Eight years makes a world of difference. Dr. Mona Al-Sawwaf, head of the Department of Psychiatry at the King Fahd General Hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, traveled as a U.S. Department of State-sponsored Humphrey Fellow to the United States to enhance professional networks and to meet colleagues in her field at top university hospitals – eight years after surviving a car accident and healing from multiple fractures in her legs.
Mona had difficulties in climbing stairs or walking long distances as a result of a car accident, but that did not hold her back from achieving mobility during her U.S. program. “The opportunity opened horizons for me to meet different experts in the field of substance abuse for women that I would never have been able to meet without the Humphrey Program,” she said.
During the year, which included two weeks of intensive English instruction, Mona combined mid-career professional development affiliations at Johns Hopkins University and Harvard Medical School with graduate courses at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. She consulted with colleagues about the management of drug addiction in women, and learned about their research, program planning and design of effective prevention programs. While in the United States, she also learned to drive.
“I had driving lessons for three months, and then I applied for my driver’s license and I got it! With my disability, the Department of Motor Vehicles gave me the parking placard for disabled people and it was extremely helpful,” said Mona. She shared the driving with Humphrey program colleagues from Romania and Czech Republic, who at times dropped her off at her classes when accessible parking was far away.
“The beauty of being with Humphrey Fellows from all over the world was people appreciated you and were very helpful. From the standpoint of having a disability, I’m accepting it and proud of it."
"My program helped find solutions if there were any obstacles or problems. And relying on my colleagues was the strategy I used during the year,” she said.
Mona’s family and husband were supportive but concerned about how she would manage alone in the United States. She reassured them by saying the first month would be her trial period. In that first month she discovered she was not alone at all. She found helpfulness and support from host families, colleagues, available assistance in the airports, and buildings with ramp and elevator access. Mona experienced very little difficulty, either on or off campus, related to her disability. However, she advises others applying to the Humphrey Program to learn about the disability services offered on each university campus and any insurance coverage exclusions for needs such as physical therapy, early in their planning process.
Awareness-raising, both for herself and others, proved to be pivotal to Mona’s experience in the United States in many ways. “During my Humphrey year, I learned about different cultural aspects of America that I was not aware of, like how religious most of the people are or how family structure is,” she said. “In fact the mental image I had was what the media shows about U.S. culture, and that has been corrected by having been in the United States a year. It’s totally different from what we see in the movies.”
In turn, the Humphrey Program has allowed her to correct the misconceptions about Saudi culture in teaching Americans about her country, including its geography and different languages spoken. This cultural connection proved as valuable as the professional networks she gained during her Humphrey year. One year makes a world of difference, too.
The Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program provides a year of non-degree study and related professional enrichment opportunities for approximately 170 experienced professionals from designated countries worldwide at selected U.S. universities each year. Dr. Mona Al-Sawwaf is now a consultant psychiatrist international expert to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime for women's addiction.