Finally the D- day arrived. I was so excited to be going to the International Student Leadership Conference (ISLC) hosted by James Madison University for the weekend. I had been looking forward to the event especially after the great experience last year. Four of my teammates from the International Student Advisory Board (ISAB) were participating too, all wonderful people, we would have an amazing journey together.
We started Friday afternoon, it was a perfect day, slightly cloudy and warm. Four of us, Wendy, Chelsea, Kacha and I were in the car. Wendy was driving, Chelsea beside her, and I was at the back gazing out of the window in between the conversations, music, and munching of chips. The sights became different quickly soon after we left Williamsburg. All around there were varying shades of green that kept changing rapidly as we moved along further.
It was a three hour trip to Harrisonburg, which is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains and the scenery was beautiful. The trees were beginning to get green, somewhere in the midst there were bursts of colorful spring blossoms, a bit of purple here, smudges of pink and yellow…I was charmed. I also remembered my days in Siliguri. The picturesque mountains and the tea garden, reminded me of old times back home.
We stopped in between for a coffee, and reached our venue by 6pm. There was dinner waiting, and more than 200 participants buzzed around the place. We had pasta, chicken, cookies, and salad to eat. Then we were taken to watch a documentary, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.” It was an intense movie, based on the life of Ms. Leymah Gwobee (the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Winner) who was the keynote speaker the next day.
Before I watched the documentary, I’d only heard of the civil war in Liberia in the papers, and it was not quite real to me. The movie depicted the horrors of war, the brutal and terrible events that took place, and the helplessness and frustration of the common people. The war in Liberia lasted 14 yrs, under a tyrannical and ruthless ruler. It was through the peace movement initiated by the women that the pressure was gradually built up to overthrow him and bring peace to the country. And this movement was organized by Ms. Gwobee, who led thousands of women braving bullets and oppression to create a revolution. The challenge was tremendous, and she made it happen. Therefore, the theme for the conference this year was “Lead the Change,” in her words we should not wait for a “Gandhi, Mandela or King. We should be our own Gandhi, our own Mandela, our own King” and lead the change we want to see.
Many were in tears after it was over, and we could empathize with her after we saw the movie. There was a discussion after, and then we had a group activity. The group activity was a game designed such that we could feel the effects of power and oppression. Through a sequence of trading numbered coupons, we were divided into smaller groups, and then each group was given some powers. It happened that I got into the one with the highest power, and then we could layout new rules for the game and everyone had to follow. Not surprisingly though, once we were in that group we had the same urge to remain there with our privileges and made unfair laws to prevent the others from winning. The game ended with other groups protesting heatedly, and then the entire purpose of the game was explained by the organizers. It was a nice learning experience.
Ms. Gwobee gave her speech the next morning and the audience listened intently as she narrated her story, and it was hugely moving and inspiring. There was a thundering applause when she finished, and we were eager to hear more from this amazingly courageous, brilliant and motivating speaker. The question and answer session lasted for another hour during which we came to know more about her life and future vision. I admire her strength and courage, and I’m fortunate to have met her in person and to also have a picture taken with her!
In the evening we had a tea break and then time to explore around a little bit before dinner. We went walking through the serene and beautiful campus of James Madison University, and stopped by a lake to feed ducks. Standing on a small wooden bridge to feed the ducks below, we watched the evening sunshine glimmering on the waters, trees swaying gently in the breeze, children playing in the garden and the sound of bagpipes playing in the distance. It was mesmerizing, but we had to leave soon to get ready for the final event.
Dressing in traditional costume was encouraged, so I wore the colorful lehenga (Indian costume similar to a flowing skirt) which was a birthday present from my father. I get to wear it very rarely, and this was a good occasion. There were others dressed in their traditional costumes too and the venue was very pretty. The menu was chicken with rice, cheesecake, and a cup of coffee. Our dinner was served with live music playing in the background, and it was also time to say goodbye to some new friends whom I had met throughout the day.
I was sad that it was over so soon, but happy with all that I had learnt and experienced during this brief period. Interacting with people across the country, all around the world, I felt a strong connection and resonance that has greatly enriched my perspective. Ten thousand miles away from home I saw the differences fade in the similarities, and then become strengths. I am truly grateful to everyone who made this happen, thanks a lot!
Lopamudra Das is a graduate student in Applied Science from India. She is a member of the W&M International Student Advisory Board. This is the second year the Reves Center has sent members of the board to the International Student Leadership Conference hosted by James Madison University. This post originally appeared in the April 2012 VOICES Diversity E-Newsletter.