I’m writing this in a home in San Francisco. A year ago, I would never have thought I would be making the journey. I didn’t even know about the program I’m on! No kidding, I literally only heard about this leadership programme at the end of October 2017 when a friend sent the information to me and said, “Hey, I think you should apply for this.”
The Community Solutions Program is a professional leadership development program by the United States of America’s Department of State for the best and brightest global community leaders. The leaders, aged between 25 to 38, are chosen from those working on issues related to the environment, tolerance and conflict resolution, transparency and accountability, and women and gender.
Community Solutions is a year-long program that includes:
- a four-month fellowship at a U.S. organization, government office or legislative body,
- a graduate-level leadership course and
- a 6-month community project back in the respective home country.
Community Solutions Fellows gain valuable experience in community work and strengthen their capacity for leadership and development in their home countries.
Trust me, when I read that description, I felt intimidated and absolutely terrified to apply. You see, I still struggle with a deep fear of rejection but I’ve learnt the magic of taking the first step into the unknown. I also had a dear friend who believed in me and kept pushing me to apply, reminding me that there is no harm in trying and letting the universe take over after that. The important thing was to actually try. Truth be told, that’s how I ever get anything done.
So I took courage and apply I did, through a very thorough and detailed application form that needed me to lay out all my previous and current work, and my plans for the future. I told myself to take everything one step at a time. I got through a few rounds of interviews but every time, I told myself to take everything one step at a time. It was also a way to manage my anxiety (which honestly were off the rails).
At this point, I’d already decided to take a leap of faith and leave teaching without anything concrete planned after (that’s going to take a whole different blogpost), and I officially left the teaching service on 31 Jan 2018. I took a month off to take care of myself, and by this time too, I’d gone through all the rounds of interviews and was waiting for the results. In my mind, I had to keep reminding myself that I’d done my best, so whatever happens next is truly in His hands.
When I got the acceptance and confirmation offer on 25 February, I was at Arab Street, right in front of Masjid Sultan. I remember staring at the phone, reading the email, and feeling an out-of-body experience.
There were more than 5,300 applications from all around the world. Less than 100 (92 for this year, to be exact) were selected. Statistically, that’s a 1.7% chance of being selected into the program. Technically, it’s easier to get into Harvard than to this program. I was one of them.
I got accepted as a leader in the Women and Gender issues track. I then found out that I’m the sole Singaporean representative this year, as well as the first female Singaporean on this program ever. #represent
The process of matching with a host organisation (ie the organisation I was going to work at for 4 months) began then, and after some serious digging in into what I really wanted to achieve from the development program and interviews with several American organisations, my practicum got confirmed with…
At the end of July, the journey for all the fellows on the program began physically in Washington, DC. All 92 of us gathered for a few days of workshops and orientation to the programme together with the US Dept of State and IREX.
Since then, it hasn’t been an easy journey.
I struggled with a lot of anxiety and panic prior to the departure, and am really grateful to the good people at the US Embassy in Singapore who walked me through a induction session and calmed some of my very real fears of moving to and living in America.
I got hit with several panic attacks just as I was about to take the flight from London to Washington. It’s a delayed reaction – I didn’t get any while in Singapore or on the first flight – but I’m reminded once again to breathe, let it pass and let it through. Breathe, let it pass and let it through. Feel it, honour it, and let it through.
I felt a case of the impostor syndrome at the beginning of the orientation session as different officials welcomed the Community Solutions fellows to the programme. They kept iterating that more than 5300 people wanted to be in our seats. I sat, in my corner of the room, thinking, “What the hell am I doing here?” and feeling all sorts of nerves.
And then the US Dept of State official went on stage and said these:
“Your job is to be the leader you were called to be.”
And I’d felt centred again. I can understand that – the language of leadership through service and responsibility. Leadership is hard work, it’s heavy lifting and being accountable for things bigger than yourself, and understanding that keeps one grounded.
I struggled again, when I shared with a dear friend about all the amazing fellows I was meeting during the orientation – from those working tirelessly for women & gender issues, to those building peace in the realms of tolerance and conflict resolution, to those effecting change in the environment, to those strengthening transparency and accountability – when she made a remark that silenced me. She knew what I was feeling.
“Remember you’re a part of them, not apart from them. You’re a witness from within the circle, not from the outside. You deserve to be there.”
During the orientation, I was surrounded by SO MANY beacons of light, strength and courage that it was easy to get overwhelmed (in a good way!) and move around constantly inspired, in awe and at times, feeling intimidated and undeserving.
It has been and continues to be an incredible honour and privilege to learn from and with the different leaders from all around the world (67 countries!), and the IREX & US Dept of State teams.
Despite all of these struggles, I keep reminding myself to keep taking the next step. I’d taken a leap of faith anyway. I also am reminded that it’s really okay to feel whatever it is I’m feeling, but when the time comes, I get to choose to step up instead of step back, show up instead of shut down, and to make a difference where it truly matters.
And you know what the amazing thing is? All of us get these opportunities in our lives – to be the person we are called to be, and to make the world a better place for the people around us. It sure can be a scary thing to carry but hey, we get to do them anyway.
I have been a constant ball of emotions but I know I’m not doing this alone. Whenever I lose that bit of faith in myself, I lean on others who have so much more faith in me and who push me to soar. This is never a journey taken alone. I ride on all the prayers and love from everyone and His grace.
Today I started work at Paid Leave US. This is my brave.
This is for all the women who know we are capable of more, especially minority women, women of colour, Muslim women, & women struggling with mental health issues.
We’re going to shut. it. down.
P.s: I was looking at the interactive map in the flight on the way to San Francisco and realised with a jolt that since I’d gone from Singapore to London to Washington to San Francisco… should I fly over the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco to Singapore, I would have circumvented the Earth.
It was a moment for me to take in. Wow.