The Blazing Sun, Warm Seaside Mist, and Somber News

Departing from the “Flying Dolphin,” our slightly seasick class stepped onto the port of Mytilene. We were greeted by the blazing sun, warm seaside mist, and somber news. Early in the morning, a shanty raft had washed ashore a few miles north. Although most of its passengers had survived the treacherous journey from Turkey to Greece, there were a few casualties: two children and an older woman.

Before arriving at Lesvos, I could only imagine the island based on the images that NGO’s been pushing online. There would be tattered life jackets still lining the beaches or mothers desperately looking for their children. Instead, I was surprised. Rather than a place overwhelmed by one of the largest modern humanitarian crisis (though it was and still is), the isle was surprisingly empty. “Tourism has been in dramatic decline since the crisis began in 2015,” said the mayor of Lesvos. Although emphasizing the urgency to help refugees who arrived on the island, he lamented about failing economy of the island. During our seminar, we were gifted books covering the natural beauty of Lesvos, filled with images of a tourist destination of the yesteryears.

Lesvos was the most beautiful island that I had seen. It was beautiful in a way that Santorini or Mykonos could never compare. There were Greece’s famed beaches and the cerulean Aegean Sea, but there were also petrified forests, Byzantine castles, and a sense of raw authenticity. Nevertheless, the natural, pristine condition of the island was too perfect. As our academic excursion continued, our professor pointed out the inconsistency. The European Union’s policy of “refugee hot spots” that we learned about back in our classroom in Athens turned out to be worse in reality than what we expected. Driving past Moria Refugee Camp (which was destroyed by fire one year later), we saw large white walls reinforced by a chain-linked fence. Inside were thousands of refugees cramped together. There was limited food, shelter, and medical care. For a group that came from such a traumatic background, there was virtually no psychiatrists present either. A volunteer from a humanitarian organization told us that if the world saw what was inside, they’d be condemning the inhumanity of the situation but moreover, condemning the EU-Turkey Deal. The relative calmness of the island was merely the result of the roundup and restriction of refugees in camps.

The people of Lesvos do not deserve blame. While driving along the northernmost cost of the island, just outside of Molyvos, we stopped in a seaside village. After finishing a small lunch at a rustic restaurant, our professor brought our class out to a spectacular vantage point. Peering out into the sea, you could make out the blurry Turkish mountains which peaked over the horizon. Pointing at the rocky beach, our professor explained that the first refugees from Turkey arrived at this very spot. It’s no surprise that the villagers of Lesvos were nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize earlier in the year. Rather than a swift and powerful response from the supranational entity that is the European Union, it was the locals of Lesvos who came to the rescue of those who arrived.  Welcoming refugees and migrants to their homes, the villagers from the north housed, fed, and rehabilitated them with the utmost hospitality. Many of them former refugees themselves from Smyrna, it was both memory and humanity that guided their sincere response. It was only until the size of the crisis became larger than what everyone could imagine that the leaders in Brussels began devising a scheme to assist Lesvos and Greece as a whole.

Without the bravery and compassion of the residents of Lesvos, the migration crisis would have begun with even more tragedies. Although the fate of the situation as well as the future recovery of Lesvos remains uncertain, my brief stay continues to remind me that even in history’s darkest moments, there will always be stories of humanity – of everyday people taking initiative into their own hands and transforming into heroes.

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Meaningful Relationships

Cultural Submersion is single-handedly one of the greatest aspects of study abroad. Many people visit countries, but few get the chance to interact with the land’s essence through culture. Prior to being a Gilman Scholar, I had no experience with cultural submersion in a foreign country, without a road-map or guideline I was a bit lost. Everything changed when I began to make meaningful interactions with locals. Some interactions gave birth to new friendships, others became fleeting, yet treasured memories. Regardless of the outcome, I saw each interaction as a relationship which strengthened my connection to and appreciation for Ghana.

The most memorable relationship was built while in Dzodze, a beautiful village on the eastern border next to Togo. A few friends and I were there for their yearly Palm Festival, an annual tradition where locals sang, dance and gave thanks. The celebration was how people showed gratitude for God’s gift of the palm tree – a resource that brought them food, drink, shelter, and tools. We drove through the night to get there, from the capital of Accra to Dzodze was about 9 hours. When I awoke, we were in Dzodze and the first thing I noticed was a new sky, untainted by the population of the inner city.

Before leaving for Ghana my Nigerian father said that African ground and sky personified god’s artistry. As I looked up, his words were given meaning.  The scene below was just as romantic, we were in a dirt compound and scattered across it were small homes made from a mixture of palm straw and clay. We spent the next two days participating in festivities and exploring the village.

