03/29/2011 01:59 pm ET Updated May 29, 2011

Surviving Between Two Cultures

I never imagined that living in a different culture would be that challenging. I remember two weeks ago, during Orientation Week for the new Atlas Corps international Fellows -- including myself -- American University Professor Gary Weaver spoke for three hours about American culture. He led an incredibly intriguing discussion about the disparities between American culture and the varying cultures of the Atlas Corps Fellows.

Professor Weaver made an interesting comparison between the "to be" culture -- in which the value of an individual is based on his/her essence and being and not on his/her achievements -- and the "to do" culture -- in which an individual's value is based on his/her material achievements and professional success. We shared quite a few laughs on the stereotypical differences between our cultures and the American culture.

At the time, I had no idea how challenging it would be to adapt to a new culture. I thought it would be fun to discover how we all differ, and I enjoyed making funny comparisons between young Americans and myself. But I didn't know then that these cultural differences would sometimes create barriers between us, preventing an easy flow of communication and making me question my values and my significance as a person.

This challenge is exactly what I experienced the other day during a quick conversation with my work colleagues. We were at the Grad Nation Summit, which addressed the issue of high school dropouts in the U.S. and potential solutions. Since I was working in educational development back in Egypt, it was a great opportunity for me to learn about this issue in the U.S. and to think about how to transfer effective American practices to Egypt.

But something during these Summit discussions alarmed me. At first, I couldn't quite pinpoint the source of alarm. So, I listened and started taking notes during the discussions. I found that many of the conversations revolved around the U.S. as a nation and its rank among other countries regarding the percentage of graduate students. I also found that much emphasis was placed on formal education and quantitative measurements of professional success. Then, the most alarming event occurred: one successful American college student mentioned that she was intimidated to sit at a table with Ph.D holders.

Later, I had a one-on-one discussion with this student to ask her to elaborate on her feelings. I also shared with her how disappointed I was with the situation. She confirmed that this is just how the American culture is. It's based on personal achievement, material success, and individual competition.

At the organization where I worked in Egypt, competition was an unacceptable word; it entailed selfishness and a willingness to step on others in order to succeed. Instead, we focused on group success, teamwork, and responsibility towards one another. Educational achievement was measured by personal fulfillment rather than material indicators, at least in the non-formal sector. As long as you were happy, satisfied, and lived with dignity, it typically didn't really matter what certificates you held. Making this comparison between cultures helped me realize that success is relative and varies across cultures.

I'm not in a position to say my culture is better than another other culture, and I understand that the feelings I have right now may change. But during the Summit, I couldn't stop myself from thinking about the true meaning of freedom. Is a person really free if he/she lives in a highly competitive environment that pressures him/her to follow one set of standards?

Back in Egypt, I had a set of rules, but a different kind. Since I'm coming from a "to be" culture, a lot of emphasis was placed on who am I supposed to be and what stereotypes am I expected to follow. Being a young Coptic Christian woman in an older, masculine, Muslim society was not easy. This culture defined the role I was expected to play and the rules I was expected to follow. Again, I questioned the true meaning of freedom in my country.

During the summit, and for the first time since I arrived in D.C., I experienced the motto of Atlas Corps: "Change your perspective. Change the world." I haven't changed the world yet, but I certainly changed my perspective.

Mirette Bahgat is a 2011 Atlas Corps Fellow with more than five years of experience in the nonprofit sector, specializing in community development in Egypt.