Salome Apkhazishvili ’20 and Mariam Gamdlishvili ’21 have a lot in common. They are both USI Master of Communications candidates. Both Georgian. Both in their mid-20s. Both intelligent. Both ambitious. Both accomplished. Both recipients of Edmund S. Muskie internships. And both Fulbright U.S. Student Study Award recipients.
Since 1946, the Fulbright Program—administered by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs—has provided international graduate educational, research and teaching opportunities for more than 380,000 people from the United States and other countries, operating in more than 140 countries worldwide.
USI has welcomed seven Fulbright scholars in the past four years, earning graduate degrees in communications, language teaching, language and education.
While at USI, Salome and Mariam live, learn and share daily experiences alongside peers and mentors in an open, academic atmosphere where they exchange intellectual ideas that help mutual understanding.
Honor, responsibility, opportunity, motivation and strong desire to never stop being a role model. These are the keywords I relate to being a Fulbright. At the same time, deep in your heart, there is a fear that you might fail, be a disappointment for others who believe in you. Along with these feelings is a tension you carry once you are officially notified that you are among the finalists of this very competitive and prestigious program. It’s not a bad tension, it’s a wake-up call that rings sharply when you start thinking of running from responsibilities.
It is a huge responsibility. Being a part of the community full of leaders, Nobel Peace Prize and Pulitzer Prize winners is a huge responsibility. I feel that I am accountable in two countries—the U.S. and Georgia. And I think that, since I have accepted this challenge, I must succeed. It is interesting to see how this status of being a Fulbright influences people around you. Any time I say that I am a Fulbright or wear a Fulbright shirt, people get interested and usually are admiring. But for me, it is a huge opportunity to develop and become a better version of myself by becoming a professional with world class experience and be a “game-changer” in my home country.
The biggest challenge I still cope with is the high academic requirements at USI. Even though I have another master’s degree from back home, pursuing the same goal here is totally different. It is HARD work.
Being on time, doing my best even if I feel that I’m not capable of doing it have been my challenges. It’s the hardest to deal with, but what I am most proud of myself for. I always beat my challenges thanks to my hardworking skills. I’ve never been late to class, on an assignment or final project. My 3.8 GPA is a testament.
I also want to mention the language barrier. Even though I passed TOEFL and GRE exams before coming here, my English language level was not fluent enough to perform well in academic writing and public presentations.
Besides the academic rigors, it was difficult being the only Georgian on campus and in Evansville. The transportation system is another big pain for me. I don’t have a car, so access to some places is very hard. Thanks to some of my international and American friends, I don’t have to spend a lot of money on Ubers every time I need groceries or a ride to the East Side. Still, poor public transportation remains at the top of my concerns as an international student.
I have not faced significant challenges at USI so far since the Center for International Programs, led by Heidi Gregori-Gahan, makes the process of adaptation very smooth and easy. Everyone is eager to explain, help and assist anytime. In general, it was not easy to adapt to a new culture and environment. I come from a collectivistic culture, and the U.S. represents an individualistic society. There were some difficulties in the beginning with simple things needed for daily life, like housing, receiving my first stipend and banking, that work differently from the place I come from. However, I was lucky enough to have another Georgian Fulbright—Salome. She helped me a lot in overcoming all the challenges and getting used to the way of the American lifestyle, rules and norms. I reached out to her immediately when the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi informed me about becoming a finalist. Since then, we have become friends.
The average Georgian woman my age (I was 26 at the time) is married and some of them are parents. Withstanding the cultural pressure to follow the same path, I chose to create a different future for myself. I was not sure I’d achieved my best graduating at both a bachelor’s and master’s level, or by working as a journalist for five years. I knew that staying in my home country and living a daily routine was not enough for me to feel accomplished.
I decided to leave my family and my country. I had always wanted to see it be more tolerant of everyone regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, sexual or religious orientation. Choosing this path meant giving myself the freedom to live for myself and by myself, to search and find a confidence I’ve always lacked.
I knew that my journalistic skills would not be enough to be competitive. I knew that earning another degree in communication would give me more opportunities in life.
Since my childhood, I was interested in history, cultures and international relations. My ultimate goal has always been to be a diplomat and serve my country—Georgia. Being exposed from an early age to different nations, cultures and societies shaped my future interest in diplomacy. During my college studies, I have been mentored by prominent Georgian policymakers and diplomats, which deepened my wish to become professionally engaged in the foreign policy sphere.
