Blake Phillips – Malaysia 2012

Blake Phillips – Malaysia 2012

While I could give all the credit to the U.S. Fulbright Program, the reality is a little more complicated.  My enduring love for international travel and cross-cultural exchange started my freshman year at Pomona College when I spent six weeks working at an orphanage in Lima, Peru.  Although I had traveled abroad on several previous occasions, this was the first time I realized how incredible it is to live abroad, fully immersed in another culture for an extended period of time.

I so thoroughly enjoyed this experience that I returned to South America my junior year to spend a semester studying abroad in Quito, Ecuador.  In addition, I received an academic scholarship my senior year to conduct a six-month independent research project on microfinance in the Peruvian Andes.

After graduating from Pomona College with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics, I applied to the U.S. Fulbright Program to continue my research on microfinance in the Peruvian Andes.  However, my application was rejected and I took a job as a Senior Research Analyst at Compass Lexecon, an antitrust economics consulting firm.  As much as I loved living in San Francisco, CA and the excitement of working on multi-billion dollar antitrust cases, I could tell that something was missing from my life.

As a result, I applied to the U.S. Fulbright Program in Malaysia to learn more about a different part of the world.  To my surprise, I received the fellowship and quickly found myself on a plane to Kuala Lumpur with a small group of fellow Americans who

similarly had no idea what they had signed up for on the other side of the Pacific.

As a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant, I spent a year teaching English to 400 students at a rural secondary school in Malaysia.  The community I lived in consisted of a couple small shops, a school, a gas station, and a mosque along the side of the road surrounded by hundreds of miles of palm oil plantations.

I spent the year developing meaningful friendships with my students, fellow teachers, and the community.  During school hours, I taught English to groups of 30+ students ranging from 11 to 18 years old.  After school, I played soccer with my students and discussed the merits of U.S. foreign policy with my neighbors over coffee at the local café.  In addition, I worked with my fellow Fulbright English Teaching Assistants to create an English Debate Club and organize five overnight English camps for more than 1,500 students around the country.  In turn, I felt the same warmth, kindness, and generosity from the Malaysian people that I felt while living abroad in South America.

The year I spent in Malaysia was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.  It taught me the immense power of public diplomacy and cross-cultural exchange to change the world for the better.  Moreover, I started to notice the similarities that make us human.  While we eat different food, wear different clothes, sing different songs, and pray to different gods, we are all searching for a sense of meaning in our lives and a sense of community wherever we live.  We all want to be loved and respected for whom we are.  We all want to create a better life for ourselves, our families, our communities, and our children.

After finishing my Fulbright in Malaysia, I returned to my original area of policy expertise—economics—by taking a job as the Senior Research Assistant to the Director of Monetary Affairs at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors in Washington, D.C.  In this position, I conducted research, prepared briefings, and wrote policy memoranda for the Federal Open Market Committee focusing on the interaction between U.S. monetary policy and global financial markets.

I enjoyed learning about the finer mechanics of U.S. monetary policy and the global financial system.  In addition, I felt incredibly lucky to sit in on meetings in which important people—much smarter and more experienced than myself—determined the fate of the global economy.  However, while I had plenty of opportunities to continue in this field by enrolling in an Economics Ph.D. program, I always knew this wasn’t the right path for me.

Rather, I collected my courage and decided to leave my position at the Federal Reserve to search for the missing piece of the puzzle.  Around the same time, I decided to join the Board of Directors for the Fulbright Association National Capital Area Chapter in Washington, D.C.

As the Director of Advocacy for the Fulbright Association National Capital Area Chapter, I spearhead the chapter’s advocacy efforts on behalf of the U.S. Fulbright Program on Capitol Hill.  For example, we help the Fulbright Association organize an ongoing series of Fulbright Advocacy Day events, during which hundreds of Fulbright alumni from around the country meet with their respective members of Congress to highlight the positive, global impact of the U.S. Fulbright Program.

In addition, I created the Fulbright NCAC International Relations Discussion Group, a highly-successful event series that brings together Fulbright alumni from 165+ countries around the world to discuss issues of domestic and international importance.

The goal of this event series is to create a fun, social environment in which participants feel comfortable engaging each other in open and honest debate regarding the most pressing policy issues of the day.  In turn, participants come away from these discussion group sessions with a better understanding of their own beliefs—as well as a greater appreciation for the wide diversity of opinions held by other Fulbrighters on a particular set of policy issues.

This event series encapsulates the essence of the U.S. Fulbright Program as it fosters greater respect and mutual understanding between the peoples of the United States and the rest of the world by creating the necessary conditions for substantive and authentic dialogue across social, cultural, linguistic, ethnic, religious, and political divides.

At the same time, I realized the same underlying principles that make the U.S. Fulbright Program such a powerful force for peace and mutual understanding in 165+ countries around the world could be utilized to help bridge our social, cultural, and political divisions at home as well.

Thus, following the partisan rancor of the 2016 presidential election, I joined Better Angels, a rapidly-growing citizens’ movement focused on addressing the issue of political polarization in the United States.  As the regional coordinator for Better Angels in Washington, D.C., I organize a series of Red-Blue Workshops that utilize the same underlying principles of public diplomacy and cross-cultural exchange I learned as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar in Malaysia to help bridge the political divide in our nation’s capital.

Looking back on the course of my professional career, I am reminded of something my grandmother once told me—that a person’s life only makes sense when looking in the rearview mirror.  As such, I remain hopeful that I will eventually figure out how to weave together all of these seemingly disparate threads of my life into a single, coherent narrative.

In the meantime, I remain confident that the skills I learned and experiences I had as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar in Malaysia will continue to play an important role in the development of my professional career over the coming years.  As a result, I remain eternally grateful for this incredible opportunity, as well as for the heartfelt welcome of the Malaysian people which made my experience so thoroughly enriching once I stepped off that airplane in Kuala Lumpur.

–Blake Phillips
Fulbrighter to Malaysia, 2012

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