WAVES

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By Edward Shippen “Ship” Bright, 2019 Fulbright U.S. Scholar to the Bahamas

I was extremely fortunate to have a chance for a second Fulbright U.S. Scholar Award to teach Social Entrepreneurship at the University of the Bahamas (UB). My first Fulbright to the Czech Republic altered the course of my life personally, professionally, and academically. 

One of my favorite places in the world is the Bahamas. I have developed personal and professional relationships in local government, business, and academia over the years there, along with volunteer work. So, I was blessed to land in Nassau on August 1st, 2019 to start my four-month Fulbright. That’s when all my envisioned plans stopped.

 

“Time to reset your sails”
-Holly, my wife

 

The first wave of change was that my host, the Provost, left the week after I arrived on campus, and no one knew what to do with me. The Provost had been a powerful advocate and had made plans for me, which quickly evaporated.

Resetting my sails and striking out on a new tack, I contacted local NGO organizations and Bahamian civil society leaders while I tried to figure out my next steps. 

 

“Trying to reason with hurricane season”
-Jimmy Buffet

Caption: Screen shot of Category 5 Hurricane Dorian on top of Grand Bahamas island, where it stopped for two days.

 

A few weeks later, the second wave hit. Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas and strengthened to a category 5 storm, stopping over the Abaco and Grand Bahama islands for two days. While in Nassau, tropical force storm winds buffeted us, as the northern Bahamas endured the strongest hurricane on record. The devastation was almost incomprehensible, and the loss of life, crushing. A small island nation with a total population of 400,000, everyone knew someone who died.  It wiped out the northern campus of the University of the Bahamas, and my plans for lectures, and the students’ semester, disappeared.

 

Caption: Dr. Rodney Smith, President of the University of the Bahamas, leading students in prayer before boarding their flight to the United States to continue studies at Hampton University.

 

Crisis, however, is also an opportunity for compassion and assistance. Hampton University stepped up and offered all UB Northern Campus students the opportunity to study at their Virginia campus for free. I was fortunate that as an American at UB, I was able to act as the de facto liaison to the U.S. Embassy in Nassau. Together with the Public Affairs Officer, who oversees the Fulbright Program in the Bahamas, we coordinated and expedited student visas in record time. I spent time at the airport assisting and escorting students through check-in and into security, while the President of the University, Dr. Rodney Smith, and his senior staff greeted the students.  
 

Caption: Chef Jose Andres and Holly Ulrich, Ship Bright’s partner, at World Central Kitchen’s base of operations in Nassau, Bahamas.

 

Meanwhile, my wife started volunteering with World Central Kitchen (WCK), providing meals to those affected by the storm. She soon became WCK’s volunteer supervisor of operations in Nassau for Grand Bahama and the Abacos evacuees. I volunteered as well, but my skills in the kitchen had me being gently ushered to the “why don’t you roll utensils and napkins” table, out of the way of people who knew what they were doing.
 

Caption: Ship Bright and local Nassau students volunteering at World Central Kitchen.

 

We lost September and most of October. One of my Bahamian mentors told me that mid-November through December are lost days…good luck trying to get anything done. The good news was that the Department of State, the U.S. Embassy, and the university, recognizing the extraordinary circumstances of my Fulbright, extended my grant another four months. Things were getting on track, and I spent January and February reorganizing plans, scheduling lectures, creating a presentation on natural resource policy, as well as working with NGOs and university instructors.  

 

Caption: Earth University President Arturo Condo (left) and Ship Bright at Earth University.

 

On March 1st, I took advantage of the Regional Travel Program and spent an amazing 10 days in Costa Rica. The U.S. Embassy in San Jose scheduled a meeting and round table discussion with Costa Rican NGOs, as well as a special meeting with “Asociacion Costa Rica Por Siempre,” a top-notch conservation NGO. We traveled over the mountains to Earth University, stunned by the campus, programs, faculty, staff, and students. There, amid a tropical forest, was this almost Shangri-La-like campus.

 

“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry”
-Robert Burns

 

This is when the third wave hit: COVID-19. The pandemic swept everyone up in a global viral tsunami. The university shut campus down, moving to online learning amid professors revamping and figuring out their new courses. No lectures and presentations for me. 

One could look at my Fulbright and say it was a failure. However, I look at it from the standpoint of “what Fulbright is supposed to be.” In the big picture, it was stunning and transformative for me and my wife:

  • We volunteered with World Central Kitchen and had the opportunity to be part of the team that served over 3 million meals to those in need.  My wife got to fly around in helicopters delivering food and get to know Nobel Peace Prize-nominee Chef Jose Andres.
  • Through volunteering and working at the university, we got to know many Bahamian people:  once you start getting to know someone in the Bahamas, you almost know everyone, including senior government leaders and business professionals.
  • I got to help more than 80 students go to the United States to continue their education, which I have vicariously experienced via photos and emails.
  • I got to work and become friends with amazing NGO professionals, whom I look forward to assisting in the future. 

We were up close and personal with Bahamians during some of their darkest days. We endured what they endured, and we pitched in side-by-side with them. When you suffer and recover with someone, it becomes a special bond. 

Seems like cultural diplomacy to me.