Right after finishing my degree, I started a career within the government of Georgia’s diplomatic services and was actively involved in the process of Georgia’s integration with the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization. At that time, additionally, I got involved in the establishment of the first strategic communications structures in Georgia. Since the field and discipline appeared to be very new, it attracted me. I decided that I had to enhance my academic and theoretical knowledge and applied for the Fulbright Program.
I always say that accepting the opportunity of living thousands of miles away from home was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It was like a new life we might be given in a video game; to try again and achieve more. I accepted this game. I’ve failed several times. But I am a better and stronger person today— different than I was in 2018 when I arrived at USI.
I’ve resided here a year and a half. It’s not a long time, but due to the endless challenges I’ve gone through every week, I am stronger. This feeling is so genuine that it's had a huge effect on my confidence. I’ve met many people from all over the world, which is the most beautiful gift I’ve been given in my life. I met those who failed me, those who disappointed me, but as they say, it just made me a stronger person. It’s been an experience beyond my expectation.
It’s been a few months of firsts! First fall semester, first readings, first finals, first professors, first Walmart shopping, first Starbucks, first Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, etc. I am grateful for the chances that I am given, and I am experiencing the best times of my life. Despite the heavy study workload, there is a lot to see and explore, and ways to develop myself. Being exposed to a new type of culture—like the U.S.’s—and living here allows me an exceptional opportunity to learn more about myself and this country.
Every September USI’s International Programs and Services office invites the Global Ambassadors and several other international scholars to beautiful New Harmony, Indiana, for the annual leadership retreat. Last year was my first time, and it will always stay in my memory. I met so many bright and beautiful minds there. Each of them with different stories but the same aspiration: to be a change the world needs. International students always make the best family whenever they meet, but this was a unique feeling of togetherness. It gave birth to the hope that one day the world might be a better place because of us.
The presence of Salome and other international students makes it feel like we have a small version of the world here at USI. The Center for International Programs organized a Global Ambassador’s retreat in September. It was a great event and opportunity to learn the amazing stories of students from all over the world. The existence of such bright, fascinating, motivational and strong people gives me hope for a better world. Dr. Rochon gave a magnificent inspiring speech at one of the retreat dinners. His words made me feel like a part of the community that provides and shares “knowledge for life.”
I knew that my international life would change after Mariam’s arrival to USI’s campus, but there are some things I could have never imagined. Mariam, even though there is a two-year difference between us (she is younger), reminds me of my mom and grandmother who are always ready to take care of me, feed me and make sure I am okay.
She is such a mature and hardworking young woman. By staying always ahead of schedule, she’s like a wake-up call for me to keep striving for my best. On top of that, she is very generous.
She may say I’ve given her the same amount of help. I tried to give her pragmatic advice, in terms of living on campus, studying and following the different cultural codes upon her arrival, however, she seems stronger than me when I recall myself during my first days on campus.
As I already mentioned, Salome and I became good friends here at USI, and I am very grateful for this. Salome helped me in the beginning with all the logistical and moving in stuff. She helped me understand the way life goes here and is always eager to explain and assist. We try to support each other in studies by sharing and discussing the issues and topics related to communications. I love cooking, and we usually have dinner together and we even created a tradition of “baking Saturday,” where after class, we bake American pies and pastries.
As a Fulbright foreign student, I have a two-year home-residency requirement that means returning to Georgia upon completing graduation from USI in 2020* to serve my country. My plan is to continue pursing life and academic disciplines there the same way I do here.
As for career goals, I plan to meet with governmental and non-governmental organizations to offer my contributions to media-literacy fields. Considering the network I’ve built here and my strategic understanding of the field, hopefully, I will be a good resource for these organizations. I plan to return to my journalism career as a part-time journalist, too.
They just launched a pilot media platform and I’m very excited to join them. I’ve considered spending two years for the PhD preparation either in Europe or the States. I will be actively working on my podcast as well—one I launched last summer—where I share my life stories as an international student in the United States.
After the completion of my degree and Fulbright, I will be reinforced with a new knowledge and world class experience. I plan to return to the civil service of Georgia and continue to work on development of the government communications and strategic communication structures for the next five years in the reserves of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia.
If I don’t return to the civil service, I would continue to advocate for Georgia’s EU/NATO integration and raise awareness on this topic, as well as be involved in the projects related to disinformation and Russian propaganda within civil society and international organizations. I also plan to pursue a doctoral degree in international relations sometime after graduating from USI and completing my Fulbright.