Spring 2023 Student Reflection

Vernon Gawi representing Papua New Guinea at West Virginia University

Vernon Gawi from Papua New Guinea attended West Virginia University during the spring 2023 semester. Prior to the conclusion of his program, he shared the following reflection on some of his experiences in the United States. These include the trip to Washington, DC for the Global UGRAD Workshop as well as cultural experiences garnered while traveling during school breaks.

Global UGRAD Workshop in Washington, DC

My favorite parts of the Global UGRAD End of Program Workshop were getting to meet students from other countries, participating in team-building exercises, attending an informative workshop about project management, touring the beautiful city of Washington,  D.C., meeting the Papua New Guinea (PNG) Ambassador to the U.S. and his family, and listening to the presentation from the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs International Exchange Alumni.

First, I met Andrey from Russia and Ahmad from the Palestinian Territories who were my roommates at the hotel during the workshop. We bonded easily because we had a lot in common, but we also had different values and outlooks on life. We respected each others’ values because they made us each unique in our own way. We shared stories of our countries and the struggles we face back home, as well as many other good moments. I also met Michelle, who is from Jayapura, Papua Province, Indonesia. As we are both from the border provinces of our neighboring countries, we share many things in common including our culture, which can be seen in our traditional practices and attire, and our understanding of the common language, “tok pisin.” I also met another fellow Pacific Islander, Jeshlyn from Fiji. I met so many other amazing UGRAD students during the workshop and was able to spend more time with those in my WVU cohort as well.

Vernon enjoying the Dallas Arboretum

Secondly, I learned a lot at the workshop! Even though I had background knowledge and experience in certain topics, I decided to approach this learning opportunity with a “clean slate.” I wanted to learn and re-learn as much as I could! What stood out most to me were the team-building exercises where my team worked together to solve a common problem by considering everyone’s strengths and weaknesses and then adjusting to work in sync together. This taught me the essence of teamwork and the importance of inclusivity and respect. Another highlight of the workshop was the presentation from the State Department’s spokesperson about opportunities offered to Global UGRAD alumni. I was excited to learn about an existing exchange program alumni network in Papua New Guinea. This network has access to grants that afford alumni the opportunity to conduct community development projects that positively impact their communities.

As a political science student, many people automatically think my goal is to become a politician. I, however, beg to differ. I’ve always been fascinated by diplomats and their ability to “build bridges” among nations and solve multilateral problems while simultaneously representing their country’s developmental aspirations internationally. During the workshop, I met one of my country’s heroes, the PNG Acting Ambassador to the U.S., and his family. His promptness and availability to meet me and my fellow UGRAD colleague from PNG, Vilousa, throughout the week, was an act of great kindness and humility – a rare gesture from someone in his position. The advice and knowledge I gained from him during our discussions about my aspirations to become a diplomat were priceless and an experience I will always treasure.

The workshop was amazing! Washington D.C. was the best and I wish I could stay there forever! Visiting the U.S. Capitol, the White House, Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, Washington Monument, and the cherry blossom festival by the Wharf was fascinating.


Cultural Enrichment Experiences

Vernon and Benjamin Franklin explore the Dallas Arboretum

I spent a good portion of my spring break in Dallas, Texas, as this is where my mentors from the Wycliffe USA missionary project, Mark and Estella, live. After working together on a Bible translation project in PNG from 2019 to 2020, they became family to me – I call them “Mom and Pops.” It was heartwarming to visit and spend time with them.

During my visit, I had the opportunity to explore the beautiful flowers and landscapes of the Dallas Arboretum, which also has statues depicting important U.S. historical figures. Additionally, I visited a nearby engineering museum that showcased fascinating renewable energy technologies, the Dallas Creation Museum which was of interest to me as a Christian, and the JFK Museum where I learned about the fascinating story of President Kennedy. I even got to taste the world-famous Texas BBQ ribs and brisket! I had been dreaming of this since watching numerous episodes focused on the preparation of this mouth-watering dish ever since I was in my country!

Vernon at the JFK Museum in Dallas

I later traveled to New York and it was awesome! I visited the United Nations General Assembly and met with the PNG U.N. Envoy, which was a dream come true. Seeing the Empire State Building and walking along Times Square brought back so many memories of famous movies. I also attended a gala dinner hosted by John Cabot University which featured a major media company’s CEO as the guest speaker.

I am truly humbled and blessed by the Global UGRAD Program for connecting me with a global alumni family, enriching me with professional skills and knowledge, and making many of my dreams come true.




Upon their return to Papua New Guinea following the completion of their Global UGRAD program, the two Global UGRADs in the spring 2023 cohort, Vernon Gawi and Vilousa Hahembe, had the opportunity to meet United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken. During his visit to the country, Secretary Blinken met with women entrepreneurs and exchange students – all of whom had participated in programs orchestrated by the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs within the U.S. Department of State. It was an exciting and unforgettable experience for both Vilousa and Vernon!

Vilousa Hahembe (second from left) and Vernon Gawi (second from right) meet U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Papua New Guinea (photo obtained from Sec. Blinken’s Twitter account)
Vilousa and Vernon speaking with Secretary Blinken (photo obtained from Sec. Blinken’s Twitter account)