By Dr. Hansini Laharwani
This October, I was selected to be one of less than 10 ECFMG-sponsored J-1 physicians to attend a three-day leadership development seminar held in Washington, D.C., by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The seminar I attended was one of a series of eight planned in 2022 and 2023 that make up the BridgeUSA Leadership Development Program. According to its website, the program will host up to 200 total BridgeUSA participants and intends to “promote mutual understanding and lasting partnerships between emerging leaders from foreign countries and the United States,” give its attendees a chance to “collaborate and share ideas, approaches, and strategies to develop solutions to local and global challenges,” and create “a global network of like-minded professionals committed to creating positive change in their workplaces and communities.”
During my time in D.C. attending this seminar, I met friends and colleagues from diverse backgrounds, including research, literature, economics, and medicine. I also met government officials from India, my home country. It was intriguing to hear all of their inspiring and jaw-dropping stories. I still remember one of them sharing a funny experience of performing a currency conversion in their mind when they first stepped into the grocery store to buy a toothbrush and toothpaste in the United States. They also shared emotional stories about missing family back home but how their passion for their careers fortified them to take this huge plunge of staying in the United States. Even though we were from different places and in different fields, each of us endured similar hardships, from emotional breakdowns to relocations to trying to blend into the culture of the states or the workplace. However, our resilience kept us all going. In addition to feeling a kinship with these people about our similar experiences in the United States, and our difficulties being away from what was familiar, I gained detailed knowledge about different career paths outside of medicine I may not otherwise have encountered.
The highlight of the leadership program was meeting Ms. Nicole Elkon, U.S. Department of State Deputy Assistant Secretary for Private Sector Exchange, and having a conversation with her about J-1 visas and the Exchange Visitor Program. I and the other attendees shared with her our challenging yet rewarding journeys as IMGs (international medical graduates). I was surprised by how she and her colleagues encouraged us to speak our minds and hearts in front of them and ask any question we could think of.
It’s humbling to see how life unfolds: I still remember eight years back when I first registered and made an account on the ECFMG website and made millions of calls to ECFMG for the silliest questions. Every time, their regional advisors politely gave their insight on my queries and issues. Fast forward eight years, and we are up close with Ms. Nikole Elkon discussing our journey on the J-1 visa, the hurdles we face, and how to make it better. She and her colleagues invited us to share our problems, sympathetically and attentively listened to us throughout, and offered valuable guidance.
One of my other favorite sessions was the presentation by Dr. Bill Pfohl, a psychologist from Western Kentucky University. We were all glued to his words from the beginning to the end. It was emotional and affirming to see the emphasis on mental health, physician suicide, and burnout in the room, and learn how technology has profoundly impacted our society, as well as how we live our lives and communicate with each other. Even though every single person was from a different country and ethnicity, the beauty of that session was that we were all on the same page about these social issues and concerns about the world. As rightly said by Dr. Pfohl, “The mental health crisis worldwide is more of a pandemic.” The session ended on a beautiful note: “Be grateful for everything.”
Finally, the last session about the “Changemaker Challenge” was the icing on the cake. Everyone in the room wanted to bring about change, not only in the United States but also in their home countries. The room was full of talent, innovation, and creativity. Everyone was trying to increase awareness and advocate for an important cause they cared about, from climate change to waste management to physician suicide and burnout. My mind was blown by the humongous talent from across the globe sitting in one room and trying their best to make a difference in their own ways, working towards a better future and being the trailblazers for an improved world. All I wished and hoped in that room at that moment was that each of them would become a pioneer of positive impact and devote their time and energy to making a difference.
By the end of the seminar, new relationships and friendships had blossomed as people exchanged contact information and added each other on social media. It was a wonderful opportunity for everyone to connect and build new connections. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to attend.
P.S. I’d like to send a special thanks to Ian, Gabrielle, Emily, and Ryan, who took care of us from beginning to end and ensured no stone was unturned in their hospitality.