On the third day, we traveled on motorbikes to a secluded area in the village where young men tapped palm trees for sap and older women turned sap to wine. As we drank, an older woman came and sat next to me. She must have thought I was a local because she started to speak to me in her native tongue. Luckily, my friend was able to translate bits and pieces of the conversation.

We spoke for an hour but only 20 minutes of the conversation was translated. I watched every facial expression and listened to each fluctuation in tone as she spoke. Eventually, it was time to go and as I rode away I realized that cultural submersion isn’t about understanding everything. It’s about opening oneself to that which we don’t understand.

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Forget Graduation: Japan, Here I Come!

If you think about the things a graduating senior is doing in the spring of senior year, navigating a foreign country probably isn’t one of them. But while most people take this time to reminisce on their past experiences in college, I knew I still wanted to create new ones.

My name is Miki, and I’ll be spending my last semester as a college student abroad in Japan.

About Me

Hello! I’m Miki Ding. I’m a 4th year student at UC Berkeley, majoring in cognitive science- the interdisciplinary study of the mind through neuroscience, computer science, psychology, linguistics, philosophy, and culture. I’ve always loved learning about how people in other countries approach the same problem in different ways so I knew that during my college career I wanted to go abroad and witness the effect of culture first-hand.

Despite all the hardships that come with graduating early, I could not be more thankful that everything worked out so that I could experience the roller-coaster ride that is living in another country. I will be in Yokohama for the next 4 months, studying in the Global and International Studies program of Meiji Gakuin University!

Preparation: Job Hunt and Pre-Traveling Essentials

As a senior, I knew I finally needed an answer to the ever-present question of “What are you doing after college?” Because job-hunting while I was in Japan would be difficult, I had to secure a full-time job in the fall semester, before I left the country. From July to September, I dedicated all my time and energy into the recruiting process and ultimately landed a position as a software engineer at Capital One.

With this huge burden lifted off my shoulders, I could finally start to think about my upcoming travel. This included making sure I prepared my passports, completed my health check-ups, and submitting all my travel documents to both Gilman and to University of California Education Abroad Program (UCEAP). As a Japanese dual citizen, I got to forgo the visa application process, but in exchange, I could not apply to the Japanese Student Services Organization (JASSO) scholarship, which offered nearly $800 USD every month! This led to a lot of number-crunching and scholarship-hunting on my part to make sure I could sustain myself.

By making sure I took care of everything in my control when I was in America, I knew I could enjoy my time in Japan, care-free.

Overcoming Mental Obstacles

Even though I was logistically ready to be abroad, I still don’t think I was emotionally ready. I was nervous about meeting people I connected with and didn’t know if I could even enjoy a new country if I didn’t enjoy the people I was in the same program with. I had spent so much time building my community back at home that I felt doubtful I would be able to recreate a similar sense of belonging so far away, with people I didn’t know.

Without a back-up plan or knowing anyone in the program, I really felt like I was going in blind.

Talking with friends who studied abroad previously, however, helped a lot because they reminded me that everybody else was probably feeling the same way. That thought has reassured me as I go out of my comfort zone to befriend more and more people.

It has truly been rewarding to meet people from all different backgrounds. Although I initially had a lot of doubts, I only feel thankful that I was worried for nothing.

Parting Thoughts

As we enter week 3 of the program, I have only felt a sense of awe everyday. I can’t wait to see what else is in store!

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Studying Abroad Will Affect You for Years to Come

Pushing a cigarette carton towards me with a cigarette halfway hanging out, he asked, “Ni cho yan ma?” I didn’t understand what he said, but the friendly gesture was clear. I wasn’t a smoker, but I took one. The train rumbled lazily on. I heard the ‘clack-clackity-clack” of the wheels scraping the rails. A light breeze came from a crack in the door and the sun shone brightly on green foliage passing by on either side of the car. I was standing in the smoking section of the train because my ticket was for ‘standing room only’ as all the seats on the train were already sold out. It was a 30-hour train ride from Xi’an to Shanghai and it wasn’t even half-way over.

As a business major, studying Chinese just made sense. China is the world’s second largest economy, the US trades heavily with China and China may grow to be the world’s largest national superpower in our own lifetimes. That is why I chose to learn Mandarin Chinese and ultimately why I decided to study in China and enroll in an intensive language program in the coastal city of Shanghai. None of which would have been possible if it wasn’t for the Gilman Scholarship.

It can be difficult to quantify the value of study abroad experiences. Some might say it is nothing more than an extended vacation abroad for privileged students, but I can assert my experience was not even close.

