One thing I didn’t expect coming to Harvard are the number of international opportunities, generally funded by the university or other means, that allow students to explore the world. This spring break, I traveled to Dubai for an academic, cultural, and social exchange conference through the Harvard College in Asia Program (HCAP). Over the week I saw and learned about the United Arab Emirates, but more importantly, I made a really close group of friends from both Harvard and abroad.
The HCAP experience is a set of seven conferences that take place at Harvard and across Asia with all expenses paid except airfare. Each February, nearly 50 students from the top universities in their country come to Harvard for a week-long conference Harvard students put on for them. After a few lectures in the morning, we show the students Boston and give them an introduction to American culture. Then, over spring break, approximately 70 Harvard students split into six groups to visit one of the six partner universities over spring break. We aim to make the conferences accessible to all by having all expenses covered while abroad and by helping students gain university funding for the flight if they are unable to pay. This year, we partnered with schools in Dubai, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Mumbai, Seoul, and Tokyo.
Participating in HCAP and this trip to Dubai have been experiences I could never have imaged I doing just three years ago as a high schooler. My trip to Dubai took myself and ten other Harvard students abroad. We visited with high profile speakers such as the US Consulate General to the UAE to a leader in the push for opening medical tourism facilities in Dubai in order to learn about healthcare in the the region, the theme of this year’s conference. But after the academic portion of the conference, the American University of Dubai students took us for sightseeing, to the beach, and to their favorite hang-out spots. From the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest man-made structure, to hidden gems like an Indian street food restaurant, we saw all aspects of Dubai and gained a thorough appreciation of the locals’ propensity for setting world records. The students were frank about life there, both about the opportunities they’ve had in Dubai as well as the darker side of the city with workers living in harsh conditions to enable the emirate’s quick growth.
Spending nearly every waking hour with both my Harvard peers and having my life saved from crazy drivers by the Dubai students served as an effective formula to create strong bonds. Indeed, the relationships I built on previous HCAP trips I took to Singapore and Tokyo persist. I’ve received emails asking for a place to stay from my friends abroad, and I know if I ever travel through Asia, I have a bed waiting for me. These bonds have become even stronger in the past; HCAP’s first president eventually married a student he met while at the conference abroad. While I may never have that strong of a bond with the students abroad or even see some of them again (except possibly through Facebook), they have challenged me to think deeper, question assumptions, and peer outside my American paradigm for viewing the world.
Here are some photos from the trip: