The essence of intercultural education is the acquisition of empathy-the ability to see the world as others see it, and to allow for the possibility that others may see something we have failed to see, or may see it more accurately. The simple purpose of the exchange program…is to erode the culturally rooted mistrust that sets nations against one another. The exchange program is not a panacea but an avenue of hope.

J. William Fulbright

On March 17th 2019, as we stood gawking at the majestic Lincoln memorial, trying to listen to the historical nuggets of wisdom that our team liaisons were imparting to us, almost having to yell over the excited chitter-chatter of hundreds of tourists from all across the globe – the realization struck me – the realization that I was, finally, in the United States of America. Since time immemorial, the American soil has produced laureates in the fields of academics, research and innovations. To visit the country and experience the richness of its cultural diversity, firsthand, was indeed a once in a lifetime opportunity.

When I got selected for the International Visitor Leadership Programme entitled ‘Entrepreneurship as the Engine of Prosperity and Stability – Small Business Development’, little did I know that the three weeks that I would spend in the US, away from my friends and family, would be the most enriching and memorable moments that I would experience in my entire life.

For me, traveling to the US was my first solo trip outside my home city Lucknow, my first solo trip outside India, my first solo trip before/after marriage and my first solo trip away from my baby. When I left India – halfheartedly, apprehensive about what the future would hold, scared about whether I would manage to catch the connecting flight alone, carry my own baggage, book my own cab to the hotel – little did I know that when I would come back to India I would be a more confident, calmer and composed woman.

The moment I stepped out of the plane, the first thing that struck me was the sheer enormity of the Washington Dulles airport. For a novice like me, who had never been on an international trip before, it was quite unnerving and fascinating at the same time, to board a driverless air shuttle to go from one terminal to the other. I shot my first video in US in one of these air shuttles, just to impress my people back home, at how independent I had become in matter of 24 hours – by not only traveling to US alone but also traveling around the airport without having someone to hold my hand. Little did I know that the moments of my new found ‘independence’ would be short lived because I would soon meet the programme’s team leaders at the airport, I would not have to worry about traveling alone (or pretty much anything else) for the next three weeks.

Soon enough we were all packed into a grand black limousine traveler which took us to the very beautiful Washington Plaza hotel.  I had imagined Washington DC to be a very futuristic city considering that it houses the three most important buildings of US – the Capitol, the White House and the Supreme Court. But much to my surprise, DC has an old-school charm to it. The imposing neo-classical buildings have an air of royalty around them –some even look as if they are straight out of an artist’s interpretation of utopia. I remember taking a gazillion pictures of the statues around all corners of the streets. These statues were mostly dedicated to the US war heroes and one really did not need to enter a museum to admire the way the US acknowledges the contribution of its past, to be where it is, at present – something that we, as Indians, really need to learn. I remember standing on the stone where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous ‘I  have a dream’ speech and thinking how dream-like a situation it was for me to just stand there and admire at the vast expanse of the Washington Monument ahead of me.

The Introductory Session of the IVLP was a humbling and revealing experience for me. This was the first time that we gathered together as a group to talk about our backgrounds, our countries and our professions. It was amazing to note that people from different walks of life could contribute meaningfully to one common goal – entrepreneurship. During the session, I was seated next to my friend from Pakistan and when asked to talk about my expectations from the IVLP, I remember saying, “The fact that India and Pakistan can sit at the same table and share a common goal of driving our countries towards development, is according to me, the beauty of IVLP!

Panel Discussion on Women Entrepreneurship, Women in Jazz Concert at the Kennedy Centre, discussion on US Federalism, visit to the U.S. Department of State, Newseum and International Institute of Education and finally a trip to Ashoka – which has the largest network of social entrepreneurs worldwide – with its roots in India – were some of the engaging moments of the DC leg.

On the rain kissed morning of 21st March, 2019, accompanied by the participants from Kuwait, Laos, Lebanon, Nepal, Saudi Arabia, Slovenia, Sri Lanka and Tunisia, I began my journey to Burlington, Vermont – a beautiful city with its quaint market places and traditional English architecture. I remember how a couple of us fell in love with the city just by seeing the snow covered landscape from the airplane’s window seat!

A visit to Morse Farms Maple Sugarworks, was the highlight of the Burlington programme, where we got an opportunity to observe the process of making maple syrup in a small business set-up. It was, in fact, rather interesting to note that small businesses in the US face more or less similar challenges as those in developing countries like ours. The experience of tasting and buying authentic maple syrup, candies, kettle corn, maple ice cream and maple cakes/biscuits was a memorable one.

Of course, our journey to Montpelier (the capital of Vermont) was nothing short of an adventure as well. Snow covered mountains, roads and trees offered scenic, “post-card” type views of the city that left us all mesmerized and engaged during the ride. But we also got stuck on the highway leading to Montpelier, resulting in a delay of almost an hour and a half. And speaking of delay, the fact that impressed me most about the US culture was how the Americans are stickler when it comes to punctuality. In India, a one hour delay is considered normal for business meetings (two – for social gatherings). But in US, we were on military time – or as we would like to believe. So great was our fear of running late for the meetings (or facing the wrath of our team leaders) that we would start waking up the perpetual late comers almost two hours before the scheduled departure time by scandalizing them with WhatsApp messages and blank calls!

