September 11, 2019

How studying at a U.S. university helped her pursue new opportunities and build friendships across cultures

What is it like to travel across the world to study at a U.S. university? Every year, hundreds of young people from countries ranging from Albania to Zimbabwe find out firsthand as participants in the Global Undergraduate Exchange Program (Global UGRAD).

Since 2008, World Learning has administered Global UGRAD, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. government. This international exchange program provides young people an opportunity to share their cultures while also exploring the culture, values, and educational system in the U.S. Through participating in community service, professional development, and cultural enrichment activities, they become leaders in their professions and communities.

Carla Gurunian is one of those young leaders. As part of the 2018–2019 Global UGRAD cohort, Gurunian traveled from her native Lebanon to study at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. During her stay, she made friends from all over the world, explored U.S. cities from New York to Las Vegas, and gained new confidence and insight for her future career. Gurunian shares her experience in the following essay that’s been adapted from Global UGRAD’s blog, the Global Gazette:

I remember sitting exactly where I am right now, almost two years ago, anxiously typing into a blank page why I was worth taking a chance on. Today, I am here to write about why it was all worth it.

Throughout my life, I was the girl from the neighborhood with massive dreams but no realistic way to achieve them. As my childhood friends wandered off to the best private colleges in the country, I was exhausting myself to get into the hardest one to get into: the one I could afford.

When I first heard of the Global UGRAD Program, I was in my first year at university. I recall starting the application and never completing it because something kept telling me that this kind of thing does not happen to me. A year later, the scholarship kept resurfacing, popping on my screen, in class, and through my professors. I decided to take a shot, thinking I had nothing to lose.

Every Global UGRADer remembers the day they got their placement. I checked my email first thing every morning until that one day when notice finally came that I was going to Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. I was going to live minutes away from the most beautiful city in the world and all of this was being granted to me just because a team of strangers believed in me. It was not until I landed in New York that I began to believe it was happening.

Education and Opportunity

You hear about it, read about it, see it in movies but will never understand the land of opportunities until you experience it yourself.

I have been passionate about criminology for many years. But the major simply does not exist in Lebanon. Being in the U.S., where a retired detective could be my professor and teach me about crime was a true dream.

At least that’s what I thought until I met agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Drug Enforcement Administration; visited a prison where I talked with convicts and heard their experiences; and spoke to an astronaut and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. These were opportunities beyond my imagination. Their support and encouragement to pursue my passion for criminology boosted my confidence in a way that has changed my life. For the first time, I know what I want to do for my future, and I am not stopping until I reach my goal.

Friendship and Cultural Diversity

Nothing compares to the beauty of leaving a piece of yourself with every friend you make in every corner of the world.

The first friend I made in the U.S. was a Vietnamese girl from Vancouver. We went to New York City for the first time together, learning how to take the subway in the freezing cold, following the path of sunlight on the sidewalks with no idea where we were. Someone from a country I knew nothing about became family.

Then I went to Washington, DC, for the Global UGRAD summit and the entire world was in a room. The most unique individuals from around the globe were right there for me to meet, laugh, and dance with. To learn so much about so many drastically different cultures only showed me how none of us are different at all.

A few months later, I was in tears to part with the dearest group of people to my heart from the U.S., France, Germany, Costa Rica, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Serbia, Hungary, and so many more countries. I plan on visiting each one of them for they must be beyond marvel to have produced such outstanding people.

Travel Around the U.S.

Every single time you discover a new place, you discover a part of yourself that you did not know existed.

One of the greatest things I got to do in the U.S. was travel. During spring break, I went to Los Angeles and Las Vegas. To see the empires of entertainment and then go to Washington, DC — the empire of history and the American Dream — was necessary to this experience. I would strongly encourage future Global UGRAD participants to do the same. I also made the most out of New Jersey and visited New York City every chance I got.

The Aftermath

Among alumni, we have a saying: “Once a UGRAD, always a UGRAD.”

As exchange students, I believe every one of us knows what it’s like to come back home as a new person rediscovering their own country. Every one of us understands the bittersweet feeling of reuniting with family and friends after just saying goodbye to new friends and family.

Today, I am more ambitious and dedicated than ever, believing truly that we can achieve absolutely anything we set our minds and hearts to. I still speak to my friends and fellow Global UGRADs all the time. Many of the friends I made in the U.S. are going to be visiting me in Lebanon in the upcoming months and one already did, which makes it easier to accept that it’s a small world and family will inevitably cross paths, hug, and make memories again.

I am forever grateful to World Learning, the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon, and the U.S. Department of State. Now, it is time to go out there and change the world.

Written by Carla Gurunian, 2018–2019 Global UGRAD student from Lebanon at Fairleigh Dickinson University. This essay was originally published in the Global Gazette.