Meet Gilman Video Blogger – Alex

Meet U.S. Department of State sponsored Gilman Scholarship recipient Alex Montoya. Alex was a Gilman Global Experience Correspondent during the summer of 2014 studying and interning in Shanghai, China.  The Gilman Global Experience allows Gilman Scholarship recipients the opportunity to record videos around academic and cultural themes to share with other students interested in studying or interning abroad in the featured country. For more videos please visit the Gilman Scholarship’s Official YouTube page.

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There and Back Again

To be honest, I think I got a little cocky after not really experiencing very much culture shock while I was abroad and assumed I would have just as easy of a time readjusting when I got home. But what I’ve learned after being home for about a week is that coming home is a whole new experience entirely. On our last night in Kyrgyzstan, we had dinner with all of the students and faculty from our program. One of the faculty members told us something that I wasn’t able to fully understand until I got home. “It might seem like people don’t care about hearing about your experience,” he said, “but they do. They just literally don’t understand what you are talking about, it’s like you’re speaking a foreign language.” He told us that we might have to hide part of ourselves for a little while, until we found someone else who understood what it was like to live abroad and how it fundamentally changes so many things about you that you sometimes aren’t fully able to understand or articulate. He was right. I got off the plane and couldn’t wait to share everything about my trip with everyone I talked to. The thing was, as I told them my stories, I found myself becoming more and more frustrated. I felt like the people around me weren’t really listening to what I was saying and were just passively letting my stories wash over them. I tried over and over to explain what I’d seen and done and how these things had changed how I saw the world, I just wanted them to get it. But they didn’t. Really though, how could they? It took me a while, but I realized that they were listening; I just wanted them to hear something more than what I was saying. I think I was trying to share more than just stories with people; I was trying to share how these stories had made me feel. I was trying to take all those changes I felt and make other people feel them too, but obviously that’s not how things work. I realized that that faculty member had been right. There were parts of what I had experienced that I was going to have to keep to myself until I met someone else who would understand without me having to explain.

There are countless articles out there that talk about wanderlust and reasons to travel. They all say things that I’ve found to be very true about having experiences that change your life and how great it is to see new places and cultures and meet new people. They also almost always talk about how, once you travel, you want to keep travelling. Most of them relate this urge back to those things I mentioned before, those exciting new experiences. But I think there’s a little more to it than that. I think it comes back to those pieces that people who have traveled have to hide when they get home. Maybe when people go back out into the world they’re not just looking for novelty, but for the familiar as well. Maybe they’re trying to find others who speak their language, people who can read between the lines of their stories and hear what they’re really trying to say.

I miss Kyrgyzstan. I miss the part of myself that I left there and I’m not totally sure I’ll be able to find it again. I’m also extremely happy to be home, mostly because of burritos and the lack of marshrutkas in the public transportation system. I’ve always loved the saying “home is where the heart is,” despite my aversion to clichés. I always think it is a beautiful and comforting concept that your home isn’t dependent on a physical thing, like a house or an apartment, but is where you feel complete. When you travel though, I think it becomes a little more complex. I feel like I’ve left parts of me with people in so many places and I don’t know if it’s possible to feel totally complete in one place anymore. I know I want to keep travelling and I know this means I’ll be leaving parts of myself in places that I might never get to go back to, but I think it’s worth it. It’s extremely hard to travel and not experience some kind of growth. Maybe you give up having one place in the world where you feel like you belong completely, but you also gain this amazing sense of freedom. Whatever pieces you leave behind are replaced by new thoughts, beliefs, and friendships that you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life. My time in Kyrgyzstan honestly changed my life, and it changed me. I’m figuring out how to make these changes fit into my life here in the States, but soon I hope I can venture out into the world again, and maybe find people who speak the same language.

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Ravenna, Italy: It’s a matter of sink or swim.

