Finding My Routine

Hello! My name is Lauren and I’m a student at Western Washington University, double majoring in English and Spanish and I intend to go to Law School when I’m done. I’m currently studying in Alicante, Spain for one year, and I’m excited to bring you along on this journey with me.

Alicante has been my home for just a little over four weeks now and since then I’ve experienced a wide arrange of emotions. Some to be expected and some not as expected. I love to travel, and if I can stay as long as I can in one place to soak up the culture and customs all the better, but this trip has been different in the sense that I can honestly say I’ve experienced culture shock here in ways that I’ve never experienced it before.

Sculpture in Alicante while I was out walking.

I’ve struggled with intense feelings of loneliness, isolation, and homesickness. These feelings are typical for students who study abroad, but to be honest, I was not expecting to experience them at all. Here are just a few ways I’ve worked to process my feelings.

At 31, I’m the oldest person in my program. It’s been difficult to make those meaningful connections, we all desire in community, with the other participants in my program, but that doesn’t mean all is lost. It means stretching the boundaries of my comfort zone and meeting other Spaniards in my age group, and practicing my Spanish along the way.

As the youngest of five kids, I have a lot of nieces and nephews that I miss dearly while I’m here. To help combat that I’ve started writing them letters and mailing out birthday cards. Taking the time to write them a note is a way I can spend time with them. I’ve already received a letter back since then!

Mails from home!

In addition, I’ve signed up to tutor English. Twice a week I tutor three children privately, and twice a week I tutor at a local high school. My classroom has 17 children! It’s been a fun and new learning experience for myself. I’m also paid 10 Euros for each session, coming to forty Euros a week.

Which brings me to the not so fun, but totally necessary side of studying abroad. A budget. A huge source of my anxiety that exacerbated a lot of my earlier feelings was a sense of uncertainty with money. While I’ve applied to multiple scholarships and I’ve been fortunate enough to receive funding to studying abroad. I didn’t feel a sense of relief until I created a budget for myself. Why? Because it helped put my mind at ease and helped me prioritize my time here. For example, it’s much more important for me to travel around my host country and neighboring European countries than spend money on drinks. Drinking alcohol anywhere is expensive. This means that when I go out to dance and experience the nightlife here in Alicante, I don’t buy drinks, and I don’t eat out as often as some of my other peers do.

Example Budget: This is not my actual budget, just to show how easy it can be to set one up for yourself. I’ve set up three, one for every quarter!

I’ve also joined a gym! WHY?! You might ask. Because even in the States I used running and exercising as a way to process my day or even prepare for my day. I tried running outside, but I kept slipping on the old limestone of Alicante, it was the safer choice to choose a gym, and honestly worth the investment in myself.

Filling my days with classes, tutoring, gym, and other social activities has helped me find my routine here in Alicante. A routine that if I’m honest, is very similar to the one I have back in the States. It’s beginning to feel more and more like home.

Castillo de Santa Barbara at night. A great hike that overlooks the city and the Mediterranean once you get to the top.

Somethings I’m looking forward to:

  1. I’m traveling to Italy to visit a friend of mine. She’s originally from Italy and we met in the U.S. years ago. I haven’t seen her in eight years. I’m excited to experience another European country.
  2. In November I’m going to do my first Spartan Run in Cordoba, Spain. It has 20 obstacle courses, most of them including mud, but this is a great way to stretch my Spanish and possibly meet other Spaniards who enjoy some of the same things as me. Wish me luck!

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Japan: Trains

Tōkyō is heavy, almost as heavy as the diacritics pressing down on the o’s, flattening and elongating the city’s groan. The grey buildings are aggressively tall and the greyed people passively radiate a cruelty special to our species. It feels as if the city is trying its best to let you leave, as if your presence is a fallen leaf taking too long to rot into the pavement. In this city, I feel no heat, just roughness.

The JR Yamanote Line has 29 stops and all of them are bathed in blue light at night. Something psychological study finds blue LED light deters people from intentionally pressing the self-destruct button. As my feet pass over from waiting platform onto the electric car, I see a thick, blued crack of abyss below. I wonder how many people have plunged themselves into the gunmetal groan.

