Tag Archives: fellowship

The First 2 Weeks: Finding my niche and building a network

Let’s say that my first impression of San Francisco wasn’t at all that great. It started with me, arriving at a strange airport with no one around to pick me up.

My eyes scoured the people at the baggage area. No one looks even the slightest bit similar to the thumbnail photo on the email. No handheld signs written with “Sabrina” or anything that could possibly refer to me.

Well, the plane was delayed for half an hour. Did the person who was supposed to pick me up give up and left? I started to worry.

I sent a message to the number I was given. 15 minutes passed by with no response.

Being the adventurer I was, I decided, why not go find that BART train that I’ve been reading up on? Not that I know exactly which stop I will be on, but let’s figure that one out when I arrived at …. Daly City! That’s a familiar name. Yeah, let’s go to Daly City and get a taxi from there.

Fumbling around with the ticket machine, got a ticket amidst the wind that decided to pick up, that was my orientation to the Bay Area Trains, also known as BART.

I didn’t know that the homestay I was moving into was halfway up the hill. Google Earth has tricked me! was my bemused thought as the taxi arrived at my destination, which of course looks familiar yet not familiar as I have looked through the online photos.

My homestay host was glad to see me, because apparently the person who was supposed to pick me up was still at the airport waiting!

But all was well as she drove over, and we finally met and went to purchase a US number and some Mexican dinner.

I have to say, San Francisco was unbelievably cold those first few nights. For a person who comes from the tropics, it might as well be winter. The first full four days was foggy and windy, and I didn’t even have to go into work yet. Maybe being able to go to work would have been better, since I would be fully occupied. And possibly warm.

For my first day, my community mentor took me for a real tourist outing – to the Fisherman’s Wharf. Since parking was so difficult in San Francisco, we parked at the top of the hill, and walked down, which seemed to take forever for a woman who comes from a city that is just flat. And of course, when you’re down, you have to climb up again to get to the car!

Definitely I think my biggest challenge for this fellowship would be hills. But the more hills I conquer, the stronger I will get. I hope.

The second day onwards, I have to discover San Francisco all by myself. I went to the California Academy of Sciences, I discovered a bit more about the area where I was staying in, where the nearest grocery store was. And I learned about another area because I was looking for a tillandsia (which I didn’t know the existence of before) for a gift for my school friend who was having a bridal shower.

I actually got quite fond of the tillandsia
I actually got quite fond of the tillandsia

In my mind, I keep remembering 12 years ago, when I was a student in Brisbane. How much I loved the place, and how I much I loved discovering what Brisbane has to offer. San Francisco is in some ways, like Brisbane, except for the large numbers of homeless people.

However, it’s so much easier making friends when you are student. It does not apply to my current situation.

For example, when I was a student, even though I was new to a strange city then, at least I was surrounded with people who were in the same boat – all wanting to explore, and it was for sure you’d find a buddy or two or even ten.

But what I do have now are workmates, all who have built their lives in San Francisco. And a friend whom I just reconnected with after 21 years, and the people I met at her bridal shower.

And then there’s Meetup and Eventbrite.

At the end of my very first day of work, I thought I would go and check out a Toastmasters Club and network there. It was interesting to see the differences in how they conduct meetings compared to back home. But I didn’t get to meet any friends there. I also didn’t want to stay too long as I was in some place I wasn’t familiar with and I wanted to make sure I knew how to get home.

The next week, I decided to get smart and leverage on all interesting events I can find on Meetup and Eventbrite. It just so happened that there were two women-related events happening which I had to pay a small fee for.

The panelists at the LinkedIn event
The panelists at the LinkedIn event

The first event, was a networking event for women in product management and was held in the LinkedIn building. I did not manage to get any useful contacts from there, possibly because I was in the wrong field. The second event was for Expat Women in Google Launchpad on the topic of “Women in Business: Breaking the Glass Ceiling”, and I felt more welcome there. I at least got 2 contacts – one from a new MBA student who wanted to explore SF as well, and another, a VP of Wells & Fargo who was receptive about what I wanted to say about my practicum on paid family leave.

As with all new chapters in life, there is always a period of storms before everything slowly calms down and settles. I think the best way to find out about a new place is to be involved as much as possible with local activities that you’re interested to explore and who knows where it might lead to next?

My take is, just immerse yourself in the here and now. Let the sights, smells and sounds seep in.

As of now, I’m sitting in a cafe with a bunch of other writers, doing some real writing that I haven’t done in a while and thinking “Maybe this is a place I will like to come back to again and again”.

Orientation at D.C.!

