The Cultural Vistas Fellowship program operates with the mission of affording the opportunity of international professional development for traditionally underrepresented students, particularly those who have not traveled outside the United States before. I am a first generation college student and a women in a STEM major, environmental science. Sustainability was the theme for the 2013 Cultural Vistas Fellowship. The program seemed like a great fit for me, especially because of the the financial assistance it offered. Although I had scholarships through my university and have always worked at least part time, it really wasn't feasible for me to do any of the abroad programs through my school without taking out loans to do so. Thus when I was offered the fellowship to intern with an environmental awareness organization in Singapore for the summer through Cultural Vistas, I felt incredibly grateful.
Why did you decide to intern abroad with Cultural Vistas?
What did Cultural Vistas do for you and what did you need to do on your own?
The Cultural Vistas program set up a great support network for the fellows. We were placing in housing, courtesy the program, individually matched with internships in our host companies, and we're given in country contacts in case any help was ever needed. It was a very reassuring system for me, as this was my first time abroad and I was headed to literally the opposite side of the globe--from Minneapolis to Singapore.
Although the framework for success was given to us by Cultural Vistas, experiencing the culture of the host country to its fullest was really the responsibility of the individual fellow. I am an introvert at heart, but I new that this was the time to push my comfort zone; Cultural Vistas could not do that for me. I really can look back and be proud of how engaged I was with the culture because I let go of my inhibitions.
Tell us about any interesting cultural tidbits you noticed about your country.
Singapore is a mixing pot, brimming with people of different ethnic backgrounds. It has four official languages: English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. Often, when school children visited with the environmental organization that I worked with, Waterways Watch Society, I would find that they could speak each of these languages with fluency! Singaporeans have a unique was of speaking English which is coined as "Singlish". You may find that slang like "la", "le", "ma", or "meh" punctuate each sentence. Other slang is derived from the different languages which Singaporeans speak; my personal is "bochio!" which means "you never invited me!". Likewise because of the diversity in people, Singapore is home to a diverse cuisine. I have eaten things which would seem "strange" to the average American, including pig tail, chicken feet, sting ray, mouse deer, durian, and Tulong--which is goat bone marrow. Singaporeans take a lot of pride in their foods and I was often teased about having to go back to the boring cuisine of the U.S..
One last interesting cultural tidbits is how you address people that are your senior: calling strangers "Uncle" or "Auntie" took some time to get used to, but was necessary as it is somewhat rude to do otherwise.
Describe your most meaningful souvenir and why you love it?
My most meaningful souvenir is a letter I received from one of my coworkers before I boarded my plane home. It was really an emotional experience to see how close you can become with someone of a different culture. Despite any differences in age, religion, language or race it is entirely possible to share so much in common. There are very few barriers to making relationships with different types if people. I hold that the friendships that I maintain with my coworkers and the other fellows in my cohort are my most precious "souvenirs" from this experience.
Do you think your program changed you as a person?
I gained an enormous amount of confidence as a result of the Cultural Vistas Fellowship. Before I had a lot of self doubt in my competence as a student and professional; it is extremely difficult for first generation college students to perform in an institution when there is little to no support from home. After being awarded this experience and succeeding in my internship, I have applied for and recieved many different opportunities that I would not have previously thought that I was "good enough" for. I am finding that I can excel because I am no longer held back by insecurities in my abilities.
I also find that I am much more sensitive to international students at my university; I want them to find a home away from home in the United States in the same way that I found one in Singapore. I realize how important it can be to offer to take a visitor out for lunch or coffee in order to make them feel welcome; this is something that I had no awareness of before.