In January 2020, the U.S. Grantees Diversity Roundtables were launched. Two alumni of the Fulbright Belgium Program, Sangeetha Ramakrishna, a former ETA, and Rae Delacruz, a former Fulbright student researcher, led the initiative. The main goal of this initiative is to create a safe environment through which racial, ethnic, and sexual Fulbright minorities can learn, network, and converse about topics affecting themselves and others. In this interview, Sangeetha and Rae discuss the genesis of the U.S. Diversity Roundtables.

Q: Where did the idea for a Diversity Initiative come from?

Sangeetha: The idea of starting the Diversity Initiative came from my conversations with the other grantees in Belgium. It was not something I planned to do, even though the topics of diversity and inclusion are a large part of my background and career path. I am the daughter of South Asian immigrants, something that led to a lot of bullying at a time when inclusion was not really talked about. Now, as an educator myself, I try to use that experience in my classroom as a language teacher and a member of my school district’s Diversity Committee. 

Before coming to Belgium, I knew because I called myself American and spoke German, my identity was going to encourage personal questions and possibly criticism. When it happened, I found it challenging to deal with, especially because I didn’t have my support network around me. What I didn’t expect was that I could find that support with the other grantees. After speaking with several of them individually and in small groups, I learned that many of us were navigating similar situations and processing what it meant to be an American abroad.

I looked into other groups, like Fulbright Noir and Fulbright Salam, initially thinking I could start something for students of South Asian descent, but I really wanted something more inclusive. It was important to me that I created a space where everyone could feel like they belonged and a place that I could learn from others as well. Marie-Aimée was instrumental in encouraging me to start something for everyone. After speaking several times with her, and connecting with Rae on similar topics, we decided to collaborate on the initiative together. 

Rae: On my end, the idea for the Diversity Initiative first came to me in August. I think I was one of the first grantees in Belgium, and it was isolating in different ways.

Being in a new country has its own host of challenges: you’re getting used to the language, the customs, the norms… while figuring out logistical or day-to-day life things like residency cards, grocery stores, and banking. At the same time, working was a mental and emotional challenge… as a researcher, in the largest research team in the world working on End-of-Life topics, I was surrounded with highly capable, equally passionate individuals. And then, as a person of colour with a low-income background, there were other challenges. I felt pulled in so many different ways, but I didn’t know where to go to confront them.

In September, I began speaking with many of my fellow grantees about their own feelings and saw similarities in our experiences.

In October, on the way to the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, a few of us and Marie-Aimée shared our thoughts on being Americans abroad and the nuances of being part of a minority group abroad. There are so many amazing resources at Fulbright, and groups such as Fulbright Noir, Fulbright Prism, and others. However, it was difficult to find an outlet through which we could all speak on these experiences. But we didn’t want to risk overtaking or overshadowing an already existing group. Seeing this gap, Marie-Aimée reassured us that if we wanted to fill it, the Commission would do its best to support any initiative we did.

As a researcher in the field of palliative and end-of-life care, communication is one of the most important aspects of contextualized care delivery. And I have personally always benefitted from conversing with my friends (even when I thought I could do everything alone). So I wondered if it were possible to have such a conversation in a more “formalized” environment, where we could speak with other grantees about topics that rarely are discussed in day-to-day settings. The nascent ideas also featured Diversity seminars and larger events, but those are all dreams we are working to someday make a reality.

Q: What did the process of creating this initiative look like?

Rae: Quite a few meetings, skype calls and emails! Both Marie-Aimée and Erica have been so supportive—offering logistical aid from giving us a room in which to host the Round Table Discussion (on a Saturday!) to giving feedback on grantee-wide surveys. Most memorable for me was attending the Fulbright Diversity Committee meeting in November, where we presented our ideas for the initiative, offered our own perspectives, and learned about what Fulbright is doing to increase diversity and accommodate the needs of grantees in the US and in Belgium, Luxembourg, and other EU countries.

We also sent a survey out to other grantees assessing interest in participating in the initiative. This was perhaps one of the most memorable aspects of the initiative creation. Having a background in research, I really wanted to ensure the survey asked questions people could engage with, and that would prompt appropriate answers. I recommended we pilot the survey to colleagues and we found stark differences in how the responding Belgian-born individuals engaged with the survey and how non-Europeans responded. Based on the answers to the piloted survey, we learned that ideas surrounding “diversity” and “identity” triggered varying responses: among the Belgian-born respondents we saw that the term “Diversity” did not inherently include “race” and “ethnicity” while they were the first concepts raised among non-Europeans. This helped a lot in contextualization.