Hard to believe, but it’s been more than a week since I left home to attend the Community Solutions Program. A 30-hours plus of traveling, and I was in Washington D.C. for all of 4 days and then I was off again to my host community – San Francisco!

The most welcome sight after 30 hours plus of traveling halfway across the world
The most welcome sight after 30 hours plus of traveling halfway across the world
Welcome kit from the CSP team
Welcome kit from the CSP team

The three days of Orientation at the Georgetown University Hotel and Conference Centre was jam-packed with sessions on how we can make the most of our 4 months in the US. We were reminded of how exceptional we are to be chosen as the 7th cohorts of the Program from applications of over 2,600, making the acceptance rate to this program a mere 3.7%, even more competitive than an acceptance rate to Harvard!

I am the 3.7%!
I am the 3.7%!
Hola! This is me!
Hola! This is me!

The first day was mostly about introducing ourselves to the rest of the Fellows. It was not easy, with over 90 people in the room. I am impressed that the IREX staff have memorized each and every one of us by name.

At the end of the day, we found the people who will be our supporters during the Program, known as the Peer Accountability (PAL) Group. Three of us are located within a comfortable commuting distance, which will make it easier to meet up in weeks to come.

My PAL group members
My PAL group members

This, being my first time in the US… I had a bit of a culture shock:-

First and foremost had to do with food….

This is tea / coffee break??
This is tea / coffee break??
This is for tea / coffee break?? (Not included in photo are the assortment of chocolates at the back)
This is for tea / coffee break?? (Not included in photo are the assortment of chocolates at the back)

Excuse me, I’m Asian 😛 We have fried noodles or curry puffs or sugar-powdered doughnuts… and most definitely no sodas for tea break.

But everything else went quite smoothly.

We had several sessions on how to make the most of our time in the US, how to network, and we also had several invited speakers! Here are just some of the highlights.

Cheryl Kravitz shared some points on how to help domestic violence survivors during the theme area breakout groups on Day 2. Her motivation comes from a personal experience, which I can relate to. Her notes are useful, because I’ve never actually done similar things during my work at women’s non-profits.

Cheryl Kravitz, President of CRK Communications
Cheryl Kravitz, President of CRK Communications

During the technology roundtable on day 3, I chose to first sit with Mark Leta, Director of Business Analysis and Quality Assurance at Beaconfire RED, who showed us an app on collecting data about trash in oceans which was created for Oceans Conservancy. Trash in the ocean is a very big issue back home and I’ve joined several Project AWARE events, so I was very interested in this.

Mark Leta, Director of Business Analysis and Quality Assurance at Beaconfire RED
Mark Leta, Director of Business Analysis and Quality Assurance at Beaconfire RED

During the technology round table, I also joined Brittiany Broadwater’s table. She is the Director of Operations at Phone2Action and during her session, she showed us how to help people to engage with their local representatives / legislators with the use of a mobile app in order to lobby for issues. I was imagining how useful this tool would be back home as many people do not actually know who they’ve voted for and how to voice out their issues.

Brittiany Broadwater, Director of Operations at Phone2Action
Brittiany Broadwater, Director of Operations at Phone2Action

During the luncheon for the last day of orientation, we had a great motivational speaker by the name of Rahama Wright, who founded Shea Yeleen, a social enterprise that empowers shea butter cooperatives owned by women in rural villages in Ghana through providing them a living wage, skills training, and financial literacy. Through her power of story telling, she inspired us to “stop waiting, don’t stop and keep going”.

Rahama Wright, Founder & CEO of Shea Yeleen
Rahama Wright, Founder & CEO of Shea Yeleen

It was a busy 3 days at D.C., but a fruitful one full of new people to meet and new things to learn and explore. I am indeed grateful that they selected me to be part of this program.

Tomorrow will be my first day of work at my host organisation – Paid Leave for United States (PL+US). Wish me luck!


3 weeks left to go

This week I had experienced my first ever day trip to Kuala Lumpur. Usually I would stay at least one night, but not this time. The purpose?

To attend a Visa interview at the US Embassy!

I didn’t quite know what to expect. All I knew was that I was scheduled for the Visa interview at 11.30am and I should plan to arrive at the guard house half an hour before, and I thought it was due to the security checks.

Didn’t realise it was because of the long line of people waiting to get into the embassy. I didn’t even know which line I was supposed to join.

However, since I was a “special guest” –  being a US Fellowship recipient, I was immediately bumped up the line.

Got my visitor's tag!
Got my visitor’s tag!

When I mentioned to my CSP Alumni mentor that I was worried about my visa application, he told me the process is just formalities. I didn’t understand what he meant until I got there.

