Eisenhower Experience

The two months of traveling the USA as an Eisenhower Fellow in the Multinational Program were one of the best times of my life.
If you want to follow my track, read the daily postings in my Weblog.
If you want to refer to a short version of my experiences and learnings check out my final report below.
If you want to catch a glimpse of these two months see the photos.

Program report Eisenhower Fellowships

multinational program 2008

1. Introduction: targets and expectations

When I way accepted as Eisenhower Fellow 2008 I started to thoroughly think about what I could gain by this experience: of course, a lot of new threads and dots in my network and a lot of professional insights. But I also tried to focus on taking advantage of shifting perspectives from the beginning. That means: I didn’t want to fix expectations and targets to the detailed level but be open to experiences and learning in fields and in ways I haven’t thought about up to now (just because I didn’t know they were there). That was my approach to this Fellowship and I have kept it up during all my travels and have found that it has provided the opportunity to make the best out of it by broadening my horizon, by being open to people and topics that even might not be right in the center of my business focus but need some side steps to be detected as important.

Nevertheless I had some broader targets and expectations I can merge into three groups:

  • I wanted to extend my network be getting to know my other fellows and build a global network (that was broadened by the US-fellows we were happy to get in touch with as well as it will be broadened by the alumni network of EF in general). And I planned to get in touch with some academics in my field of research who might be important for joined research projects and information exchange.
  • I planned to get further insight into professional media and communication work in business and politics and focused especially on the impact of new technologies on communication.
  • I finally aimed at learning about the USA in a way that is only possible by travelling, talking to people (not only to officials and representatives) and being open to understanding a country, its people and living conditions. For this reason I planned to travel by car through parts of the U.S. I had never been to and do a weblog ( on the basis of a regular daily posting to reflect and process my experiences as well as to share them with the other fellows or interested people I met during my journey. For this third motivation of my EF the overall topic chosen by EF this year – diversity – was of great interest for me and provided the opportunity to deepen my insights.

2. Observations: How EF 2008 contributes to my life in general and in terms of business

2.1 International networking


My Fellows and Me - one of the three occasions where we had to be properly dressed ...

One of the great experiences of EF is the diversity of people in the multinational program. It’s not just about travelling the U.S. for two months and building lots of new U.S. contacts. It’s also about getting in touch with some bright people from different countries of the world. I liked to spend the first and the last week with the whole group as well as the weekend at the Grand Canyon because I find it very inspiring to exchange my experiences with the other fellows and learn abut their interpretation of the encounters and insights I have had during my travels (and maybe vice versa).

Climbing a mountain of new experiences - Grand Canyon

Climbing a mountain of new experiences - Grand Canyon

I have also made a lot of contacts in academia, business and politics I will keep up and nourish as a very important ‘upgrade’ of my personal relationships. Maybe they will help me create a network of student exchange, to start a joined international research project or other initiatives that might result from my EF in the long run.

2.2 Business and leadership skills

One of the most interesting knowledge I gained through the observation of the political campaigns during the Indiana and North Carolina primaries. I focused on the use of internet and social networking technologies in election campaigns and learned that the U.S. politics are far ahead of the European. From a business perspective I could deepen this insight by visiting some companies in the Silicon Valley as well as talking to a couple of people from academia learning about their observations in this field of practice (as well as gaining some very good insights by some panels of the Milken Institute’s Global Conference in Los Angeles).

What I have learned in this respect is that communication technologies will change our lives even more than I had thought about before. We are on our way into ‘folksonomies’ (a society in which business priorities, political decisions and one’s individual opportunities emerge from a communication based network of recommendations – ‘tags’): We are all small pieces of a network loosely joined in ways that we are reinventing each and every day.

For political communication this means: Technology and social networking will change participation in politics (this U.S. campaign shows how young people are mobilized via internet, weblogs, Twitter etc.), people will more and more change from passive voters to active participants (citizen campaigners) and the fundraising will move from the world of big donations to internet fundraising (with the biggest portion of money coming from a mass of people donating a dollar sometimes).

As these experiences have not yet been taken much notice of in Europe (especially not in Germany or Switzerland) I will approach some politicians (maybe in a joined effort with some US-fellows) to offer advice and practical support for the next federal election campaign. It’s worth it not only for the sake of implementing the technologies itself but because they can make a difference for the political system. If connectivity fosters participation, especially motivating young people to get involved in politics again it will provide the chance to change the political system from an overall crisis of political representation to broader participation. That is worth a try. And networking technologies can help to tackle this target.

I regard this as one important part of my leadership knowledge to combine my academic and professional know how with my new expertise and the recently gained contacts in an international network to improve the use of these networking and communication technologies in fields where they are still neglected or not developed to their full capacities of impact but can make a real difference.