An old woman wearing a navy cardigan three sizes too large for her tells me suicide is illegal in Japan, that depression and its prisoners are not allowed to haphazardly enter onto the train tracks. I ask her what happens if they do. She tells me they die. I ask her what happens next. She tells me the train company will sue their families in order to deter future suicides. I ask her what happens to the shiny, black loafers left behind.

As I walk on and off and on and off the train, I run to and from and to and from one hundred forty nine shades of dying. Sometimes, one of them completely fades to black. The journey of a million tears begins with a single blink. I look up and see a boy folding color into the world, turning kaleidoscopes into cranes because hope is the better currency for this generation. As he gets off the train, I close my eyes and pray that he, this soft boy, will live long enough to become a gentle man. When I open my eyes, he is gone and the ends still do not justify the beginnings.

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Mai in Morocco

Hi everyone! My name is Mai Naji and I’m a Gilman Scholar studying Arabic in Meknes, Morocco for a full year. I’m a senior at the University of Arizona double majoring in Linguistics and Arabic, and minoring in Middle Eastern and North African Studies. I’m proud to be a part of the American Counsils’ Arabic Flagship Program, and I can’t wait to share this wonderful experience with you and show you the magical country of Morocco!

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by | October 7, 2019 · 12:50 pm

The Machu Picchu Musician from Missouri

Making Connections

Something I have always understood is the power of making connections. As a musician, I understood early on the importance of community and what wonderful things happen when you get people in the same room. When I started my bachelor’s in music therapy at the University of Missouri – Kansas City, I was looking to making connections to create sustainable music therapy programs in a cross-cultural context. I decided to take this approach, along with my Gilman Scholarship, to a place I had never really believed I would some day arrive in. Cusco, Peru.

How to Measure Success

Before stepping foot in South America, I already had the sense that I would struggle. A lot. Learning a language, adjusting to local norms, and teaching music were just a few of the things I came to understand in my time abroad. But the one thing I wanted to know for myself is, “How will I measure my success?” How was I supposed to go to a country I had never been to, with a language I wasn’t particularly fluent in, and be successful? I think people need to understand that any progress is success. There is a constant stress to make huge, life-changing improvements all the time. I had to forget that in order to be in the moment take the victories along with the defeats. To me, creating strong bonds, learning about myself, exchanging knowledge were the ways in which I found success. It turns out that using music facilitated much of my own success in such a new world.

In addition to music, my body language and disposition served as a means to make connections despite barriers. Therefore, smiles, hugs, and laughter became a measure of my success in my service-learning programs. I realized that just by showing up every day and trying, that I was actually making an impact on the people I worked with and on my growth as a person.


I had the great fortune of working in two unique settings in Cusco. From about 8 am to 2 pm, I assisted a teacher in a classroom for children with intellectual and physical disabilities. From 4pm to 7pm, I taught hour-long lessons in guitar, piano, and music theory lessons to all ages. This combination of settings was a serious challenge for me. On one hand, I’m interacting with children who have communication disorders and could only understand a nuanced Spanish conversation. On another, my baseline to communicate is music, the universal language. As a teacher, I found the importance of conversational Spanish and I had to work with what I could and just walk out of the door expecting to do well at some things and not so well with other things. It was a time of constant self-analysis, -awareness, and -motivation.

Looking Back

In the end, I made great strides for myself. Despite the language, I established deep relationships with those I came to know while abroad. There were frustrating, defeating days, but I knew the difference I was making for myself and my family. Looking back, I had the kind of childhood where this opportunity shouldn’t have been possible. I used to worry about some very basic things, but during that time in Peru, I was just worried about being the best me I could. That was absolutely liberating. Music helped me to build the bridges that created profound growth and unexpected relationships with those who are supposed to be far different from myself.