And yes, it was pretty straightforward. They got my biometric fingerprint scans, asked me to sign a form, got me to sit down, called me again to verify my prints and pass me the form that I signed for keeping, and that was it!

I met another CSP Fellow while waiting for my turn and we were comparing notes about where we’re heading. I am most likely to be going to San Francisco for my practicum with Paid Leave US (PLUS) (still have not received my confirmation letter), while he was likely going to be posted in Texas at a college (he hasn’t received his confirmation letter either).  At least that conversation made us both feel relieved, knowing that we weren’t alone in waiting impatiently for more concrete information 😛

After that interview, it was just meeting up with the International Exchange Alumni Coordinator who gave me a goodie bag and briefed me about what to expect and what the Alumni was all about.

A collar pin to add to my collection
A collar pin to add to my collection

And I was done by lunch! Loads of time to kill before my flight back home to KK.

Only 3 short weeks left at home, which is a little surreal considering that there are still some loose ends to be tied up.

Some people have asked me if my son is coming along (he’s not) and commented how much I’m going to miss him.

I know they mean well, but I actually don’t need the reminder, because it’s the one thing that I keep thinking about over and over again every single day. After all, the longest we’ve ever been apart is 4 nights since he was born, and for most other events and trips, I would have taken him with me. Aside from the fact that getting a Visa for him would be impossible, I do feel personally that he would be safer back home in familiar settings, with a large number of family members who care and could look after him, rather than in a strange foreign country where even his mother isn’t even sure of how things are done.

What I do need reminding is my purpose for going away and doing this Fellowship. That it is a wonderful rare opportunity to discover my potential so I can come home and do something great.

I need to keep strong.

When the unexpected happens

In a little over 5 weeks I’ll be off on a journey. I have no idea yet where exactly I will be, but it will be in the US, hopefully working with a great organisation for 4 months.

“If you don’t go after what you want, you’ll never have it. If you don’t ask, the answer is always no. If you don’t step forward, you’re always in the same place.” ~ Nora Roberts

And what I want is, to have a proper experience working in a non-profit that deals on women and gender issues issues. Something that I have been sort of working towards for the past 7 years, whether I knew it back then or not.

Back home, the opportunities have been very limited. I tried working with one women’s non-profit at home, but I had to leave because my aspirations didn’t match theirs. I worked for a second organisation that was related to what I wanted to do, but I was told to leave because I was in the “wrong religion”.

Now that I have this once in a lifetime chance, I am both excited and scared at the same time.

Excited to finally experience something that I long for, and the possibilities it might lead to. Scared to be in a country that I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to visit (blame it on bad media coverage and fear-mongering parents). Excited to immerse myself in a different culture and way of life. Scared of entrusting the care of my 2 year-old to others while I’m away.

But the voice inside my head that says, “you’ve gotta do this or regret this for the rest of your life” is stronger than my fears.

I didn’t even expect that I would be chosen for this journey, to be a Fellow of the 2017 Community Solutions Program (CSP), sponsored by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) and implemented by IREX, a U.S. non-governmental organization. When I first applied, I was in the process of applying to further my studies in the UK through Chevening, which I had wanted to try for years. I saw that the applications for CSP was also opening, so I thought “why not?” especially since I was reaching the age limit for the program. I wouldn’t have another chance.

So when I received an email which told me that I was once of the 400 selected from the total of 2,500 applications from 74 countries, I was so happy.  There were interviews and other requirements, but the one thing that was holding me back was that I do not work formally for women & gender issues. It was mostly voluntary and I needed permission from work to be away for 4 months. Having a superior that wasn’t quite receptive of my aspirations was daunting and I left it at that without arguing my case further.

When I received an email from CSP in March informing me that I was selected as an alternate, i.e. I may only be selected again if someone drops out from the program, I felt deflated but yet I had somehow expected it. And the likelihood that I would be selected from a pool of other alternates seemed very remote.

“What chances do I have against that? They probably have 100 alternates for the 100 finalists”, I thought.

I also received a rejection letter from Chevening a little later, and it felt like my self-confidence was taking a beating.

On 9th May, I was already fully prepared for another year of being at home, with nothing out of the ordinary expected when I received an email that one of the finalists have withdrawn from the program and I was selected!


After much thought and trepidation, I decided to just go for it. And now after a flurry of medical checks, vaccinations and visa preparations, and especially requesting time off from work and getting it (!) I am somewhat ready,

I really can’t wait to find out where exactly I will be placed in the US. Cross fingers it will be this week that I finally find out!