2.3 Diversity and a difference in perception

As a ‘mental approach’ to my fellowship I have tried to follow an insight the British mathematician George Spencer Brown provided us with. He wrote about the “unmarked spaceâ€? which allows us to differentiate between “operationâ€? and “observationâ€?. While observing I can’t be operating at the same time. Nevertheless it becomes difficult for the observer to observe that he or she is an observer. In the moment of observation I might forget my difference. But I know that it is there, that it matters and that I can learn from it. This is what information is about – or as the sociologist Gregory Bateson defines it: “a difference that makes a difference.â€?

These two months have been about looking at different things and about looking at things differently. I tried to absorb each and every observation without assuming its relevance prior to evaluation. Some of the things I saw I liked and some I disliked. In any case they often surprised me. And they left a light on in my memory that there is something to remember because it makes a difference. Three examples might underline this.

New Orleans: Tradition in progress

My visit to New Orleans confronted me with the topic of diversity in a variety of ways. I knew the statistics, I had read a lot about Katrina: 55 levee breaches and 250.000 houses flooded in New Orleans. An area seven times the size of Manhattan went under water. About 1.800 people died because of the storm or its aftermath. A vague number. Nobody knows accurately. It’s not about numbers, it’s about the stories of people’s lives that are told by the debris that can still be examined in some parts of New Orleans.

People lost relatives, friends and neighbours, their homes, their furniture, just everything. A lot of people lost every family photograph. The water wiped out houses, leaving nothing behind but some stairs and parts of the screen door. Many people came back after the storm and found nothing else but the brick with their own street number on it. They took it as a life souvenir.

A vast insight that I got from seeing all that I hadn’t realized like this before: It was not the storm that did all that damage to New Orleans. It was the water. It wiped out parts of the city because of misconstructed levees. They should have protected the people and the houses. This catastrophe was man made in a variety of ways. “It is not a natural disaster�, one of the colleagues at the local newspaper, The Times Picayune, told me, “it’s more like war.�

That’s one of the stories that have to be told about New Orleans and that will be told to everybody who is interested in taking a closer look at the city beyond jazzbars, mardi gras and the touristy French Quarter. The story about people who have been left behind because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, because they lived in a poor neighbourhood (which often incidentally happens to be a black neighbourhood) or one which is not “high and dry�, the phrase that technically describes how people and their homes could have survived the flooding after Hurricane Katrina. And it’s also the story about the Federal Government having failed completely in providing help to the people who urgently needed it.

So my visit also told me about diversity in self interpretation. A lot of people told me that Katrina not only left the city of New Orleans devastated but also the self consciousness of the

U.S. as a “we can fix it� country. This was, by the way, a recurrent observation and point of discussion with many Americans: Apparently the country is going through a period of changing self-perception and self-reflection. When the statistics tell that eight out of ten Americans currently think that their country is on the wrong track some major adjustments and corrections seem to be necessary. I have experienced this as a major topic in business (mortgage crisis and economic slump), politics (reconstituting the U.S. reputation in other parts of the world) and society (handling diversity). So the city claim of New Orleans – “tradition in progress� – might also apply to a redefining process of the whole country.

The Navajo Nation: dying diversity

The U.S. is an immigration country and one with diverse roots and historic threads that have to be interwoven to enable an operable modern society. On our team visit on diversity we went to the Navajo Nation to learn how the Indian tradition and culture is kept up in the USA. This area that stretched out into three states (New Mexico, Arizona and Utah) covers 27.000 square miles with not more than 250.000 people living there and trying to preserve their heritage, culture and language as well as to keep up their sovereignty.

They do this against the background of the fact that parts of their land are still contaminated by the nuclear test that took place years ago, that the poverty rate is around 40 percent and the unemployment rate even higher. Young people leave the Navajo Nation because they want to get good education. And even if they want to come back later on there are no jobs. This culture is in danger of extinction, an example for dying diversity. It might be even more difficult to keep up the diverse by treating it as diverse in a multicultural and anyhow dispersing country.

The South: ‘you people’ and ‘we people’

Having travelled the South of the USA I have experienced the difficult parts of diversity in various ways. The racial issue is still a predominant question in this part of the country and a lot of people still don’t really know how to handle it. Blacks and Whites often get along without major conflicts, but their cohabitation is far from something that can be called ‘integrated’. Where railway tracks divided a small town into a black and a white neighbourhood some decades ago a nicely replanted road today cuts through the village. The black people are still living on one, the white people on the other side of the road.

The same impression I have gained from economic wealth as discriminating factor. One example: a few miles north of Albuquerque: the Pajarito Mesa, a settlement of people, mostly Mexicans, who live here without any of the blessings a life in a developed country normally provides. 1.400 people and 450 families live on this devastated piece of land in mobile homes or trailers – some of them for more that twenty years and in third generation. Sandra, the community speaker showed us around. There is no electricity, no water supply, no medical care no public service of any kind. At least the community has managed – after years of struggling – that the school bus regularly picks up their children at the entrance of the Mesa each morning and brings them back in the afternoon. Some of the kids have to walk about three miles till they approach their homes each day in the morning and in the afternoon, because the Mesa is a vast community. On their way they have to fear encounters with rattle snakes and coyotes. But the bus stops right at the end of the public road as if it wouldn’t dare to move on. It’s exactly the spot where the concrete road turns into a dirt road the community built on their own initiative. What we experience and observe at this spot in New Mexico is really thought-provoking. The living conditions, the shortages of supply for basic daily needs, the way of constipating immigrants at some benighted place – that all reminded of a developing country. It’s so called third world alike.