Q: Can you describe the first meeting?

Sangeetha: I remember feeling excited for our first meeting, but also a little apprehensive. Even though there is plenty to learn about when it comes to diversity and inclusion, I did not want anyone to feel like it was mandatory to participate or that they

Rae: I learned so much in the first meeting, and I think Marie-Aimée was really the perfect person to lead our discussions. She had personal connections with each of us, and I think this really helped in fostering a safe and comfortable environment.

After creating communal agreements, we spoke firstly on our experiences on MLK (Martin Luther King) Day, participated in an identity exercise, and ended with a discussion on “The Dangers of a Single Story”, a Ted Talk by Chimamanda Adichie. While I don’t want to infringe on the privacy guidelines we created for the discussion, I will say that we discussed a lot about our life experiences and how they shaped our feelings of identity.

Many found solidarity in the reflections of others. On my part, when I couldn’t personally connect with a person’s experience, I learned from them. I know it sounds SUPER cheesy and anyone who knows me will say how much of a cornball I am, but I am immensely grateful and humbled to be surrounded by these people—my friends—as we navigate through our experiences being abroad.

Q: Moving forward, can you highlight your goals for this initiative?    

Rae: To me, “success” with the Round Table is achieving a safe environment in which we all could speak on our experiences, and find solidarity or maybe learn from one another’s challenges. I think we did that, and I’m so happy to have been a part of it.

Moving forward, I’d really like to focus efforts on future round table meetings. Our next will be in March on Socioeconomic Status and Budgeting, which will hopefully involve members of other study abroad programs. The secondary goal is to create a strategy through which we will be able to leave the framework for future cohorts to follow, if they so wish.

We are figuring out currently what this initiative will look like in the future—whether it will stick to a Round Table format, whether it will feature bigger events, what relaying this information to next year’s cohort will look like, whether it will form more of a committee…it is a work in progress, but I hope to be an engaged alumnus and make it work!

 Sangeetha: One thing I hope that we can do is provide a support network for future grantees.  It’s hard to predict what others might need, but hopefully we’ve created something that can be differentiated based on their needs. Whether it is coming together as a small group to have honest discussions, or reaching out to an alum that will help you navigate some of the challenges being abroad, it is my hope that next year, when new grantees come to Belgium and Luxembourg, they will know they aren’t alone in this experience.

Q: What has been your favorite aspect of starting this initiative?

Rae: There is so much! And at the risk of sounding corny (again), I would say up there on the list is working with Marie-Aimée, Erica, and Sangeetha to transition our ideas into working, tangible events. I’m even more excited to work with other grantees to make this a sustainable framework, perhaps even growing our list of goals.

Also up there are just the conversations I’ve had with everyone. At various points, I’ve felt the “oh, you’ve experienced that as well? I’m not alone?” feeling; alternatively, I’ve also felt the “That has never happened to me personally before, but I understand more where you’re coming from”.

I learned so much about myself and others through this process—and really knowing the other grantees has added this additional nuance of personalization you don’t always get when watching videos or reading articles. I have also enjoyed listening. Just listening and understanding and at times, reacting, to everyone’s stories has been a humbling and similarly validating experience.

Rianne “Rae” Delacruz is a 2019 graduate of The College of New Jersey, with a major in Public Health and minors in Arabic and Sociology. Her work has focused primarily on palliative care access for cancer patients aged 15-39. In 2018, her findings were accepted for poster presentation at the American Public Health Association’s National Conference in San Diego. As a 2019-2020 Fulbright scholarship recipient, she will conduct research on palliative care integration for recognized refugees at Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Post Fulbright, she plans to pursue an MPH at the University of Pennsylvania, focusing on epidemiology.

Sangeetha Ramakrishna is a 2019 – 2020 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to Belgium. She has a bachelor’s degree in German from Washington and Jefferson College, and a master’s degree in foreign language and TESOL education from New York University. Sangeetha is currently an elementary ESL teacher in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In addition to her work as an ETA to Ghent University, Sangeetha is looking forward to engaging with the community through volunteering or participating in exercise classes.

Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State.