The days in Burlington revolved around visits to the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce to understand how it promotes the civic, commercial, industrial and agricultural progress of the area, Centre for Women and Enterprise (CWE), the USDA Rural Development Business Center, Vermont Centre for Emerging Technology (VCET),Vermont Works for Women and Adam Hornergrenger Works – all of which gave us an opportunity to understand how the entrepreneurial ecosystem works in a not-so-developed state of the US. The colors of Burlington street art, the frozen Lake Champlain, the ever-so-delicious Ben n Jerry’s ice-cream and a home hospitality dinner with a beautiful couple residing in Vermont summed up the Burlington schedule for us!

The next stop of our IVLP journey was Seattle, Washington. The varied landscape of Seattle – a rare mix of natural beauty in the form of clear blue water, mountains, skies, flowers and greenery on one hand and state-of-the-art skyscrapers which are hubs of innovation on the other left us completely spell bound.

Seattle really is the heartbeat of US in terms of the resources it offers to the country.  In this city, meeting with Mr. Gregg Bennett, Vice Chair, Alliance of Angels, an organization which invests more than 10 million dollars in startup ventures based in Seattle, a visit to an organization called Global Innovation Exchange which provides graduate programs for students interested in innovation based entrepreneurship, another interesting meeting at Surf Incubators with Ms. Gillian Muessig stirred many a thoughts in the restless mind. Interactions with Ms. Neepaporn, Vice President of Trade Development, Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce regarding the work that it does to encourage small business development, visit to Filson Seattle Flagship Store, a privately owned outfitter for outdoor enthusiasts and CoMotion Labs, University of Washington- a place where all the students have the freedom to innovate and be creative – were eye-opening! I wish that the Indian students could get such state-of-the-art facilities to let their creativity flow without having to worry about the costs associated with it.

Of course, Seattle, with its Museum of Pop Culture or MoPOP, Chihuly Glass Museum and Garden, Aquarium, Harbour Cruise, Space Needle, broadway shows,  took us into an all-enveloping hug and left an indelible mark in our hearts and minds.

On the last day in Seattle, we had short meetings with Seattle Small Business Administration and SCORE – both organizations which work in mentoring entrepreneurs based in US. Another quick interaction was with WeWorkLabs a global innovation platform which helps startups to create future. It was interesting to note that the women entrepreneurship culture in US is similar to that of India (and a lot of other countries as well) in terms of “old school” barriers that exist as far as their financial and social ecosystem is concerned.

It was also here, in Seattle, that my desperate search for Indian food found a happily-ever-after ending. Throughout the journey from Washington DC to Burlington, my search for Asian/Indian/Nepalese cuisine had borne no fruit. After surviving on French fries, cheese burgers, pizzas, wraps, sandwiches with just lettuce, tomatoes and jalapenos as ingredients, I almost cried with tears of happiness at the sight of tandoori chicken, vegetable biriyani and dal tadka on the menu! In fact, the common search (nay! struggle) for vegetarian, halaal food options became a solid ground for friendship between me and my Asian colleagues during the IVLP.

In India, we consider those who ride a bicycle or those who walk to work as the ‘underprivileged’, but I was surprised to see how fond the Americans are of walking, or even taking those rechargeable uber bikes to work. I was deeply impressed to see that even the millionaires in US, chose to dress casually for work and did not mind making their own coffee or even throwing their own trash! Coming from a country where bureaucracy and ‘babu’ culture is ingrained in the social fabric, this concept of ‘simple living, high thinking’ in practice, left me completely in awe of the US culture. Clearly, we as Indians, need eons to catch up with this superpower!

The last stop of our IVLP journey was Austin, Texas where our small group was united with a larger one of almost 85 participants from all over the world. It was in Austin that we got an opportunity to assess the strengths and weakness of the IVLP and US – as a whole. While most of us had a lot of strengths in mind, it was a task to think of possible weaknesses and loopholes in the American way of doing things. So great is the United States of America that representatives from over a 100 countries could not find any substantive shortcoming in the entrepreneurial ecosystem of the country! When I got up to give the concluding remarks of the session, I urged my fellow participants to extend a huge round of applause to the US Department of State for hosting us in the remarkable Zootopia called the United States of America! An impromptu rap session with a chorus of “When-I-say-IVLP, you say ‘Hey’!” marked the end of this fantastic journey.

The last two days of the IVLP were a crazy mix of emotions – lots of goodbyes, exchanging contact details, tears of separation and happiness (to head home). The journey is now just a blur of meetings, outings (mostly involving a hunt for food), shopping, long walks, sight-seeing. As I returned to India, after staying in the United States for a month, I took back with me a world of experiences and an ocean of memories. This trip exposed me to 28 cultures which brought with them people from 28 different countries. I am still very much the woman I used to be, but in my heart and mind I live a parallel life, which has been colored with the discussions, exposures, relationships and networking that I have had with my fellow participants in the IVLP. I know it would be very difficult to stay in touch with all of them (different countries, different professions and most importantly – different time zones!) but life is all about separations and reunions, is it not?

I thank the US Department of State and the team at US Embassy in India who gave me this beautiful opportunity to meet new people, see a new country and reunite with my loved ones.

I could go on and on – about the people that I met and the places that I visited. But I finish this note now with the hope that our country comes at par with the US soon enough to make a difference in this world. Till I see you again – America!