Seventeen complete strangers from across the globe are thrown together in the middle of a hot and dry desert. Six weeks, four cities, a whole lot of luggage and a lifetime of memories to be made.
This is not another episode of Survivor, it is the 2019 Study of the United States Institute (SUSI) on Journalism, Technology and Democracy in Phoenix, Arizona and these are its scholars.
On paper, the 2019 SUSI scholars are an accomplished bunch, many with doctorates (one with two of these!), some with years of experience and others with a litany of awards and achievements.
Beyond the CV-esque traits, though, the SUSI scholars are also a group of multifaceted individuals who have helped one another ease the longing for home, the stress of travel and the demands of the program.
Cristiane Lindemann comes from Brazil (4546.3 miles away), a footballing (aka soccer) giant of the world but to date, she has not mentioned the game. Cristiane, a journalism educator, is married to a journalist, making for interesting conversation in her household.
Basil Hamusokwe is from the southern African nation of Zambia (8602.13 miles away), which he asserts has the claim to Victoria Falls. “Basil is a funny guy,” as my colleagues would say. [Editor’s note: The author is from South Africa, which may explain her tone here a bit…]
Our days are not complete if we don’t hear Shailendra Bahadur Singh use his trademark introduction: “I come from a small island in the Pacific with a population of 900 000.” It’s all true, Shailendra comes from Fiji (6629.52 miles away), it is in the south Pacific, and very few people live there.
Sumon Francis Gomes has convinced us that any green chili outside of Bangladesh (8218.69 miles away) is far too “sweet.” Sumon tell us that he travels with a bag of the green gold whenever he leaves the boundaries of his home country.
Shree Ram Paudel comes from Nepal (7911.82 miles away) but has resorted to saying, “I come from Mount Everest,” given the mountain’s international reputation. Shree, as far as we can establish, has not climbed said mountain.
Lebanon (6629.07 miles away) is home to media activist Joanna Azar, who masquerades as a deputy mayor in her local municipality at home. Azar, married just three months ago, has given the group its war cry of “Yalla, yalla!” which means just about anything you want it to depending on the context.
Andreea Mogoș hails from Transylvania, Romania (5620.56 miles away). There are no signs of protruding incisors on Andreea but I have to admit I am intimidated by her seriously sharp mind. Andreea spends her spare time training some very large birds of prey to hunt.
Yurii Havrylets is from the ancient nation of Ukraine (5690.54 miles away). Yurii unashamedly confesses to being pretty good at both chess and AlphaGo.
I had never known anyone from Mongolia (6510.81 miles away) until I met Ganchimeg Namsrai during this SUSI. The most quiet-spoken of the group, Gana, as she prefers to be called, saves her words for meaningful interjection.
Bess Wang travelled from Hong Kong (7890.72 miles away) to the Arizona SUSI. Bess operates at ninja level in ludicrously short catnaps. She’s confessed that she once managed a nap in the lift on the way up a couple of floors.
Grisel Salazar is closest to home having travelled here from Mexico (1014.36 miles). Grisel is on hand to correct our group’s often misplaced ideas about Mexican food and culture.
Alibek Begalinov comes from the world’s largest landlocked country, Kazakhstan (6459.46 miles away). Ali is known in our group for his bard-like knowledge of his country… and of everyone else’s.
Luís António Santos was born in Mozambique but was raised in Portugal (4546.66 miles), a country he is fiercely proud of, particularly on the football pitch. Luis is an avid photographer and lover of fine watches.
Väino Koorberg is the group-appointed rapporteur of the Arizona SUSI. Väino travelled from Estonia (5002.2 miles) and is working on a book on editing in Estonia.
Meta Kong was the last to arrive, from Cambodia (8751.09 miles away). Meta hit the ground running, settling in to the group and her new surroundings without a hint of the time lost.
Meta’s integration was helped in large part by the guiding hand of Nguyễn Thị Quỳnh Nga (Nga) who comes from neighbouring Vietnam (8573.21 miles away).
Despite these vast distances and differences between us, the one thing that binds us together is journalism and our love for teaching it. Our various countries represent a broad spectrum of media and media freedom, and during our time in the United States, we will bring these experiences together to shape and shift perspectives.
Unlike an episode of Survivor, we will all go home together, buoyed by weeks of rigorous debate and discussion, enriched by the faculty of the Cronkite School but mostly fulfilled by the belly-aching laughter and unadulterated fun of this tribe forged in the middle of the Arizona desert.
The author, Dinesh Balliah, is from South Africa (8946.55 miles away).