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Cultural Immersion
Getting Involved in Your New Community

I've lived in the tiny island of Singapore most of my life, a nation-state so teensy it's barely visible on the world map.  Three years ago I decided it was time to grow up and venture out to the big, unknown world.  Three years later I am a changed person, wiser perhaps, more mature and, hopefully, a little more resourceful than before.  Beyond these life-changing moments, travel has helped me appreciate the differences and similarities between seemingly disparate cultures, and I realize now that, indeed, the world is truly a wonderful place.

From Singapore I skipped down south to Australia for nearly two years, and then up north to the United States, where I've been the last seven-months. I was here first as an exchange student at the University of Texas in Austin, and then as an intern in Washington, DC.  I've spent the last half a year exploring and enjoying the United States—her people, her culture, her history, and more importantly, her value system.

Before coming over, what I knew of the U.S. was gleaned off television—in other words, I saw murder and mayhem.  Seven months down the road, my previous misconceptions of the U.S. have been re-shaped by the Americans I've met both in college and at work.  I never expected to meet such genuinely warm and idealistic people.  The Americans I befriended are passionate people who believe in dreams and who work hard to make them come true.  I am truly inspired.

Many international students will invariably cluster together, but I encourage any incoming student to step out of their comfort zone.  I befriended a culturally diverse group of activist-oriented, politically minded students and over the course of several months, learnt more about the concerns young Americans grapple with.  We engaged in long hours of discussion about the United States and her people.  Topics such as politics, service, and welfare featured heavily in our discussions, and I began to understand what it means to be American.  These young men and women were pushing with steely-eyed determination to shape the future they desired, just as their predecessors did.  Whoever said that young Americans were apathetic didn't make an effort to speak to students.  The Americans I know are vibrant and vocal, aware and involved.

Volunteer work in New Orleans was another eye-opening experience—it was shocking to say the least.  I saw poverty and injustice, but I also saw exceeding generosity in action.  With youthful vigor, young Americans from campuses all over the country gutted houses, played with kids in schools, and cleaned up the city parks during spring break.  These students could have spent the week partying by the beach, but no. They came to New Orleans by the thousands to contribute their time and energy to rebuilding efforts.  Some students had driven for nearly 21 leg-cramping hours across the country, braving bad weather and road conditions to reach Louisiana.

While sightseeing and bus tours are a good way to get to see a country, community involvement allows you to touch base with different groups of people who are usually out of sight, out of mind—the subaltern.  Through community involvement, you see the best and worst of the country:

  1. Community involvement is always preceded by social need.  By involving yourself in community service, you discover the country's needs.  And there are many needs: environmental conservation, teaching English to migrants, serving the homeless, and workers rights—just some of the many issues that need to be addressed.  Community work strips away the fluff, and allows you, a visitor, to fully comprehend the problems faced by its citizens.  The United States may be the world's most powerful country, but like every other country, there are always areas to improve on.
  2. At the same time, community involvement allows you to see the best of the country.  Community service is one of the best ways to get to know Americans.  You work in close proximity with Americans and walk through fire with them.  In New Orleans, I lived with Americans for a week—the closest I could get to a "homestay" with Americans.  I laughed and cried with them as we worked side by side.  I spent nights chatting with them.  These moments gave me a greater insight into the American value system.
  3. You positively impact the community where you live and study in.  You have the capacity to make a difference in the short period of time you're in the United States, so why not do it?  In the simplest terms, you are blessed to be a blessing.  Having had the privilege of an overseas education, it struck me that there were many people out there who could barely afford good food on the table, let alone think of traveling.  Doing the tourist round was fun, but it wasn't fulfilling.  Service allowed me to give back to the community even if only a little bit.  More importantly, community involvement develops your communication skills by encouraging you to speak with people from vastly different backgrounds.
  4. As an international student, you are an ambassador of your nation.  You represent not only yourself, but also your people.  Through your hard work, you promote goodwill between you and the United States or what is sometimes termed citizen diplomacy.  Americans are pleasantly surprised and thankful when you contribute.
  5. You discover ways to collaborate with Americans on international issues.  Some issues do not heed boundaries (i.e. fair trade).  I gained a deeper understanding of America's position and power in international affairs, and traded ideas with my counterparts.
  6. It looks good on your CV. Alongside your valuable international experience, volunteer work highlights your commitment to a cause, and reflects your leadership abilities.

I am grateful for the opportunity to study and work in the U.S.  The individuals I befriended left an indelible mark on my worldview and changed my life for the better.  My initial apprehension about coming to the United States has been waylaid by the amazing experiences I have had with the American people.  These students have plenty of fire in the belly and that fire is contagious.  The biggest lesson I took from my community involvement wasn't what I could do for them.  No, what I learnt was about myself.  I learnt, as John F. Kennedy so eloquently put it, to "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."  I understand now what makes the United States a great nation—they are a people that dare, and it is this can-do spirit that has taken them far.

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