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From Elevator to Fulbrights: A Friendship of Two Countries and Two Cities

By Viva Dadwal and Michael O’Shea, two Fulbright Award winners

We met in an elevator. She was wearing a bright orange beanie, and I a black suit. It was the 20th floor of Constitution Square in Ottawa, Canada. It had been a long day and I was looking forward to the walk home. The doors opened, and we stepped on together. I said, “going down, right?” She said, “Yes.”

“Do we work on the same floor?”, I said smiling.

“Yeah, I work at GlaxoSmithKline, what brings you here?” she said, smiling back.

“Oh, I work at Fulbright, I’m down the hallway from you…”

“Oh, cool, I didn’t know there were other young people around!”

It was a long elevator ride to the first floor.

“Well, pleasure to meet you. Gotta run now!” She pointed to her bicycle helmet and left hastily through the revolving door.

Over the next three weeks we ran into each other everywhere: on the sidewalk, at street corners, on our bikes. We were lucky to have met when we did; her job ended a few weeks later. One day, after bumping into each other for what seemed like the 16th time, we decided to grab coffee. It was the start of a new friendship.

When we were together, we’d often discuss Canada-U.S. relations. Despite the fact that our distinct countries were united through history and tradition, we realized that we still had a lot to learn from and teach each other:

“How do you think that foreign policy is changing under the Harper government?”

“Why is gun ownership such an important issue in America?”

I met her friends at her next job at the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development; she mine at Fulbright Canada and the U.S. Embassy. Our friendship was like the Canada-U.S. relationship: we were close and shared common values and traits (including a wacky sense of humor), but we also had our disagreements.

Part of my job at Fulbright Canada was to encourage Canadians to apply to study in the United States. I had myself come to Canada because of a Fulbright Scholarship to McGill University. For as long as I had known her, Viva had been conducting and publishing research on global health issues. I knew she would make a great candidate for a Fulbright award.

She had spent most of her adolescent years in Windsor, Ontario, where she said she was subject to the typical confusion that Canadians feel living in a border city: Celsius or Fahrenheit? Tigers or Blue Jays? The CBC or ABC? Somewhere between the joint Canada Day and Independence Day fireworks, and the various concerts at the Cobo Arena, she had come to love the special bond between Canada and the U.S. One day, after yet another passionate discussion about the Canada and the U.S., I decided to encourage her to apply for a Fulbright scholarship: she seemed like the right person to represent Canada to Americans and she could easily conduct her research from the U.S.

Michael OShea and Viva in Ottawa

Michael and Viva ice-skating on the frozen Rideau Canada in downtown Ottawa in winter 2013.]

Although skeptical of leaving her full-time job, she finally gave in: “Fine, sure, I’ll apply. What’s the worst that will happen?”

Between ice skating, snow-ball fights, and dance parties, Viva worked on her Fulbright essay. Around the same time, I had decided to apply to graduate schools for a degree in higher education. Through cold fall days at cafés and late nights in diners, we prepared our respective applications over cups of coffee and hot chocolate.

By January we had both heard back. Viva was bound for Baltimore to conduct research at Johns Hopkins University. I was bound for Philadelphia, at the University of Pennsylvania. Somehow, we would be only an hour drive way, or as we jokingly called it, “a 33 hour bike-ride.” A friendship that started in an elevator in Canada was moving to America.

We are lucky to have a relationship that spans borders, a relationship that allows us to learn from each other, especially as we each begin the next chapter of our lives. Our similar but distinct experiences at Johns Hopkins and the University of Pennsylvania means that we have a lot to talk about when we do catch up. For example, Viva is deeply troubled by the socio-economic disparities she sees in Baltimore. It has been somewhat of a shock for her to see such conditions in a first-world setting, a setting that is so similar (yet so different) from Canada. For me, I have finally returned from Canada after three years, a country where I saw less segregation, racism, and concentrated poverty than I saw in Chicago growing up. Back in Philly, I was faced that reality of urban America once again.

: Michael and Viva with friends at the 2014 Fourth of July party at the Official Residence of the U.S. Ambassador to Canada.

: Michael and Viva with friends at the 2014 Fourth of July party at the Official Residence of the U.S. Ambassador to Canada.

As we write this, we are realizing how much our lives have changed over the course of a few months. For one, we are both living the stark contrasts between the “haves” and “have nots”, from East Baltimore to the world-renowned Johns Hopkins, from West Philadelphia to Penn’s Ivy League campus. And so, lessons from a friendship that was born in an elevator in Canada, sustained by Fulbright, are now being tested East Baltimore and West Philadelphia. One of us is exploring the sobering relationship for the first time, the other returning to the sometimes troubled country called home.

It’s the story of two countries, two cities, two Fulbright awards, and two curious people who met in an elevator.

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