During my first week of classes on the Bologna University campus, I realized that my study abroad program left very little time to acclimate to my new surroundings. Everything felt new, fresh, chaotic, exciting and overwhelming and it was the exact kind of adventure I wanted in a study abroad program. Back in the States, home and school life can sometimes feel monotonous and boring as we execute our routines as the days, weeks and months seem to slip by. For me, my time in Italy seemed to pass by more slowly. I think I accounted for time more consciously as I became overly aware and stimulated by my new surroundings. The mornings consisted of “survival” Italian classes. We were taught basic commands of the language so we could navigate through Bologna and interact with the local people. In the afternoon, our time was split and merged between the literary and film production portions of the program. We screened two films (“S.O.S Submarine” and “Rome, Open City”). The subsequent class discussions allowed us to critically analyze the narrative structures and production values of each film. Learning world history in a classroom setting is one thing, but when it is physically possible for me to occupy the same historical spaces being portrayed on the big screen, I walked out of each class with a profound understanding of how World War II affected Italy, its people and the world. The way Italian filmmakers realistically dramatized historical events made me feel, at times, like I was watching a documentary film.

By the fourth day of classes, I was able to politely ask for “this” or “that” from the nearby café at lunch. As I sat there eating my panino (a sandwich made with non-sliced bread, salami and mozzarella), I started to feel like I was living the Italian life instead of observing it. My confidence was at an all-time high when I pronounced “Ciao” to the café owner as I headed back to campus for my afternoon class.

My well-earned confidence was put to the test when we were given our first film production assignment. The next morning, the entire class boarded a train and traveled about fifty miles east of Bologna to the ancient city of Ravenna. We were divided into groups of three and we were instructed to produce a three-minute documentary film exploring the reality and imagination of Ravenna.

Ravenna, Italy

Ravenna: Città Amica Delle Donne (Friend of Women)

We were told Ravenna was once a thriving port along the Adriatic Sea but the water has since receded about seven miles. Like Venice, Ravenna is slowly sinking into the marshes. Each group was given a camera, a boom pole with a microphone and we were set free to roam Ravenna. My team quickly headed for the nearest café and we started to strategize. We each pulled out our cell phones and connected to the café’s free Wifi. We quickly learned that Ravenna was known for its colorful mosaics and it was the capital of the Roman Empire between 402 and 476. We decided that a three-minute documentary about Ravenna would not do the city justice, so we decided to capture the “feeling” of Ravenna through her natural environments, her buildings and her people. Unlike some of our fellow students groups, it was going to be a little harder for us to insert ourselves into the city without being noticed. Our team was comprised of an American Indian (me), an Indian from India and an African-American. Our recordings included visits to Dante’s tomb, the churches, and the newer port of Ravenna along the Adriatic. Any trepidation we had about our Ravenna adventures was only in our heads. We found the people of Ravenna to be modest and polite, even when we spoke Italian with our American accents.

Before I visited Italy, my impression of this country consisted of mental images of the canals of Venice, Vatican City in Rome or Santa Maria del Fiore (the domed church in Florence). At the end of the day, I was extremely happy with my visit to Ravenna.

Ravenna, Italy (SU Abroad) from Cornsoupman on Vimeo.

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From China to Texas

Stepping off the plane from China I know that I will have some problems adjusting being back in good ‘ole Texas. Flying in, all I see in every direction is flat lands and plenty of empty lots compared to towers and skyscrapers filling the sky. I knew being back home I no longer have to walk anywhere, but instead have to drive to get anything done. My story remains the same but the amount of information I give out varies from person to person. Everyone is so excited to hear about my story about being abroad, but the hardest thing for me to share is the moments that I experienced. I always end with the same line, “You have to experience it in order to understand what happened.”

The most I miss about being in the city is how easy it was to get around at any point in time. Meeting with other interns or friends I made along the way, we always had a new spot to discover while being in Shanghai or traveling on the weekends. Having a solid group of friends really helped me enrich my experience abroad. We literally did everything together after work. As soon as we got off work we were already arranging a table for dinner and an evening activity for us to unwind.

Being back in the States does have its perks like seeing family, friends and the opportunity to develop new friendships by getting the chance to share my story. Unfortunately, I do miss strangers taking my picture and wanting to practice their English everywhere I go. While in China one thing that I noticed that I really enjoyed was how open people were when bringing people into their group. No matter where you were from or what you looked like, people embraced you with open arms and never doubted their decisions. Here in the States I feel as if it is a bit of a process trying to break into a group of friends especially if you don’t match their thoughts, clothing styles, patterns, etc.

