February 27, 2017 – it was not a usual Monday morning for me. Instead of sitting at my desk reading or hammering away at the keyboard, I was in a side street near Dupont Circle in Washington D.C., waiting for my Uber ride to the Swiss Embassy. Not that I’m complaining.
How did I find myself here? My road to GPP started with conversations with three people I look up to in my Department, Engineering Education: Jake Grohs, my Practicum professor, who eventually became my mentor and advisor; Homero Murzi, who reached out to me from halfway across the world, encouraged me to choose VT, and became my friend and next-door neighbor; and Sreyoshi Bhaduri, initially my department-assigned peer mentor but with whom I quickly developed a personal friendship that went beyond that initial assignment and that I know will last a lifetime. Three people I got to know in different ways but who shared a common experience: GPP. They shared their stories with me, led by example, and encouraged me to share that same experience that they had.
So here I was, a large purse containing the envelope with the required documents for a Schengen visa application on my shoulder, making my way to 2900 Cathedral Avenue NW, Washington D.C. It was my third time in the U.S. capital, and I have not been to that part of the city. We went past Embassy Row, past the Embassy of the Philippines and my country’s flag flying high, into quiet streets with beautiful houses. When I saw the Swiss flag flying at a distance, I did not have the same feeling of dread and anxiety that I had the last time I had to apply for a travel visa, maybe because the area was so serene and peaceful – like nothing could go wrong.
As a citizen of the Philippines, I am used to having to go through a stringent vetting process before being allowed to travel. While there are countries I can visit with much more ease and mobility (such as Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia), traveling to the United States, Canada, Europe, Japan and Australia, among other countries, entails more effort, paperwork, and time. I had traveled to the United States for work before coming to Virginia Tech, and for both purposes, that meant a lengthy preparation process, long lines, witnessing applicant after applicant being denied visas (with some of them leaving in tears), and the anxiety that goes with the possibility that you will end up interviewing with a stern and intimidating consul officer. It was this long-winded affair that took days to prepare and a lengthy half-day (sometimes more) personal appearance at the U.S. Embassy in Manila, which was surrounded by barricades, guards, and hawkers offering services and wares: “Ballpen for sale here!”; “Leave your cellphones here, they are not allowed inside!”
This, however, was not my experience when I applied for the Schengen visa. There were no lines, and while the interviewer was thorough, the environment was much more relaxed. It was a pleasant experience, and it made me look forward to what lies ahead even more. I had a 9:30 am appointment, and arrived at 9 to leave time for contingencies. I had barely taken my class reading out of my purse when my name was called; by 9:30 am, I was trying to find an Uber to take me back to the hotel.
I had more than half a day to spare, as Megabus to Christiansburg did not leave til the following morning. My daughter and I decided to spend this time doing something we both loved: immersing ourselves in history. We were able to go to two places that we felt were meaningful: the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial.
I have always maintained that in order to move forward, it was important to look back and learn from the lessons of the past, a sentiment that I am glad my daughter also shares. And if there is one moment in history that imparted valuable lessons that we have to remember to this day, the Holocaust would be one of the most – if not the most – defining moments. As we went around and saw for ourselves relics and replicas of things and scenes that we only read about in books or watched in documentaries, we could not help but shed tears. We sat and listened to personal stories as told by survivors. And we also learned about how the rest of the world reacted to the growing situation of unrest in Europe in the 1930s, of Jews searching for refuge as they were forced out from lands they once called home, of the opportunity to provide a safe haven and the debate regarding whose responsibility it was to provide refuge, and could not help but shudder. Somehow, there are echoes that seem to reverberate to this day, and it is important now, more than ever, to remind ourselves: Never Again.
We then walked about twelve minutes to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, and read the words that we have been signing in our heads since we were introduced to the awesome musical that is Hamilton: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” We spent a few minutes just reading through the words as Jefferson penned them; reflecting on what this country that we temporarily lived in held dear; watching the Potomac; and thinking, how lucky we were to be alive right now and sharing these experiences, together.
Then we went back to Blacksburg, the place we, at least for now, call home. Two days later, I received my passport back in the mail, newly updated with a Schengen visa. An important box has been checked off my “To Do” list, and I am ready to leap forward to what lies ahead: to new friends, new memories, new experiences. The Road to GPP is certainly very much under way.