Fellow Reflection: My Year as a Humphrey Fellow

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Fellow Reflection: My Year as a Humphrey Fellow

Sharmilla attends the Diplomatic Reception at the State Department during the Global Leadership Forum.

Sharmilla Ganesan is a 2015-2016 Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow placed at the University of Maryland. She is a Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia-based culture writer and literary columnist with over 10 years of experience writing feature articles. Her short fiction has been published in several anthologies and journals. Ms. Ganesan shares a reflection of her Humphrey Year below.

What is 10 months? Literally speaking, a measure of time. But in the context of the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship that I've been a part of, 10 months is a measure of so many more things: of experiences, of friendships, of learning, of ideas.

Ten months ago, when I first arrived at the University of Maryland just outside Washington D.C. with nine other Fellows, I felt like I had nothing but time stretching out in front of me, filled with exciting but as-yet undefined possibilities.

And now, as I stand almost at the end of these 10 months, struggling to encapsulate what it all meant, one word keeps pushing insistently into my mind: freedom.

Admittedly, I cringe a little at the cliché of spending a year in the United States of America and saying I found freedom, but let me quickly clarify that I'm not referring to any pre-packaged, ideologically endorsed, easily exportable idea of the word, but rather, something more internal and intangible.

I'm talking about the kind of freedom many of us don't get to have, or perhaps don't allow ourselves to have, once we cross the threshold into so-called adulthood. Our passion for our work has a way of getting wrapped in layers of organizational and systemic issues, until we stop letting inspiration and new ideas in. And as time goes by, it becomes easier to focus on these external layers that hold us back, instead of nurturing the passion that drove us in the first place.

The biggest gift I've gotten from my Humphrey year was to have those layers removed, at least temporarily. It allowed me to ask: how much more can I do, can I be, if I didn't allow life's uncertainties, mundanities and restrictions hold me in place, if I defined myself by my own ideas and capabilities instead of the limitations placed on me by my environment?

Would I fill my days with art and theatre and literature and film? Would I spend hours discussing social justice and equality, women's rights and racism? Would I meet with people who are exciting, innovative, interesting, and inspire me to be the same? Would I travel and marvel at the cities and vast landscapes? Would I (painstakingly) learn to code, edit videos and take better photos?

As it turns out, yes I would. And much, much more.

And then there is the freedom afforded by being and working in the United States, in a system different from the one I'm used to. It is a system that values efficiency and results, and therefore largely free of the time wastage and unnecessary organizational layers that cripple so many of our institutions back home.

It is also a space where freedom of speech can truly be seen in action, a luxury many Americans don't even seem to realize they have. But for an outsider, the extent to which this principle is invoked - in writing, in the arts, in politics, in entertainment - is often impressive.

I'm equally glad that I've also seen the limitations of such a system: the people who slip through the cracks when capitalism and individualism are held above all else; the difficulties of creating sensible discourse amidst the many shouted opinions; the hidden issues that don't get acknowledged nearly enough when a nation is so convinced of its own greatness.

For this, I have the many Americans I've had the pleasure of meeting and befriending to thank. With their honesty, opinions, and their hopes, they gave me the opportunity to have a clear-eyed view of their country. This, too, is a sort of freedom - the freedom to criticize, acknowledge and learn.

I am also keenly aware that freedom itself can mean vastly different things even among the 10 Fellows in my group, that some of them come from experiences far more restrictive and challenging than mine. And I am immensely grateful for the generosity with which they have shared these experiences with me.

I've seen in my fellow Indian and Nepali journalists that activism can come in gentle, smiling, humble forms that belie the revolutionary work they produce; learnt from my Romanian housemate what it was like to grow up under the shadow of communism; listened first-hand to the fearlessness that drove my Liberian friend into Ebola-infested areas to show the world the faces behind the epidemic.

I've learnt to confront the limitations of my own perceptions: that China is much more than its cuisine and cheap products; that in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Pakistan, Islam exists in surprisingly different forms from the ones I am familiar with; that Congo Brazzaville is a country I knew shamefully little about.

And so what were these 10 months? For me, it was so much more than a measure of time. It was a time for me to both run and be still, to learn and to reflect, to discover who I had become and who I may want to be. It was a time to be me.

In the photo: Sharmilla attends the Diplomatic Reception at the State Department during the Global Leadership Forum.