Starting my last year in college I am beyond excited to venture into the world of graduate studies. This experience really influenced me to focus more on a dual program that offers classes both in the U.S. and abroad. Having such a short time to take in the culture, I find that studying abroad long-term will allow for more personal and professional development. When applying to global programs, I know during individual interviews the Gilman Scholarship and my personal story will help me start a solid conversation.

Cheers,

AlexAlex Montoya in China

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Intern Life in Bishkek

During my time here in Kyrgyzstan, I have been interning at the Soros Foundation. The Soros Foundation operates around the world, including in the U.S. though it is known as the Open Society Foundations in other parts of the world. When I applied for my program, we chose whether we wanted to work with human rights and peace building or environment and sustainability. I chose the human rights track and was assigned an internship when I arrived in Bishkek. The Soros Foundation works with a variety of issues including education and youth, governance and accountability, health, rights and justice, and media and information. I am working in the media and information sector with the Freedom of Information Program. My work has mostly been focused on the Encouraging Diversity Through Media Project. This project is focused primarily on the development of media content about the cultural and ethnic diversity of Kyrgyzstan, strengthening the role of Kyrgyz media in constructive inter-ethnic dialogues, and providing improved access to information in different, especially minority, languages. Typically, I arrive at Soros at 2 pm and go over my assignment for the day with my supervisor. I then do my research and put what I find into a file for my supervisors to use in their work. My latest research was used during a training that Soros was involved in for journalists to educate them on how to report in a way that did not escalate conflicts and helped to diffuse them and promote peace instead.

The first project I worked on when I arrived in Kyrgyzstan was regarding the approaching switchover from analog to digital television. My first assignment was proof reading a document that provided recommendations for the promotion of a transparent, inclusive, and timely transition to digital broadcasting that respected the rights of citizens and current broadcasters. I found this very interesting because I can pretty vividly remember when the U.S. transitioned to digital broadcasting and the campaigns that were run on TV and on other forms of media to promote the change. Proofreading this document was also very educational for me because, although I had been through a switchover, I had never really understood the details of why it was happening or even necessary in the first place.

My other project has been researching the best practices for using media in post conflict resolution and to promote peace and diversity. In 2010, there were violent ethnic clashes between the Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the south of Kyrgyzstan primarily in the cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad. The Soros Foundation has been doing work in different areas to help repair relations between these two ethnic groups. During my second week at my internship I attended a conference that my supervisors were participating in. The conference was titled “Civil Identity: Unity in Diversity. The Role of Media, Government and Society.” The conference had presenters from different NGOs who were working on media projects to promote diversity. These projects included funding local independent stations, running youth groups, and putting out different publications espousing peace. I am possibly the most technologically challenged person I know, so up until this point, I had never really acknowledged the benefits that media programs can have. I have come to find this topic fascinating and I am doing my final research paper for my seminar class here in Kyrgyzstan on it as well. Since I am starting my senior year this fall, I have been thinking more and more about what I am passionate about and what I find interesting and how I can make a living from it. Before this internship, I would have classified working in any sort of media related job as boring and constraining. Because of my experience at Soros, I have realized that there is a very human element to media relations that I find fascinating. It is all about learning how people think and figuring out the best way to reach them. I have no idea what the future has in store for me after I graduate, but I now have a whole new path that I can follow.

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My Internship with Fundabiem

This summer, I am in Guatemala with a Social Work program from North Carolina State University. As part of our program requirements, each of us participates in an internship working with the population of our choice. I have been interested in learning more about the special needs population. Therefore, with the help of my professor, I have chosen to intern with an organization named Fundabiem in Panajachel, Guatemala. My professor has previously spent a significant amount of time in Guatemala researching social work-oriented organizations around the area and has established good connections with several professionals. She has matched us with those which would provide the most experience.Clinica Fundabiem

Fundabiem is a unique organization because it works in partnership with Teleton, a non-governmental organization started to provide services for all special needs patients regardless of their economic means. There are about 25 Fundabiem locations in all of Guatemala. Each year, beginning in 1986 volunteers of Teleton have organized multiple fundraisers to supply the costs of therapy. At the location in Panajachel where I work, it offers occupational, physical, and speech therapy to approximately 150 patients. The clinic is not very large, but the employees utilize every inch of the building. There are seven employees at the clinic: a social worker, receptionist, bus driver, doctor, occupational, physical, and speech therapist. It is the only clinic for special needs therapy in the area and many people come from all over, as far as 1 hour and a half away, to receive therapy. It may not seem like a considerably long time for Americans with cars, but the majority of the people in Guatemala are indigenous and must use the public transportation system (aka “Chicken buses”, which are simply older school buses painted over).