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Why I Believe in Studying Abroad

Three years ago, I was working as a janitor at a community college in Bellevue, Washington. It was an arduous grind to juggle work and school obligations as I commuted to the University of Washington in Seattle every day for classes. As a self-supporting student, I felt like studying abroad was simply not a reality for me – I had bills to pay after all! But when I was given the chance to go abroad and risk what little I had in pursuit of crazy aspirations, I knew what I had to do. I sold my car, moved out of my rental room, and left everything I ever knew behind to go to Japan.
From there, my experience was typical of international exchange students. I experienced the highs of a culture and society I had always dreamed of seeing. I felt the lows of isolation in a land where few people spoke my language and for the first time in my life, I was the outsider. My Japanese skills improved dramatically, and I took on mannerisms of Japanese culture that my friends tell me I still do by course of habit today (Nodding emphatically with several “mm!” sounds when listening to somebody talk, for example).
While in Japan, I was blessed with the awareness to know that the one year I was granted to study abroad could change my whole life if I leveraged it properly. I made friends, made business contacts, got a job writing English articles for Japanese publications, and considered what path I might take after graduation. I studied abroad for my senior year and had only one quarter remaining upon my return to the United States, so the future was looming for me. I knew two things about myself very clearly. One, I wanted to invest in myself a little longer before reentering the workforce. Two, I wanted to go abroad more. A lot more.
When I started at the University of Washington, I had a goal of working in education after graduating. I felt that the best use of my talent would be to spread my love of the language arts as a part-time writer and full-time teacher. I held tenaciously to the field of education, knowing that my primary goal is to contribute to the lives of others rather than (to me) “just get a good job.” That’s why I overlooked the multiplicity of positive points to working in diplomacy when I first learned about the U.S. Foreign Service several years prior.
A life of travel, a mission to promote peace – these aspects naturally appealed to me. But in the end I felt like the Foreign Service was looking for a set of skills I did not possess. I loved exploring other cultures and languages, but I had no experience or ability – and little interest to be honest – in economics and political science. I needed to contribute directly to serving people. So, I forgot about the U.S. Foreign Service and pursued working in international education. That began to change when I heard about how I could work in international education as a U.S. diplomat.
During briefings for the CLS scholarship in Washington, DC, they brought in former diplomats and other US government employees to market to us. I appreciated how they placed such value on our cohort, assuring us that we were the type of people they’d like to have in their offices. However, I knew it wasn’t for me; I was set on working in education. Then they briefed us on the work of the Foreign Service, and touched upon one specific field that persuaded me to reconsider my career goals: Public Diplomacy.
After the seed that briefing planted, I spent over a year in Japan being challenged and growing as a person. I’ve always said that the one year I spent in Japan was more formative than the three I spent at home in a U.S. institution – and I went to a good university too! If I could help other students to benefit from study abroad programs like I did, I knew that would be a worthy pursuit in the field of education I believe in so strongly. This led me to apply for the Pickering Fellowship in the Summer of 2018 shortly after my return to the United States, and the rest is history.
Now I’m studying on a full scholarship to earn a master’s degree in Global Policy Studies at UT Austin. It’s a new world for me, and one in which I am regularly challenged as I seek to prepare myself for the work of professional diplomacy. This is just a brief overview of the tangible ways in which my life has changed as a result of having the opportunity to study abroad. However, the most important benefit I gained was not in my career prospects, but in my world view.
While it can sound trite or generic to speak of expanded world views as reason to go abroad, I believe that the perspective I gained overseas could make the difference between war and peace. More than language training or career prospects, I learned experientially, for the first time, what it means to be a minority in society. I learned that our cultures are the basis of so much of what we think is fundamental to our understanding of the world. I learned to see a place I had dreamed of visiting as more than a fantasy; it was a whole society with more pain and joy than I was capable of conceiving from the outside looking in. In summary, Japan became personal to me.
Face-to-face interactions, while declining in this generation, are yet the basis of interpersonal understanding and intercultural understanding by reflex. Laughter and tears and shared experiences with other people contradict the sentiments of fear and uncertainty with the unfamiliar (which we are all subject to) that can metastasize into bigotry and culminate in division, violence, and war. To provoke peace and the exchange of ideas that I believe can benefit or even save the world at large, I continue to work toward promoting, funding, implementing, and facilitating study abroad programs.
I hope that Gilman Scholars and hopefuls will have experiences abroad as exhilarating and life-changing as mine was. But more than that, it is my hope and belief that the lessons you learn in your study or internship abroad are not soon forgotten. That you would take with you the names and faces you meet and remember things what were once foreign became personal and those who were once strangers became friends.

I am Marshall Sherrell, 2019 Gilman Alumni Ambassador, and I believe in you!

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