Gabi’s Humphrey Fellowship <3

Part I.

It all started in summer 2021. While sunbathing at the beautiful Vućine beach in Žuljana, Croatia, an ad popped up telling me about the Humphrey Fellowship. A program for mid-career professionals in the field of education (and other fields) in the US? From the first moment if felt right for me. The online consultation arranged with the Fulbright Commission in Slovakia answered all my remaining questions and I got assured this is a fellowship made for me. I knew I wanted to change the education in Slovakia by educating for change. Using non-formal education as a tool to educate people towards sustainable development.

I got on the reserve list in the first round of application assessment. This was the moment when I surrendered and let it go. Focusing on my job at the Slovak Centre for Scientific and Technical Information (part of the Ministry of Education in Slovakia) innovating the educational system, and in my spare time building Slovak Eco Quality NGO – a non-profit focusing on educating people about and for sustainability.

On my way home from a business trip to Bologna, Italy I got a call from the Fulbright Commission. I was in! I was offered the Humphrey fellowship – oh, wow! Right after that a few positive feedbacks about supported project applications, submitted by Slovak Eco Quality (SEQ), arrived. … My preparations to leave for my US experience had started, sabbatical at my workplace was confirmed, and projects at SEQ distributed among the team.

I have arrived to State College, Pennsylvania on August 14, 2022. And my Humphrey journey at Penn State University (PSU) started, together with another 11 participants from all around the globe, hosted at the College of Education of PSU.

Picture 1: Humphrey Fellows at Penn State, 2022-2023

While enjoying cultures of the world – with and through fellows from Suriname, Mexico, Vietnam, Israel, Botswana, Pakistan, Egypt, Panama, and Iran – in my closest surrounding, getting to know the greenest University campus ever, and finding the best Italian style coffee (!) in the town, I set myself a few goals: 1. Learn about and understand the US educational system with its non-formal educational aspects; 2. Create an action plan how to transfer good examples, especially from the field of sustainability related education, into the Slovak educational system; and 3. Focus on personal and leadership development.

I have been establishing grounds for a healthy mind and happy soul in line with people and planet for some time now. And the stay in the US just strengthened my vision of wellbeing not being “just” a state of being but first and foremost a state of action. I practiced yoga, did some swimming and started preparations for my half-marathon in the Fall semester. And I did it! I ran my first ever 13 miles/21 kilometers on November 19, 2022 in Philadelphia.

Picture 2: Accomplished Philadelphia Half Marathon

As I well established myself in terms of physical wellbeing – I even managed to find my way to eat healthy (!) – my intellectual development got a green light too. I took three amazing classes in the Fall semester: Psychology and a Sustainable World; Foundation of Sustainable Business; and Entrepreneurial Mindset. I loved the content – the courses taught me a lot. However, even more than that, I enjoyed the process. So much interaction, group work, discussions, field work, research, educational games, mindful assignments, … we hugged trees, made public proclamations what extra sustainability behaviors we will introduce in our lives, established businesses, created business plans reflecting sustainability actions, … and so much more!

In course of the semester I also started my professional affiliation at the Centre Regional planning Agency – the regional public institution implementing the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan in the Centre County region of Pennsylvania. I have been supporting the outreach activities, including awareness raising and education of different target groups in sustainable development. Currently a series of workshops for the business community is about to take place with a focus on renewable energy use, energy efficiency approaches and shifting to electric vehicles.

Volunteering is another inherent part of the program. I support different ad hoc events (gardening at United Way Day of Care, being buddy to a friend with special needs at the Night to Shine event, chaperoning youngsters skiing at Tussey Mountain; plogging at Black Moshannon State Park; sorting books for the annual charity book sale with the American Association of University Women) and regularly donate blood (reaching 1 gallon / 3.8 liters lately), socialize with clients of Out of the Cold organization, and pack and give out food boxes within the Anti-hunger program of YMCA.

Picture 3: Sorting books for the annual charity book sale with the American Association of University Women

I have experienced the US and gained a lot of new knowledge, and got to know a lot of new people, places, cultures, … I hiked, jumped into waterfalls, and picnicked with the loveliest American host family and their adopted dog Boris; I went to Tucson, Arizona for a conference organized by the North American Association for Environmental Education; I participated at our Leaders’ Forum in Washington, D.C. where all the 156 Humphrey Fellows currently in the US took part and tuned their leadership skills; I saw the breath-taking Niagara falls together with my co-fellow friends on a beautiful sunny day; we travelled the country roads of West Virginia; we enjoyed the company of American friends at Virginia beach while celebrating a true Thanksgiving; I visited my professor friend from DePaul University in Chicago and another friend in Holland, Michigan. With the latter we managed to swim in the 4 degrees Celsius (!) lake Michigan … I also traveled with a US train (!); biked to the airport and searched for a bike rack as not even the employees knew, if there was any; learned to enjoy Americano (!); still did not get the “mac-and-cheese” (?); won the Scavenger hunt at our University Park with an amazing team from Panama, Mexico and Slovakia; I went to the Involvement fair and saw hundreds of student organizations in action; we were invited to the VIP lounge of the University President to watch one of the University football games (American football that is 😊); I saw Super Duper Kyle performing in front of our Student Center called HUB; I had the best pretzel of my life; I learned to dance bachata at classes organized by the school dance club; crafted my first ZINE ever; participated at the Pumpkin Festival; … and so-so much more.

Picture 4: Gabi’s US Host family (from left to right – Steve, Shannon, Andy, Gabi, Boris)

I incorporated outreach activities into my Humphrey program too: e.g. I talked to my classmates about green and sustainable business showcases from Slovakia; did a cooking demonstration of a traditional Slovak lentil stew to eager high school students from Altoona; spoke about the GreenYOUthCHANGEMAKERS project run by Slovak Eco Quality in Slovakia and UniGrowth Development Center in Armenia at the Global Sustainable Action: It Starts with Us conference; talked about Community Engagement Showcases from Slovakia at our Humphrey Symposium; promoted Global Women Leader Examples from Slovakia; shared experience and information about the Erasmus+ educational program of the European Union; and more.

Last but absolutely not least, my Humphrey Fellowship is fully influenced by the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN (SDGs) at:

1. individual level

I do ride my bike. Everywhere. Even to the airport (No. 13). 😊 Never buy, nor cook meat (No. 15). If need to buy something, then in a thrift store (No. 12). Wash with cold water. Try to practice yoga in all its 8 aspects (No. 3). (I – with love and respect – say that the list is much longer…).

2. corporate level

I support YMCA in their efforts to combat food insecurity (No. 2). I work towards raising the quality of education in my country based on my US experience (No. 4). I create flourishing partnerships with like-minded professionals and organizations like Dear Tomorrow and Growing Greener (No. 17).

3. operational level

I support a workshop series for local businesses as part of the Centre County Climate Action and Adaptation Plan – focusing on the energy efficiency of these businesses (No. 7). Thanks to the Sustainability Institute at PSU I learned about the strategies and real actions of PSU towards becoming a carbon neutral institution (No. 13). And another example is the LeadSPACE educational project for future sustainability leaders all around the globe developed with co-fellow friends and partners, and being implemented once we return to our home countries (No. 4, 10, 13, 17).

Picture 5: Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations

And this was just a very brief overview. 😊 … I have been writing this blog on our north-east to south, then to south-west, and back to north-east again road trip. So, stay tuned for more!