My internship has exceeded my expectations because I have not only been fortunate enough to gain professional growth working with a speech therapist on a daily basis, but have had the privilege of listening to the stories of local, indigenous Guatemalans. Part of social work is learning to attend to the needs of others, which often times requires simply listening to what they have to say. One caretaker was the grandmother of a severely developmentally-delayed child named Norman. I inquired about the child’s mother and their relationship now, but the grandmother said that they did not speak anymore because together, she and her daughter would always fight. She told me that her daughter had made poor choices with a man from the streets and that she did not approve of that Araca 1kind of behavior, especially after she had more children since Norman. She wanted her granddaughter to grow up with better instruction and care and knew that her daughter would not be able to provide that at the time. It was difficult to hear this story and comprehend it in another language, but it shows the strength of Guatemalan families in times of need. The grandmother is the sole care-taker of the family and now has even more responsibility with Norman.

Daily, I see children with a variety of diagnostics ranging from paralysis to hearing loss and down syndrome. Some children only have trouble with pronouncing words in Spanish. Before I came to intern at Fundabiem, I had no prior knowledge of what kind of work speech therapy incorporated. Since it is a clinic for the special needs population, there is a much wider range of goals to achieve with each child. To help children without strong facial muscles move their lips and mouth better, we use blowing techniques such as bubbles through a straw or with soap and also blowing feathers. Marvin, the speech therapist, will spend time massaging their mouths to stimulate mobility. To encourage movement of the tongue, we use tongue depressors with honey or suckers to have the children practice using their tongues more. Next, we typically learn or review more vocabulary and practice recalling familiar nouns or verbs. To do this, we have many activities ranging from flashcards to puzzles and drawing pictures. We continue with more speech therapy activities until the 30-minute appointment has passed. It did not seem like much time to me at first because Marvin usually has two or sometimes three patients in the room at a time. There is usually not much individual attention given to each patient. However, he does a great job dividing his time among the patients and asking me to perform many activities and therapy with them as well.

Since working in a speech therapy office, I have thought more about assisting others with rehabilitation in the future. It is an important job and very rewarding to see even the smallest progress. Personally, I have been fortunate to work with a very compassionate, concerned, and joyous therapist while here who has impacted me greatly due to his passion for helping others. He attended college in Guatemala City and received his degree, but he still remains poorly paid because of the corruption of the government and the lack of finances here. Regardless, Marvin performs his job with great vigilance and passion. I still have two years left of my undergraduate career and I would like to investigate more about the educational requirements of speech therapy in the United States and how many positions are available currently. I do know that I would like to remain in contact with this agency because it has strong values and functions to achieve its grand vision of uniting the people together by assisting one another. In the future, I would like to network more with NGOs located in the United States in order to provide more outside connections with Fundabiem and Teleton.


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by | August 28, 2014 · 4:14 pm

What I learned in Morocco

 

Sunset falling on the Atlas Mountains.

Sunset falling on the Atlas Mountains.

I sat in my kitchen table in two different occasions and waited– nothing. In my hand, a pen, in front of me, my journal with only the date, the time and a title, “What I learned in Morocco.”

The page remained blank. Both times.

I sat there and thought, what did I really learn in Morocco? I had to have learned something! But in front of me, the naked pages revealed nothing.

I didn’t worry though. I knew that what I had learned was still pouring through my consciousness, taking root deep inside my mind.

I knew…but my mind and pages were blank. What did Moroccans and Islam teach me in the last five months? Where were all my deep realizations? Where was my profound understanding of the self?

Perhaps, more than I can share with you right now. As I said, the lessons learned are still being processed and just because I left Morocco, doesn’t mean Morocco has left me.

And so without further delay, I will share with you just a few things I learned in Morocco.

~

Morocco is at a crossroads.

I learned that Morocco is a country that is not quite African, not yet European and not fully integrated with Middle East.

