Fulbright Scholar: My experience in America [Archives:2006/952/Reportage]

June 5 2006
Mohammed Al-Hamdani in New York City.
Mohammed Al-Hamdani in New York City.
Mohammed Al-Hamdani
Mohammad Hifidhallah Yahya Al-Hamdani, 26, is a Yemeni Fulbright Scholar living in Radford, Va. He won his Fulbright Scholarship in December 2004, and arrived in the U.S. in early January 2005. He holds a B.A. in English from Sana'a University's Faculty of Arts. Currently, he is enrolled at Radford University, majoring in English with a concentration in American literature. He shares his story below.

I've been an ordinary Yemeni all of my life. I've excelled in school since first grade. I really never dreamed of leaving Yemen. To the contrary, I always thought Yemen's young sons should live in, build, and take care of it. These views were the result of the influential roles my father and eldest brother had on me.

The idea of leaving my country and trying to find a better place to make a living began emerging when I was a college sophomore. It was the first time I heard about the Fulbright Scholarship. My oldest brother introduced me to it in a very smart way, actually using it as a motivation to keep me going and maintaining my good work at school. He told me if I kept getting high scores in all my classes, it would be a lot easier to gain a Fulbright Scholarship.

After graduating as one of the top 10 students in my section, life just got tougher and harsher, as it was very hard to secure a decent job. I taught at schools, language institutes and even at a private college, but most were horrible experiences. It didn't take long to set my mind on leaving Yemen in search of more and better opportunities.

I remember the day one of my friends called and told me the Fulbright Scholarship – which I always talked to him about – was available and that we should apply for it. We did apply and after the long, tough screening process, I was lucky enough to win. I was extremely psyched to know that through my hard work and determination, I'd finally reached one of my goals and it's worth every single fraction of a second I spent preparing for it.

When it was time to leave, it was a sweet yet sad feeling. I was excited, but also sad to leave my family, friends and the whole lifestyle to which I was accustomed. I flew to the U.S., which wasn't the most pleasant experience, as the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) held me at JFK (John Fitzgerald Kennedy) Airport for about six hours. I was very understanding and cooperative with the process and kept telling myself that it's better late than never.

Being in the U.S. was one of my biggest dreams. I was blessed to have my second oldest brother, who's lived in New York City for about 17 years, meet me. He and his family helped me greatly while I found my feet. The first couple of days at college were quite nice and I was excited and happy to be there.

Then, things totally changed, as it was the first wave of shock about which I was told in predeparture orientation at AMIDEAST. There was this sense of loneliness and helplessness. I wanted to do many things, but I just didn't know how to proceed. I wanted to go shopping, but I neither had a car nor knew where the nearest shop was located. Simultaneously, my homesickness grew bigger.

The second wave was the educational shock and it was absolutely overwhelming. The U.S. education system is nothing like in Yemen – it's far more engaging, wide-ranging, well-planned and effective. Classes contain fewer students and the teaching style is more engaging. Professors are more approachable and class discussion is stress-free, which makes students engage more in discussions. I know all teachers aren't the same, but this is what I've been experiencing.

On the other hand, students are allowed to bring food and drink into class, which is very distracting. They do many things that are OK in their culture, but not in mine and that's fine with me. Moreover, the student-teacher relationship can be imbalanced at times.

Another important aspect is students' engagement in school work. For example, I must write weekly journals, logs and seminar papers required in all classes, which provides a chance to progress and frequently supervise such progress. Throughout the semester, there are also long papers, quizzes and final projects, as well as research papers. The overall workload is just a lot bigger and heavier than I had in college in Yemen.

With growing stress at school, the idea of not being able to 'cut the mustard' began to creep into my mind. I thought I wouldn't be able to make it through college here, but thank God, I did better than I expected.

On a cultural level, things were kind of interesting, but at the same time saddening. It was interesting to explore and actually live in this new culture. As a Fulbright Scholar, I realized I had much cultural work to do, but I didn't realize how gigantic the size of the responsibility lying ahead of me.

It's been hard trying to ameliorate the image of Arabs and Muslims in the U.S., especially given the current political reality, but I'm doing the best I can to represent my Yemeni-Islamic culture. Most people have preconceived ideas that are hard to change and stereotypes flourish in certain areas and regions in the U.S.

I've had several bitter personal experiences; however, there are many people interested in knowing my culture. This could lead to people wanting to know me for the mere fact of gratifying their interest in my culture, but not knowing me for the real person I am. However, I've made a relatively large number of friends in about a year and half and it's been a pleasure getting to know them.

I've also been doing a lot of cultural work, trying to make a good impression and reflect the rich culture from which I come. For example, I gave a presentation about Yemen at the International Rotary Club in Radford. I also was featured in the RU College of Graduate and Extended Education newsletter. Additionally, I've been participating in local biblical studies, where I have the opportunity to speak about Islam and misconceived Islamic teachings.

I also have written three short stories about my experiences, highlighting Yemeni culture and lifestyle. These stories were for workshops in two of my creative writing classes. I feel so honored and privileged to be able to represent my culture and present the brighter side of Islamic and Arab identity and reality. It's really a great chance to bring our Arab culture together with American culture.

I want to let everybody who is dreaming about traveling know that the sweet dreams they have now won't come true easily. I know many who think that the minute they make it to another country, they'll be able to fulfill all their dreams and live with flying colors. This is absolutely bogus, as it requires a lot of hard work and solid determination. Nothing comes so easily that one just sits there waiting for it to happen.

I've spent long, sleepless nights working hard to earn success that will take me to the next level. It takes a lot of heart, hard work and determination to succeed, but one can go get it and earn it. I feel I still have a very long path to walk. It's not always going to be another 'rags-to-riches' story, but one must give it his best shot.

The Fulbright Scholarship has been an awesome opportunity for me and it's really made me a better person. I feel so privileged to be a Fulbright and I'm determined to use everything I learn to improve my country. I want to be able to make changes, even if it's only in a person's life.

I feel so grateful to AMIDEAST and the Fulbright program for giving me this golden opportunity, but before that, I feel immensely indebted to my family for everything they've done for me and for making me the person I am. I don't know how to say it, but I want to thank the man who shaped the way I think and had the greatest influence in my life – my father. He passed away two months after I got to the U.S., but I wish he could've lived longer to see me as the man I am now.

Lastly, I hope this brief account of my story has been useful and helpful. I want every reader to know that this experience is a lifetime opportunity, contributing greatly to me in all aspects of my life. It's helped me discover things about myself I never knew existed. It also has made me appreciate my country, family and friends, as it really brought out the real Yemeni buried within me and I can say I'm more patriotic than ever.

I strongly urge everyone to go out and try to live this experience. However, bear in mind that you need to come back and use everything you learn to build your own home – Yemen – which has sheltered and brought us up.

I've always felt so enthused to be part of the Fulbright program and to help bridge gaps between our culture and American culture. In the end, I feel blessed to share my story with such respected readers. Thanks to The Yemen Times for allowing me this great opportunity.