We can all think back to specific times in our lives when something changed. A change in our perspective, how we see the world and our future in it.
At our recent Eisenhower Fellowships Orientation in Philadelphia I had the privilege to spend time with the 22 International Fellows and 10 USA Fellows. Each of these individuals is absolutely amazing. Not only in their professional careers and all they have accomplished, but most importantly as people who are passionate about serving others, motivated to bring lasting change and move ideas into action.
As an Eisenhower Fellow you have the incredible opportunity to pick two countries, anywhere in the world, to explore a specific area of interest and its correlation to the Eisenhower Fellowships mission:
Eisenhower Fellowships identifies, empowers and connects innovative leaders through a transformative fellowship experience and lifelong engagement in a global network of dynamic change agents committed to creating a world more peaceful, prosperous and just.
For my fellowship I have focused on research parks and their role in the convergence of science and technology with the humanities, design and economic development.
During our orientation I was looking forward to spending time with an Eisenhower Fellow from Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Abaalkheil, because I plan to travel there this year as a part of my fellowship experience. Saudi has many research parks and techno valleys that will be an excellent basis of learning to understand how the Kingdom uses design and partnerships to advance collaboration and prosperity. I know little about Saudi Arabia, and since I am hoping to meet with university, government and industry leaders focused on the creation of innovative projects and places, I was excited to share my plans with Mohammed and hear his thoughts on my proposal.
During my reflection over these weeks since our orientation, I have discovered that the idea of convergence goes beyond my initial concept, and must also capture the value of bringing together diverse cultures, people and ideas. My conversations with Mohammed brought this idea to light and created a much more personal motivation to embrace my time in Saudi Arabia.
Let’s be honest, if you watch modern media in the United States, your knowledge of Saudi Arabia is likely myopic. Often the stories are framed with conflict, unrest and a distrust of the west. Since being selected as an Eisenhower Fellow, I often share with anyone that will listen my excitement for the opportunity ahead to learn about new ideas, cultures and places. But when I share that I plan to go to Saudi Arabia I often get strange looks, curious questions and even concern. Some are more direct than others, but the general response is “Why would you go there?”
It is exactly these looks of confusion and concern that feed my desire to go to Saudi. You see, I know a secret that shouldn’t be one: The people of Saudi Arabia are wonderful people! They care for each other and they love their families… just like you. Like Americans, they hope for a brighter future for their children. They desire peace and the ability to work with others and create a better world. I know this is true because I’ve met Mohammed, and others from the Middle East, and spent time with them to learn about their interests and their hopes. But I also recognize that much of what we hear on the news and social media does not feed this message of hope, prosperity and friendship. And, I also recognize that the only way to change that perception is one person at a time, one friendship at a time, and one meaningful conversation where you learn something new that allows you to find a greater respect for another culture, people, religion, and community.
There’s only one way to change how people from the United States and Saudi Arabia view each other. It is not complex and does not require an act of government or the media. It requires you… And a willing heart to reach out, listen, and grow. I recognize it may sound cliché and simple, but that makes it all the more appealing. However, to bring it to life beyond just words, is also very difficult. You must set your own perceptions aside and be open to hearing perspectives that might go against things you may have been taught your entire life. Without going to see for yourself, or spending time together, your preconceived notions about another people, another faith or another country will remain the same.
I am excited to go to Saudi Arabia. I am excited to spend time with Mohammed. I am excited to make new friends. And, I’m excited to come home and tell everyone about the experiences and relationships that I’ve been privileged enough to grow. Hopefully my experience will inspire others to go out and do the same thing – either in our own communities or around the world.
My time with Mohammed changed me and gave me new eyes for what could be. Our conversations gave me hope that we could all be instruments of change… if only we are willing.