It is a country that has as much history as it has struggles. It is a country that is a hybrid of its past conflicts and recent conquests. Morocco has been so profoundly influenced by its past – its future is almost unreadable.

Morocco is still developing. Violence and sexual harassment against women is a problem that the country has failed to address. The king of Morocco lives in abundance in any of his five palaces while thousands of homeless Moroccans endure the elements outside. Corruption, wealth accumulation and inequality are unaddressed issues that have slowly been gaining light.

But Morocco is a country rich in opportunities. Its affluence doesn’t come from its GDP or its natural resources; its wealth comes from the Moroccan people – the people who wake up hoping today will be better than yesterday. Its people that have joys and pains and dreams and defeats – just like we all do.

Islam means peace.

Labeling all Muslims as terrorists is as ignorant and dangerous as when Hitler blamed the entire Jewish population for being the cause of Germany’s problems.

There is no difference.

When people use religion to justify violence, for any reason, they are no longer following the principles of their own belief system. Since peace and justice are at the core of every religion that claims that God is their source of knowledge.

Traveling light is a gift.

During my last few days in Morocco, I was traveling with my brother with just our backpacks and duffel bags. By no means were we traveling light, since we each carried about fifty pounds.

I had given away my larger suitcase and most of my belongings to my roommate and friends. I needed to travel with what I considered the bare minimum – and it was still too much.

As we traveled through Morocco, I realized how comforting it is to not have any additional weight on my shoulders. How refreshing it is to not be tied down to anything. How liberating it can be to have nothing but the clothes on my back.

As we moved from city to city, we realized we should have left more behind. Very much like in life, the less baggage we carry, the more free we are to move around.

~

It is not where you are, it is who you are with.

Bus, taxi and train rides would had been much more uncomfortable had I not had a friend’s shoulder to sleep on.

Hungry nights on top of Mount Toubkal would had been lonely had my soul not been filled with laughter.

The stars wouldn’t have shone as brightly had I not had someone to share my dreams with.

My tagine or couscous wouldn’t have been finished had I eaten alone.

The cities I walked through would have been empty, had I not had someone to see them with.

In my time in Morocco, I learned that it doesn’t matter where you are, it matters who you are with. You can be sleeping in a train station in Meknes, or staying in a luxurious hostel in Barcelona, or rocking on a hammock at home, and none of it would matter.

The place, the location, the time – that is all arbitrary. The people we share it with is what makes the difference.

~

But never forget the people at home.

Sure, it is nice to travel to distant lands and explore new cultures, but having that little piece of home with you always makes the road seem less dangerous.

I guess what I am trying to say is this:

Leave home, but come back to see how much you have grown. Learn about yourself so that you can teach others about themselves. Keep your loved ones close to your heart, because when the world gets cold, that is the one place where your memories will always keep you warm.

~

I am still learning who I am.

Perhaps the most insightful reflection that I have acquired is this: I am still figuring out who I am, and honestly, I might never find out – and the best part – that is okay, I have an entire lifetime to do so.

Life is a journey. Our purpose? I will let the dead philosophers argue with each other over the answer.

There comes a turning point, I believe, in every person’s life where we must decide: continue living the life we are living, or take a leap of faith into the unknown, venture into the realm where nothing is certain and everything is a mystery.

In “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” by Joseph Campbell, he calls it, “the hero’s call to adventure.” This is the point where the protagonist, you and I and everyone else, is faced with a challenge, with a quest they must embark on in order to attain completeness.

It is a journey from childhood innocence to adulthood understanding; it is the quest from ignorant prince to enlightened Buddha; it is the merging of two worlds– the unknown and the known, the yin and yang, the light and the darkness– into one ecstatic whole.

Our hero is rewarded with a deeper, more mature and holistic view of their role in the universe.

Going to Morocco was my call to adventure, but as I learned in my time there, the call of duty rings more than once. At any point, life can decide to interfere and once again ask our hero if they would like to embark on a detour from the main narrative.

It is during these detours that I have learned the most about myself. It is during these detours that the deepest parts of ourselves are revealed.

~

The Journey continues.

I learned that the journey is never over.

I am also learning that just because I am back home, doesn’t mean that the same Kevin has returned.

And now I must wait: for Life, for Fate and Destiny to knock at my door with another quest. A new journey.

The universe knows that I will answer.

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