I was speechless, quite literally, when I first received the email from American Council for International Education (ACIE), the organization who manages the Young South East Asian Leadership Initiative’s (YSEALI) Professional Fellowship Programme (PFP), that read “Dear Nathan, Congratulations! You have been selected as a finalist.”
I honestly thought that I would not be selected, as the filtering process for their applications is very stringent and competitive. In fact, for the 2022 Fall session, there were more than 1750 applicants from around South East Asia (SEA) and only 170 over applicants were selected. I was one of them.
YSEALI is a cultural exchange programme, organised and sponsored fully by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
There are four different themes under which applicants could apply for namely: Governance and Society, Economic Empowerment, Environment and Sustainability, and Civic Engagement.
I applied for Governance and Society, which is a theme that focuses on issues relating to policy-making, rule of law, legislation, the legislative process, and politics.
I am grateful that I was selected for the theme that I applied for - Governance and Society - which was hosted by the American Council for Young Political Leaders (ACYPL).
What amazed me even more was the location of my placement in the city of Honolulu, Hawaii, under a state legislative assembly member called Senator Stanley Chang, a representative of the 9th senatorial district.
Having considered all the accomplishments and success that I have experienced in life, this was the biggest opportunity that I have received to date; I am grateful and thankful to God for that.
Not only was I accepted as an applicant, but I was also a Malaysian representative, an ambassador bearing the Malayan Tigers emblem on my shoulders. The thought of that itself was a source of immense pride to me as a Malaysian.
YSEALI PFP is a six-week long programme, and for the first week, I will be based in Washington D.C. with all the other fellows from SEA who are part of the Governance and Society theme.
For the final week, I will return to Washington D.C. to attend the YSEALI Fellowship Forum where I will be meeting all the other participants across the four different themes under the Professional Fellows Programme.
It has been two weeks since I have arrived to the U.S. and the journey thus far has been educational, interesting, exciting, and exhausting. I have heard from many different people how taxing flying to the U.S is, but even with everything I heard, nothing prepared me for what was actually in store.
To begin with, I was to have two different transits before reaching my destination: one in Bangkok, Thailand, the other in Doha, Qatar.
After countless hours of delays and waiting, including an overnight stay in Doha, we finally managed to reach Washington D.C. on 13th September 2022 - a day after the scheduled time for arrival. In total, it was 62 hours of travel all the way from KLIA to Dulles International Airport.
Our first week in D.C. was the debrief and orientation of our programme, where we were given explanations about our fellowship, the placement cities that we were going off to, our stipend and allowances throughout our stay, and more general details about the programme itself.
We also went on a few study tours, and had several meetings with key figures representing important political advocacy groups and major think tanks in the United States.
Our meetings on the first day were with representatives from the International Consulting and US Relations with the Indo-Pacific Disability Studies Core Faculty from Georgetown University, the Democratic Order, the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council, the International Human Rights Convention, and the United Nations.
After a day full of insightful meetings, we walked over to see the White House and other national monuments, like the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.
The second day of meetings were held with bigger organisations that had an international focus, such as the US-ASEAN Business Council and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.
We also got to meet Ms. Kylie Atwood, a journalist working for the CNN, who shared her experiences of covering news events, both under the Trump administration and the Biden administration, with us.
On our third and final day in D.C. we visited the U.S. Capitol Building, situated at Capitol Hill. This was such an important visit for me, because I teach Malaysian Constitutional Law, so being able to understand how the U.S Constitution was drafted after the Revolutionary War was particularly insightful.
Learning about the history behind the construction of the Capitol itself, which withstood the destruction observed by the Civil War, and about the establishment of a democratic Union focusing on democratic principles of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, was also an inspiring and memorable experience.
The following day, all the fellows bid goodbye to each other as we all flew to our placement cities across the United States. Some of them were placed in Iowa, some in Chicago, Illinois, and some were even placed Lincoln, Nebraska.
As for Hawaii, four other fellows from SEA (two from Malaysia, one from Indonesia, and one from the Philippines), were placed here, each attached to different offices.
It has been an interesting week thus far, and I am really looking forward to the remaining days of my fellowship here in the States.
My goal is to learn and absorb as much as I possibly can so that when I return to Malaysia, I will be able to give back to society what I have received tenfold in terms of education, social responsibility as well as nation-building.