A Journey to the Middle East with the Fulbright Program

August 13th, 2019
Filed Under: All Star Alumnae | Alumnae News

by Natalie Lundsteen, Rho – Boston University

Standing before a group at the Ministry of Higher Education in Kuwait, I was asked if the movie Legally Blonde was a real representation of US sororities, and if I could describe this “very American” experience. I was teaching a small group of education professionals, and I had opened the floor to my “class” to see what questions they had about the US that had not been answered in our instruction on US colleges and universities.

In April 2019, I traveled to Kuwait (south of Iraq, north of Saudi Arabia) as a Fulbright Specialist. I was a guest of Kuwait’s Ministry of Higher Education, sponsored by the US State Department and provided advice and information on US higher education institutions and various options for study in the US, ranging from community colleges to medical schools. I never dreamed that my Alpha Delta Pi experiences would be pivotal in helping me build rapport with the Kuwaiti education experts I was charged with teaching, but over the course of my time there, I formed a wonderful bond with my “class” of 18 people, the majority of whom were women.

In Arab culture, building affinity with strangers requires time and patience, especially with foreigners, but I had limited time with my trainees. I needed to accelerate our connection and quickly get them to the point of asking questions that would help their day to day work giving information and advice to Kuwaitis seeking all aspects of US higher education. I am proud that our group quickly felt comfortable enough to question how Hollywood portrays US colleges, including Elle Woods and her “Delta Nu” experiences. My class had no idea that I had been in a sorority as an undergraduate, nor could they ever have guessed the importance of my Alpha Delta Pi experiences. I am grateful I could describe the leadership and professional development my chapter provided me, and could share how alumni networks have supported me professionally and personally in nearly every city or country where I have lived in the past thirty years.

Talking about ADPi helped ease my work in Kuwait, but my visit was definitely challenging. It is one of the most culturally open Arab states, with few restrictions for women, but still deeply conservative in terms of religion. A headscarf was not mandated, but I fortified my wardrobe for the trip with below-knee skirts and long-sleeved jackets, in order to be respectful of my colleagues – most of the women I taught were veiled. Kuwait is not a tourist destination, so the number of Westerners is small, and we are usually there for work. As an American woman I stood out and was not comfortable dining alone in my hotel restaurant; the clientele was only Arab and Indian businessmen, so the first time I went to the restaurant alone for lunch I could almost hear the record scratch as everyone stopped to stare! The hotel gym and pool were open to women only from 8:30am-noon, (hours for men were noon-9pm), which meant I never went since I was always working during my allotted hours. Walking outside the hotel was a challenge – lots of construction, few sidewalks, and generally women are driven around, even though women *can* drive, so instead, I took long walks in a skyscraper/luxury mall adjacent to my hotel, where I passed by hundreds of high-end fashion and handbag shops while attempting to get my daily steps. Kuwait is an incredibly wealthy country, and shopping is a sport. I visited “The Avenues,” the second largest mall in the Middle East, with close to 1000 shops, where I saw every luxury store and gourmet restaurant imaginable from the US, Australia, Europe, and Asia. Also, they had *two* Applebee’s restaurants, both incredibly popular, which just goes to show that, like Legally Blonde, certain aspects of our American culture make their way overseas.

Thanks to making personal connections and sharing stories about my undergraduate years, by the end of my training at the Ministry I got hugs (from the women – with an awkward handshake or two from the men) and posed for selfies (Kuwait is Instagram-crazy). I also was given an incredible, and very heavy, giant gold trophy as a thank you, which I am still trying to get shipped back to the US and can’t wait to display in my office.

My journey to Kuwait began with meeting a Fulbright Program rep at a conference. I was seeking information for the students and postdocs I advise in my role as Assistant Dean for Career and Professional Development at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. The Fulbright Program offers a number of international educational and cultural exchange programs for students, but also for scholars, artists, teachers, and professionals of all backgrounds to study, teach, or pursue important research and professional projects. I learned about (& was subsequently accepted for) the Fulbright Specialist roster, where, for a three-year period, foreign governments can request my higher education expertise. This program is open to all professionals, not just those in education. Click here for more information on all the Fulbright options for students and alumni, and I’m happy to talk with any sisters interested in Fulbright opportunities.

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