Cuando Nos Volvamos a Encontrar: A Fulbright Reflection

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This morning I woke up with the sun. Birds were singing as the sun rose over the mountains to the east, and I rolled over to watch colors fill the sky. As the sun grew stronger, I wrapped myself in my sheet to keep cool at an altitude of 8,667 feet. I listened to the song “Cuando nos volvamos a encontrar” (“When we meet again”) by Colombian singer Carlos Vives, and I pondered how I was going to spend my last day as a Fulbright scholar in Bogotá. 

I quickly dressed and went to sit outside in a nearby café where I ordered a tinto (Colombian black coffee). Sitting in the same jeans and gray Fulbright t-shirt I wore when I landed in Colombia last year, I enjoyed the morning chill caressing me from outside and the warm coffee embracing me from within. I watched a baby bird taking tentative steps and listened to the rhythmic drill of the nearby, never-ending construction. I felt at peace. I was enveloped with gratitude for all who supported me in making this opportunity a reality.

While formal coursework is a required part of any graduate program, graduate school is a time to develop expertise via both knowledge and experience. Graduate school is a training ground to differentiate yourself. My Fulbright research grant enabled me to do exactly this – through firsthand experience working in another country, culture, and language, I was able to gain important epidemiological experience and, ultimately, contribute to building a healthy collective in Colombia and beyond. 

After being awarded the Fulbright research grant, it was delayed, canceled, and reinstated multiple times due to COVID-19. The uncertainty was challenging, to say the least. Financially – there were multiple leases ended early and re-signed, furniture and cars sold and bought again, and jobs ended and restarted. Socially – there were many goodbyes, many times. Emotionally – it was hard to locate and invest in myself, knowing that I may, or may not, be moving to the other side of the world. 

Yet, as I sit here on the other side, I can reflect with certainty that it was worth it. From my experience as part of the Faculty of Medicine at Universidad El Bosque to my work with the Secretary of Health in Bogotá, I was able to learn and contribute so much to public health education and services. My time has been filled with guest lectures at the university, research endeavors across many institutions, training government public health professionals, and even mentoring Fulbright teaching assistants (ETAs) on their public health social projects. From managing a team of 14 to evaluate the implementation of mental health services in Bogotá to authoring manuscripts about innovation in epidemiological methodology, I had the opportunity to develop and differentiate myself as an experienced epidemiologist and truly global public health professional.

Personally, it was equally rewarding. While not always easy, I challenged the way I thought, the way I work, and the way I live –

It is only through discomfort that we can gain better self-awareness and grow.

From verbiage to gender roles, theoretical frameworks to political economy, written to verbal agreements, and, of course, the relative nature of time, I was able to transcend assumptions and conceptions unique to my background and learn to embrace other perspectives while gaining a deeper appreciation for some of my own values.

Gratitude – It takes a village. From family to friends to colleagues and professors, I felt supported on many continents throughout the entire process. During graduate school, you build the right team – almost like an advisory board – who can elevate and encourage you to make the best decisions. My parents, grandparents, and brother always lent an ear. They always encouraged me to follow my gut, as only I truly know what I want and what is best for me. My advisors at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) were patient and enthusiastic. They encouraged me to build the perfect “swirl” that incorporated everything that was important to me. They encouraged me to aim high and be the best version of myself. Friends from around the globe checked in on me continuously, comforting me during the periods of loneliness and celebrating the moments of community and success. 

Most importantly, I feel gratitude for myself. I am grateful for my courage to uproot myself. I am grateful for my perseverance despite the pandemic. I am grateful for my openness to accept whatever experience in which I find myself. 

As I look forward, I am all-but-dissertation (ABD) and will continue working with the Colombian Secretary of Health and the Universidad El Bosque. Everything happens for a reason, and opportunities are all around. Stay curious. Stay open. Stay motivated. Aim high. 

Soon comes the first day of a new chapter. What keystroke will tomorrow bring?

To learn more about Josh’s research in Colombia, click here.

Josh Yudkin

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