Into the Heart of America: A Travelogue of Dreams, Memories, and Epiphanies

Hello there! I am Hanz Denzil Villahermosa, born and raised in the small city of Dumaguete, comfortably located in the central part of the Philippines. As an educator and an active advocate for young people, I was recently blessed to have been given the opportunity to participate in an international program one could easily describe as “life-changing”.

In the coming weeks, this entire blog will feature my entire experience in the 2017 YSEALI Spring Academic Fellowship in the United States of America. I will be writing a five-part account on practically every bit of learning I got in the entire duration of the program – ranging from city and country tours, visits and attractions, some relevant insights I got from my co-fellows and some significant realizations with regards to my personal advocacy and action plan. Since this is the first entry to my blog, I would want to take you on a virtual tour around the city of Omaha, Nebraska, which is the main site of our civic engagement institute.

My next blog entries will then focus on Western Nebraska, Portland,Oregon,Washington D.C, my co-fellows from the 10 ASEAN countries, and my take-aways and realizations on the concept of civic engagement which I learned from the different non-profits and institutions that we visited. The concluding blog entry would then focus on how the entire program helped me re-design my action plan and advocacy in the lenses of fresher, more relevant perspectives and how I can better translate this vision into a reality back in the community I serve.


The Young SouthEast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) Spring Academic Fellowship is a program that brings together 21 young and vibrant leaders from the 10 countries of the ASEAN region into Omaha, Nebraska for a 5-week intensive academic fellowship on the area of civic engagement. We, the fellows, who are believed to be proactive leaders in our own communities underwent a specific program streamlined to focus on how community and civic engagement operates in the United States. YSEALI aims to equip young leaders to gain a better understanding of social issues and problems and on how to better address these issues using intercultural and regional collaborations when we go back to our respective communities.

NEBRASKA: An Unexpected Surprise

I honestly knew so little about Nebraska. Aside from the Lady Gaga song that mentioned the name of the state multiple times, the place rings a bell for me only because of the fact that I was a bit of a Geography buff growing up and so I was quite sure of encountering this state in geography maps and atlases sometime in the past.

Months before the program,I decided to do some research about this seemingly quiet state. At the end my personal pursuit to knowing Nebraska, I arrived at an overarching impression of the place – Nebraska, situated in the middle of nowhere in America, is a state where nothing much happens except corn-growing and ranching. Pretty interesting for a person like me, who grew up in an archipelagic country in South East Asia, where the sea is just a step away and where almost everything is festive and hot and tropical. Honestly, worry and anxiety started to seep in the contours of my consciousness with the idea that I might be missing out on my great US experience just because I am to be designated in a place many people easily associate with the words ‘boring’, ‘bleak’, or simply ‘plain’.

As a natural optimist in life, I redirected my attention on more relevant matters other than worrying about my place in the world for a 5-week program. I decided to focus more on my personal vision and on how I can get a better understanding of it once I come back. Thoughts of Nebraska took a backseat and I became more excited with what I’d become after the program.

However, I still find it baffling yet equally amazing how life surprises us in the most beautiful and enlightening way. On the last remaining minutes of my 23-hour travel to the US, I found myself getting overwhelmed in the most unexpected way by the sheer beauty of Omaha, Nebraska at night on an aerial perspective. It never crossed my mind, but that exact moment actually was the perfect foreshadowing of my journey in this beautiful city. It finally occurred to me that after three long months of immense anticipation, I was finally about to step foot in the Cornhusker State of the United States of America.

A HOmaha away from Home

I arrived in Omaha, Nebraska in the evening of March 11 and the cold night breeze was the first to greet me. After a 15 minute ride, I arrived at Sonesta Suites, the place where I would be staying mostly for the entire duration of the program. The place exudes the ideals of what many describe as a home – cozy, comfortable, efficient. Each of us were given our own space, a space even bigger than my own apartment back in the Philippines. Sonesta couldn’t be any better of a home than it was to me.

Sonesta ES Suites – Our home in Omaha, Nebraska

We spent the first few days of our stay in Nebraska exploring and navigating the city of Omaha. As I eased myself from the jetlag and as the place started to make sense to me, I started to perceive a familiar feeling – a feeling only my hometown back in the Philippines could give me, well except the weather. Omaha somehow resonated the same laidback, relaxing aura of the city I grew up in. The wide open spaces that create a landscape of tranquility, the olive green grasses that are somehow starting to reinvigorate with the dawning of Spring, and the gentle, solicitous citizens who never fail to flash a kind smile help make this city very livable and relaxing.