At the time of this writing, I can think of 2 direct benefits of study abroad in my own life. The first is a real work ethic.

My decision to do intensive Chinese language study meant that I studied from morning to night. We had to learn to write 30 new characters a day and read a 500-word story each day and demonstrate fluency in the new vocabulary each day. I couldn’t even slack for one day or I would fall hopelessly behind.

Intensive language study instilled a strong work ethic in me that carries forward to today. At the time of this writing, I am starting an advertising company. I currently work for 11-12 hours every day and I can credit my experience my time in China for giving me the patience and ability to work long hours on something I am passionate about.

The second benefit of study abroad is unparralled boldness. If you find yourself in a foreign country where you have to learn the language to survive, it is sink or swim. For me, the act of approaching people to make conversation, then miserably failing due to my lack of fluency, and repeating this over and over, even in the classroom, made it so much easier to express myself directly when needed.

To anyone interested in studying abroad. It will change your life. It may not be apparent at first, but it will be an experience which will shape you and how you view yourself and others.

If you want to study abroad, but feel like it is prohibitively expensive, apply for the Gilman Scholarship.


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A Day in the Life of Gilman Scholar Arlette in Spain

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Integrating into Culture/Becoming a Global Citizen – Japan

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Remembrance and Activism

One of the most rewarding parts of studying in Europe is the fact that you are constantly living alongside the sites of the some of the world’s most memorable historic events. It’s hard to go further than a few steps from my Wrocław apartment building without seeing evidence of the city’s past. Whether one is walking past the numerous museums that dot the city or simply a repurposed structure that gives roots to the now firmly planted modern style of Wrocław, one need not dig far to discover something new and interesting. One of my first experiences beyond the university building itself with such a history was Hala Stulecia (Centennial Hall), which was created when Wrocław, then Breslau, was a German city in 1913. Today, the building hosts events and the surrounding grounds provide recreational space during times of warm weather. Though now considered widely a normative Polish symbol of Wrocław, this UNESCO heritage site had history that at first glance would have been overlooked.

This is but one example that is illustrated through one of the more major areas of the city, but unfortunately, not all sites carry such a positive past. The impact of WWII and the Holocaust are felt throughout Poland and perhaps the most glaring reminder of this sits only a couple hours from my host university. Auschwitz serves as a reminder of what can result when bigoted and racist extremism festers and transforms a once democratic system into an instrument of mass genocide. Today, Auschwitz serves as a museum to educate its visitors about the reality of war and the Holocaust in hopes of preventing such an act from repeating itself. The interesting part of remembrance, however, is that it is never without a political component.What is remembered and the context in which it is reflected upon is subject to change.

For instance, while my memory of Hala Stulecia is a positive experience in a Polish university city, this may not be the same for everyone. Wrocław lies within Lower Silesia and is considered a part of the “recovered territories” that were returned to Poland after WWII and though it is now undoubtedly Polish, it was not long ago that this structure and city were formally German. Competing narratives and memories such as this can be easily transformed into kindling for a political flame that can set alight the popular narrative of a location such as this. Though there is no guarantee that this issue will arise over Hala Stulecia, the example still illustrates the process in which politics can transform a seemingly harmless recreational venue into a political talking point.

Although politicization is not a new concept and will undoubtedly take form in some shape or another in any given nation, it is of particular interest now given the shifting political realities of Central and Eastern Europe. As I have mentioned before, the Law and Justice party that has been overwhelmingly overhauling the political system of Poland and one way that support is rallied is through politicization of memory and locations such as Auschwitz or other other contentious sites. Using this method as a tool has led to support of these sweeping and illiberal changes to Polish democracy. Though this method alone is not necessarily responsible for these changes, it can play a key role in the process. As these changes occur, it becomes an awkward and difficult situation as an exchange student at times.

Mass demonstrations and political debate on a wide range of subjects has become common place in Wrocław and Poland in general. As a student of political science, and a foreign one at that, the dilemma is often how involved, if at all, should one become in these conversations and demonstrations. My experiences in the U.S. certainly shape my outlook on many of the issues being debated in Poland, but as a guest in the country how involved should one be in the political sphere. While, for instance, it may seem hypocritical to be a staunch defender of democracy at home and not march or speak out for its preservation abroad, how can it also be justified to take a stand in a society and system that is not one’s own? The collision of remembrance and politics in the context of an exchange student is undoubtedly unique and the answer to these questions is likely different for each person put into such a position. One thing, however, is clear – No matter which country one may be studying in or where they call home, context is the key to understanding the difficult political issues that will need to be addressed both at home and abroad.

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