First Person: A Fulbrighter at Yale

Jordanian researcher Rana Dajani spent last year at Yale as a Fulbright Fellow. Here, she reflects on the experience.

Rana Dajani, assistant professor in molecular biology in the faculty of science at the Hashemite University in Jordan, came to Yale last year as a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Genetics and a Fulbright Scholar. Dajani, who worked in the laboratory of assistant professor In-Hyum Park while at Yale, focuses her research on genome-wide association studies concerning diabetes and cancer in ethnic populations in Jordan. Her other research includes signaling transduction, stem cells and bioinformatics. Dajani is also the founder and director of We Love Reading, a NGO that encourages communities to share in the experience of storytelling, and to create a life-long enthusiasm for each child to read and acquire knowledge. She writes here about her experiences at Yale.

After spending several months at Yale on a Fulbright Fellowship, I am back in Amman [Jordan] reflecting on my experience. Yale has been valuable in ways I could not have previously expected, and I feel compelled to share my gratitude for its richness.

Rana Dajani (second from right) with members of her lab at Yale: (from left) Yoshiaki Tanaka, Yong-Wook Jung, Kun-Yong Kim, In-Hyun Park, Sara Awad, and Eriona Hysolli.

Here are some of the things I remember:

• Driving to Massachusetts at night in the blinding rain, knowing that the roads are dependable, the white lines solid guides on the highway taking me to my destination.  The words from the biography of [documentary filmmaker] Michael Moore come to my mind, reassuring me that there are good Americans who will always seek truth and justice whatever the circumstances. They are the people who made America what she is.

• Walking from my home down Orange Street by shop after shop of authentic Italian and Middle Eastern food. Entering, I am welcomed. The shopkeepers ask how was my day, how are my children, with a huge smile on their faces. We walk home in the rain. I drink it in; it is so refreshing. A jogger stops and offers to carry our bags with us — a total stranger! I feel at home.

• We live in an apartment owned by a Turkish student. Everything we can imagine we find in her house, from spices to complicated food utensils, from printers to funny hats.  We feel at home, taken care of by her even though she is far away in Turkey.

• The shuttle — its unfailing dependency day and night, 24 hours — just a phone call away. The drivers smiling, ever so helpful and ever so accommodating. I wish I knew their names to thank them one by one.

• The security guard who walks me home and strikes up a conversation about our children, the future of the world.

• The people in my lab: Kun-Yong Kim so sweet, so generous, an angel if there was one — her fierce love for her daughter, her grappling of life’s struggles, her offers of help, sincere friendship in a quiet way. Others so polite, so respectful, ever explaining the details with so much patience. Eriona Hysolli, who invited me to lunch the first day I came, like welcoming family back home.

• Worthington Hooker School: The teachers, the students, everyone. My daughter walks to school every day. I always loved that experience, and I was able to give it to her in New Haven.

• The public library. You do not know the treasure you have. It is worth billions — no, it is priceless. Being able to read any book you want by just walking to the library to pick it up, and then to lose yourself reading anytime and anywhere. That is heaven!

• Merle Waxman [associate dean of the medical school], who took me under her wing and took care of me, introducing me to people, inquiring about my family, where was I going to have thanksgiving, trying to find housing for me.

• The secretaries, whose smiles light up my day, laughing light-heartedly, asking me questions about my country, religion, etc. What lovely exchanges — how much we learned about each other; this is true bridge building … a manifestation of the Fulbright experience.

Before I came, I had spent so much time online researching the area. I was a little scared. I always approach new situations with an open mind, but in this case I was cautious. After a while I realized that there was nothing seriously to be afraid of, that those I see on the street are normal people. I look into their eyes and know that we are similar. If we are scared of each other because of our differences, we must face each other, look into each other’s eyes, and smile.

I fell in love with New Haven … and not just the physical things, although the houses on Hillhouse Avenue are a work of art, and it is a pleasure walking down Whitney Avenue where each house is different.

But in reality, it is the people I came to love. We have a saying in Arabic: “Heaven without people cannot be entered.”

All people are afraid of the unknown, but we must reach out to break the fear and build trust. We started a read aloud session in Arabic at the New Haven Public Library to break stereotypes and to build bridges of understanding through books and children.

My daughter was exposed to different teaching approaches in middle school in the United States: more projects, team work, and thinking and analyzing. She experienced people with different points of view than hers. She was able to maintain her identity, learn from others, and share her culture and heritage.

Heaven without people is not inhabitable. I got to know the people of New Haven.

Through my Fulbright experience I was able to network with people from many disciplines and walks of life. All these have enriched and widened my knowledge and wisdom, and inspired my intellect and soul.

On a personal level, the Fulbright experience increased my commitment to go back to my country to build it, and to inspire youths to become the citizens who will make a difference in their communities. It also increased my conviction that we are responsible to build our countries; we cannot go abroad and leave our fellow countrymen. We must go abroad to learn, and then come back to share what we learned — find what suits us, tailor it to fit our cultures and needs, and then implement and improve to build our country, Jordan.

I am glad to be back home … the people … the buildings … the smells. My time in Amman has given me the opportunity to reflect on what I value about the Arab world.

I contemplate what I find valuable in both worlds because, in some sense, the richness of my cross-cultural experience — and the people I have come to know personally — has consolidated my conviction that meeting others, in new settings and in different capacities, is paramount to greater understanding globally. It is through people that we learn to empathize with social and political worlds that may seem foreign to us.

I am grateful to both worlds for allowing me that experience, as I hope to put my efforts to making it possible for others.

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