On the other hand, the city of Omaha, just like any other city in the world, is not picture perfect. Together with the city’s multifaceted progress is the escalating concern of the city’s issue on race segregation on particular parts of the city. The increasing issue of segregation might be the only hindrance towards weaving a city of cross-cultural integration and unity in all aspects of human living. However, In the heart of the many initiatives among the city’s non-profit organizations lie small, yet significant efforts that aim to fully break the stigma of division and segregation that seem to taint the city’s reputation.

A Haven of Knowledge and Competence

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University of Nebraska at Omaha Arts and Sciences Hall

Just a few blocks away from where we were staying is the University where we were to study our academic courses. The University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) is the largest and most populated university in the entirety of Nebraska. With a diverse pool of students coming from different backgrounds, affiliations, and cultures, the University is definitely the perfect avenue for us to learn more about civic engagement. Its picturesque facade and tall, gorgeous buildings definitely add up to the conducive atmosphere one can feel within the campus. A few of the more notable landmarks are the iconic Arts and Sciences Building, the UNO belltower that serves as proud insignia of the university and the Library which offers tons of opportunities for learning and engagement within and among students.

A Historical Treasure Chest

The city is home to many museums that house significant information and historical timelines of various happenings that concern the city and the people of America.

The Durham Museum, which was Omaha’s former Union Station, gives visitors a nostalgic feel of one of the most crowded train stations in the midwest during World War II. Its intricate and grandeur halls adorned with gold-leaf decorations and the terrazo tile flooring preserved from the original union station definitely is a marvelous sight. The life-like statues in the main hall gives visitors a sneak peek into the common circumstances of people during those times through the statues’ recorded conversations. From pictures, artifacts, and instruments used by the pioneers, the museum takes you back to the time when the entire state of Nebraska was still fresh from its conception.

A YSEALI groufie outside the Durham Museum

The Joslyn museum is another masterpiece of its own. The majestic peach marble walls is definitely an attention-grabber even if one is still on a considerable distance from the towering building. Established as a fruit of a couple’s generosity and legacy to the people of Omaha, the museum offers a wide and diverse range of illustrations, artifacts, and paintings of notable painters among races and across generations. Its iconic architectural design truly exudes sublimity and grandeur.

Joslyn Museum adorned with its beautiful marble walls

A Paradise within a Paradise

The child inside me awakened with glee and astonishment during our memorable visit to the world-renowned Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. With over 17,000 animals of various species and kingdoms, the zoo boasts itself as one of the world’s leading entities in the area of animal conservation and research. I felt like I was transported to a different world. I was finally able to see some of the animals I only get to see in movies and documentaries. Amazement and awe took over me during the entire tour. I finally got to see a giraffe, a rhino, a zebra and even a penguin!

I only wished we were given more time to explore the entire zoo for half a day can never be enough to fully navigate its entirety. Some notable exhibits include the Lied Jungle, the Desert Dome, and the Kingdoms of the Night. Truly, the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium is a paradise within another paradise that Omaha is extremely blessed to have.

Bobbing Between Two States

Another noteworthy attraction lies across the Missouri River, connecting the two states of Iowa and Nebraska. The Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge is a 3,000 foot walkway and bridge that offers a spectacular view of the city’s skyline. We went ‘bobbing’ on the bridge on a chilly morning so I wonder how the bridge would look like at night. Another very memorable thing I did on the bridge was an item on my bucketlist for a long time! I was able to stand in two states at the same time! Isn’t that amazing? The Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge is definitely the perfect place to relax, unwind, and to just enjoy the majestic view.

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“Bobbing” at the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, connecting the states of Iowa and Nebraska

The Irony of a Farewell

Now these are a just a few handpicked assets that I found truly fascinating and relevant during my entire stay in Omaha, Nebraska. The weather might be quite cold and harsh for the most part of our stay, but that didn’t hinder us from feeling the warm hospitality of this city’s people. On our 4th week we finally bid goodbye to the city as we ventured on the city of Portland, Oregon, and then to Washington, DC. It was a bittersweet moment, having to say farewell to a city that many of us would never have another chance to come back to, yet also excited to what awaits us in the next part of the journey. As the hours turned to days, and as days turned to weeks, I found myself reveling in the beautiful simplicity that this city humbly evokes. At the end of the day, I found myself loving every part of the city. Omaha can definitely be everyone’s hOmaha.