Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

The Privilege of Service


For a young woman of modest origins from the countryside of Oklahoma, finding myself in the Palace Al Bustan in Oman, dressed in my best suit, trying desperately to look like I belonged in a room full of prominent public health officials, felt quite a lot like some strange, academic, version of the classic Cinderella story.

I was brought to this particular palace as a program leader for the Health Security Futures Fellowship, a State Department funded fellowship and brainchild of Georgetown professor and Director for International Affairs at the American Society for Microbiology, Jason Rao. I ended up in the fellowship as the result of taking Dr. Rao’s OneHealth class in the microbiology department at Georgetown.

The fellowship paired American students with students from Kurdish Iraq and Pakistan. The students were to work together to develop a proposal to solve a current global health security challenge — from breast cancer screening to DIY lab’s regulation of dual-use technology. The top proposals receive a grant from the fellowship to carry out their projects over the following year. This year, the fellowship ran in conjunction with the “7th International Conference on Health Issues in Arab Communities,” so the fellows were able to use the talks to supplement their work, and solicit advice from professionals in the field about their projects.

Though the opulent settings presented a diversion for my country-bred senses, it was the fellows themselves that made it magical. I had the chance to work with Kurdish doctors and Pakistani microbiologists. I am an Army veteran, and three years ago, I would have never believed that I would get the chance to see an Iraqi that was not on the other end of my rifle, and I could not be gladder that I did. I have never been so impressed by a group of individuals than I was by the Kurdish students. Though many of them had never travelled outside of Kurdistan before, they threw themselves into the fellowship, overcoming culture shock, language barriers, and significant academic challenges.

The Pakistani students made me a better team member. They walked around with their big grins and repeating, again and again, how grateful they were to be there. Apparently, their gratitude was infectious because it certainly amplified my own feelings. Their example inspired me to write this, as I have come to understand how important it is to verbalize my own gratitude for being involved in this fellowship. Working with the international students also shocked me out of my somewhat myopic view of the world. For example, after a very long and exhausting week at the fellowship, they Kurdish students found out that their flight to Kurdistan had to be rerouted due to security delays.

The resulting reroute had them facing a 13 hour layover and an 8 hour bus ride through the mountains to get home — yet they were all smiles and hugs and positive attitudes as we parted ways in the airport. After that example, how could I not realize how comparatively easy life is in the United States? A bus delayed by 15 minutes on my morning commute? No big deal. I can take a bus without hours of delays and security concerns. I never saw how much of a privilege that truly was.

Perhaps the greatest gift I have taken from this fellowship is a sense of direction. As a master’s student, I perhaps should have had a clear vision for what to do with my life, but I still found myself treading in the waters of “too many interests and all of them seem intimidating.”

This fellowship has given me the firm knowledge that I could work on global health issues quite happily for the rest of my life, and the tentative belief that an unimportant young woman from Oklahoma could actually make a meaningful difference. I might not be completely clear just yet on how, but for the first time I think it might be possible to make an impact.

So, with borrowed gratitude from the Pakistanis and borrowed resolute optimism from the Iraqis, I hope to take my experience and turn it into something important — I am not sure yet what form that impact will take, but the belief that I actually can impact this world, and the understanding of the personal rewards that come from the attempt, have lodged themselves somewhere deep in my consciousness — so I have faith that they will grow into something much bigger than a single student, or even a single fellowship, in the future.

Rebecca Holliman is working on a Master’s in Biomedical Science Policy and Advocacy at Georgetown University.

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