EVERY SO OFTEN in your life you feel like making a change. For Jacqueline Austin that time came last year when she tried for and was awarded a Hubert Humphrey Fellowship through the United States Embassy.
For her it meant making a major transition, leaving her husband, 11-year-old daughter, her job at the Barbados Community College, and the comforts of home to embark on professional studies in a strange land.
“I saw it as an opportunity to go to the United States for a year, at a stellar university that would bring individuals from across the world who were specialists in their areas,” Jacqueline said. “I felt it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Getting the scholarship wasn’t easy because Jacqueline was competing with individuals from all over the world.
“It was a highly competitive process and it’s keenly contested,” she said. “The other factor is that you must be recommended by your embassy.”
Jacqueline applied and got the recommendation, and then came the difficult part – actually telling her family that she was going to do this.
“You come to a point in your life sometimes where you need to do more,” she said. “Of course, there were moments when I was second-guessing myself because I would be leaving my family and wondering how I could do this now.”
At that point it was not just Jacqueline making the transition; it was also her daughter, who was just about to enter secondary school. But as difficult as it was, Jacqueline made the decision.
“It happened at a perfect time. My daughter transitioned to secondary school and experienced mummy leaving and puberty all at once,” she said.
While being apart from one’s family is difficult, Jacqueline took full advantage of today’s technological advances to keep connected.
“I parented over Skype,” she recalled, laughing. “We talked every day and then we had Magic Jack as well. At one point my mother said: ‘I feel like you really haven’t left – we talk to you so often’.”
But for Jacqueline those moments, while helpful, didn’t lessen the impact of being apart from one’s family.
“There were times I felt lonely and I really missed home,” she said. “You know, it was funny, but I missed the sunshine. I never knew how important it was to me.”
Despite the loneliness, Jacqueline did manage to keep her focus which was to take full advantage of the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship.
“I connected with people from diverse cultures and nationalities,” she said of the programme. “I had the opportunity to go to the White House and meet Vice President Joe Biden and take photos with him and his wife Dr Jill Biden. Those are moments that last a lifetime.
“I had the opportunity to work with the American Management Association, which was incredible, and they even wanted me to stay on,” she said. “Though it was tempting, I felt that as an educator I knew I had a responsibility to my daughter to come back and help her make the most of her academic experience.”
But Jacqueline talks fondly of the overall professional and academic experience that the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship afforded her.
“I got to understand myself as a leader. I developed a sensitivity towards and a respect for the challenges Muslim women face,” she said. “I had the opportunity to attend leadership conferences. I worked with professors at Penn State University. There were just remarkable opportunities professionally.”
While the fellowship may be over, Jacqueline still has work that she plans to do.
“I want to bring a leadership development programme to Barbados,” Jacqueline said. “It has already been endorsed by key entities and I look forward to seeing it through. It was a fantastic opportunity, and I feel blessed to have been given the opportunity.”