the James River was also arranged one afternoon. We had the whole boat to ourselves and the captain of the boat gave an enthusiastic account of the canal in its heydays. The combination of the warm weather and the rocking motion of the boat was even enough to lull some to sleep.

A boat full of internationals

Another highlight was the Capitol tour. This building, a stone’s throw away from Old City Hall had plenty of history associated with it and our guide did a terrific job regaling us with it. We not only left the building with a deeper understanding of the Commonwealth of Virginia but also got to know about the Architect of Liberty, Thomas Jefferson.

The Virginia State Capitol

To round up our activities in August, let us not forget about friends & food. We attended two welcome parties; one hosted by Bob Balster and his wife in their beautiful home, the other by the GEO office in the historic Robertson alumni house. I had the opportunity to meet a fellow Malaysian who was also a VCU Humphrey alumnus, Muzafar. I must say, the food at both the venues was delicious and I could not help but have seconds.

Fellow Malaysians at VCU

As August was also the month Malaysia gained her independence, I volunteered to be the first to host the movie night. The menu for the night was nasi lemak (coconut infused rice) with spicy prawn sambal and stir fried morning glory. For those who were not accustomed to the spices, I prepared chicken dumplings as well. Dessert was sago gula melaka – a sticky, sweet and salty concoction made out of tapioca pearls, palm sugar and coconut milk! This was a hit among the fellows and some even had a second helping. The movie shown was ‘The journey’, a touching movie about family ties, respect and also filial piety. Not surprising, there were some wet eyes at the end of the movie.

Well, that about wraps up the busy month of August. Indeed it was a month of new beginnings for many of us. It also involved change, but in a good way. I look forward to the rest of the coming months and I believe much is in-store for us. I take this opportunity to wish everyone SELAMAT BERJAYA or may success be with you and may this be a start to lifelong friendships!