One of the most crucial questions that preoccupied me during my travels was the one on what comes first – the chicken or the egg. It is hard to tell whether today it is still race, nationality or another feature of discrimination that causes lack of prosperity and chances for participation in this society or whether it might be the lack of economic prosperity that keeps up segregation. Nevertheless it anyhow often affects the minorities strongest. These are the ‘you people’, a Christian pastor told me and they are treated by the ‘we people’ like ‘not us’.

What have I learned from all these visits, conversations and observations? There are preconditions for an individual to be able to participate in the process of globalization and to enjoy its benefits: education, wealth – a membership card for the white middle class or an exceeding club is very helpful. Without it one has to struggle, often lifelong. There is better quality for a limited group of people. And this quality costs less for them. But for quite a big number of citizens – even in developed countries like the U.S. – the less educated, the nonwhites or other ‘minorities’, often happen to pay the price of globalization. These minorities currently account for 34 percent of the U.S. population. The point in time won’t be too far, that minorities will become majorities. At this point of time they often still have to struggle hard. You can read that in a bunch of books on globalization. It’s different to recognize the people between the pages of these books and talk to them.

3. Outcomes: What will stay with me

3.1 The network

By putting together such multinational groups EF creates a small diplomatic body: people who will act as international ambassadors for EF as well as the USA in their further life. That doesn’t mean they will just report the best things they have experienced during the two months of their fellowship. Learning from and understanding a country with its political, economic and social system means to understand the best as well as the worst parts of it. And it includes exporting the best models to other parts of the world as well as to discuss or even implement solutions for the worst parts from one’s own perspective and knowledge. I think this is what international exchange in globalization is about: Try to understand the differences and try to benefit from the better solutions for improving life in what part of the world it might be necessary.

In any case I want to be actively involved with my new contacts as well as in the EF alumni network further on. It is a big chance I want to take. I have learned that EF opens doors to people who know about EF or have even experienced the benefits of a fellowship themselves. I would like to keep up my regular weblog that might be integrated into the EF website via link to report regularly on topics and questions that can be interesting to other fellows or the alumni network in general.

3.2 The action

When I had dinner in a Chinese restaurant in Indianapolis during the last days of the primaries I opened my fortune cookie and it said: “It is a good time to start something new�. I had to laugh about this because it seems applicable to my situation having almost finished my travels and my fellowship. And that’s what it’s about:

It is time to start something new after having made all these wonderful experiences and having become acquainted with a lot of interesting people. That doesn’t mean that I have to change everything in my life. But three things become and remain more important for me.

First, I have learned that it needs more time and effort to reflect things so that new ideas and initiatives might shape out of this process. I will take care in future not to get on the treadmill immediately after having returned home but keep up periods of time to think about the important topics and questions that arise in my life through encounters or other experiences. I will take care not to spend too much time on the small time consuming regular worries of every day business life. And I will reserve more time to engage in team work, in processes of motivation and creativity development with the young bright people I am working with at university and in lots of other fields. That is the individual and personal gain of insight that will make a difference after my fellowship – for me but also for other people I am working with.

Second, I have realized how much writing means to me (e.g. by doing the weblog). I have developed an idea for a new book which was nurtured by conversations and experiences during my fellowship. I will work on a book about “openness and privacy: how we can enter network and not surveillance society�.

Third, I have very closely followed the media agenda setting process throughout my fellowship and realized that in the U.S. the fight between old and new media is even worse than in Europe. That is in my opinion due to a misunderstanding: People need a daily overview about their lives and the world they are living in. But they also want to use and enjoy the new communication tools the internet provides. So the solution will be found in an intelligent combination of both. I want to figure out whether this might me a business model for the German speaking media market (Germany, Switzerland, Austria). It might be an idea to start a website according to what the ‚Huffingtonpost’ offers in the U.S. and combine it with some quarterly printed editions on specific issues.

One of the most impressive remarks on the relationship of thought and action I have learned at the civil rights museum in Memphis, Tennessee, right in the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was shot: “Movements do not begin with movements. Movements begin with individuals.� It’s a ‘me’ movement that is needed for every ‘we’ movement.

Farewell Dinner in Philadelphia, May 2008, with EF Chairman Colin L. Powell

Farewell Dinner in Philadelphia, May 2008, with EF Chairman Colin L. Powell

Finally, I want to thank Eisenhower Fellowships that I was given the chance to gain all these experiences, the knowledge and the insight that is much more than a collection of important information and business cards. It’s has become a part of my life experience and will have quite an impact on me and my future engagements. I especially thank the whole EF staff. Everyone of this team provided information, support, help or insight at some point of my fellowship and was a great partner in conversations about personal or group experiences.

© Miriam Meckel 2002 bis 2023