Study Abroad Leads to Inspiration

Studying abroad in Costa Rica has completely changed my life. As a Gilman scholar, I have been given the enriching opportunity to grow academically and professionally through new language skills and cultural integration. My time in Costa Rica has enhanced my ability to dream passionately and to keep striving toward my vision of becoming a bilingual health professional who can make a difference in the community.

The Gilman Scholarship has truly helped me believe in myself and helped me realize all things are possible. The challenges I’ve faced during my international educational experience have ranged from language frustrations to learning to cope with the stages of culture shock while being abroad. All of my experiences have helped me mature and have allowed me to develop as a more flexible and open individual who can take on all obstacles with integrity. With the new language skills I have acquired from my language intensive program with the University Studies Abroad Contortion, the Gilman Scholarship Program has opened the doors of opportunity for me to apply to the Peace Corps as a community health aid for South America. (I’ll know about my acceptance within the next month!) After my two years of service with the Peace Corps, I hope to continue my education with a pre-medicine program designed for career-changers in order to pursue my lifelong dream of studying medicine. The Gilman Scholarship Program supporting my dream has had an invaluable impact on my life as my Spanish speaking skills will help me serve my community, while also helping me grow.

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That’s me in front of Universidad Nacional on the first day of my last semester of undergraduate. I’m so thankful to the Gilman Scholarship Program for supporting my study abroad experience in Costa Rica. It’s been such a dream come true, and I can’t think of any other way I would rather complete my Bachelor’s degree. Estoy muy feliz y agradecida que se puede aprender sobre la cultura costarricense como estudiante de intercambio de la Universidad Nacional. Ahh, ya ha aperandi mucho. Here’s to dreaming passionately, curiously, and being a change-maker of the future. Thanks Gilman!

The Gilman Scholarship Program has made me more passionate about recognizing full human potential in myself and in others. When I realized I wanted to study abroad my senior year to learn Spanish, I faced confusion from people who doubted that I could reach this lofty goal. With the support from Gilman, I’ve been able to thrive in completing my last goal as an undergraduate which was to be conversationally fluent in Spanish. I’m hoping to inspire more people from my community to study abroad with the Gilman Scholarship Program because it will open doors for them and help them build confidence. I think a common barrier students face when dreaming to study abroad is their misconception that they’re “not good enough” or “not smart enough.” As a student who has overcome these doubts, I can now serve as a stronger role model and bring more encouragement to others with similar goals which will help make a stronger community as a whole.

With three months remaining in my program (and in my entire undergraduate career), I have been driven to make the most of my educational opportunity and find ways that my skills can help me help others. I am pleased that my sentences are flowing, and my grammar skills are beginning to solidify. I’m finally able to serve as a translator, and to formulate fluid thoughts and opinions of my own. I can even explain to my local friends my goals for the future, and them understand me! I know the language skills I’ve developed in Costa Rica will serve me for life. The Gilman Scholarship Program has enhanced my confidence to believe in myself and my ability to become a bilingual health worker of the future.

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A Day in the Life: Bangkok Edition

Hello everybody,

Today I want to bring you with me and show you what a typical day as an exchange student in Thailand looks like for me. I hope you enjoy these snaps of my daily life.

Morning

My mornings start early, around 7:00 am, as I have class almost every day at 9:00 am. This gives me enough time to commute and have breakfast. Most days I stay in my bed until the very last minute, then I grab my school uniform. Most universities in Thailand have uniforms. Some are stricter than others in terms of dress code, but my university allows us to decide what to wear and it is only mandatory to wear your uniform on exams, field trips, and special days. It’s recommended that exchange students follow this rule, since students are highly respected in Thai society and it lets people know which university you go to if you ever get lost.

Morning 1

My Thammasat University uniform.

To get to school, I take a bus close to my apartment that takes me directly to the campus. I usually have breakfast in the cafeteria or the many shops around campus. Here breakfast is very different from what I’m used to back home but it’s great because it fills me up and gives me energy for my 3 hour class.

Morning 2

My daily walk to the bus stop. In Bangkok there’s food at every corner!

Morning 3

Breakfast at the school cafeteria. Eating spicy food in the morning took some getting used to. 

Afternoon

After class, I have one hour to get lunch. For lunch we can choose from the cafeteria, street food, or a pier nearby where there are a couple of restaurants, bakeries, and even a Starbucks, though I prefer trying new things at the local shops.

Lunch

Lunch by Tha Maharaj Pier

Evening

After class I get an iced coffee or tea and walk around the area before taking the bus home. There is always something to see– street performers, the architecture of the city, or even just people-watching! The campus is close to the Grand Palace, the most visited and famous landmark in Bangkok. I see it every day on my way home and I am still amazed by how beautiful it is.

Afternoon 1

Some singers practicing.

Afternoon 2

Public transportation gets you anywhere. 

Afternoon 3

Another photo from our field trip to the Grace Palace.

Afternoon 4

A quick picture of my view from my bus ride home.

Afternoon 5

A shortcut through an alleyway on my way home. 

For dinner I head out with friends to sample some street food or to try a new restaurant and explore the city. The rest of the evening I will spend studying. I have a Thai language quiz coming up and mastering the pronunciation is driving me crazy!

So I’ll leave it at that. I really hope you enjoyed looking into my day. Thank you for reading!

 

 

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A Day in the Life of Gilman Scholar Stephanie Lytle

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Greetings from Bangkok!

My name is Arleen Rodriguez-Declet and I’m currently participating in the Thai Studies Program at Thammasat University in Bangkok, Thailand. Back home I’m majoring in Horticulture at the University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez Campus and as I am in my last semester, I decided to give myself the opportunity to study abroad in a completely different country and culture. As I’m writing this, it is another hot and humid afternoon in the so-called “Thai Winter.”

The day before I departed from home I was so excited to arrive and start experiencing Thailand that I didn’t think about anything else. I wasn’t anxious or sad, I was excited, nervous, eager, and impatient. I had a rush of emotions that came crashing down after 26 hours of flying in the airplane. When I arrived in Bangkok all I wanted to do was to sleep. I didn’t think about jet lag but he definitely thought of me.

After sleeping like a baby, the excitement came back and I was ready to explore. Bangkok is such an exciting, lively city, full of smells, colors, and sounds that dazzle you the moment you step outside. The people are wonderful and the food is to die for. I love wandering around the city and getting lost.

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This is what happens when you get lost in Bangkok.

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This is what happens when you get lost in Bangkok.

So far I’ve been loving the city, the people, and going to university. The courses are interesting and I’m eager to learn in a different environment. I feel like I’m still in the “love everything” stage because I haven’t experienced culture shock or homesickness yet. The only bad things I’ve found so far is that 1) the people here drive like maniacs so you have to be careful crossing the street, and 2) the food is so good that I’ve been eating a little too much.

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School field trip to the Grand Palace.

This is my first week so I’m starting to get more comfortable and used to everything. Now that I’ve settled down I’m starting to set my goals and plans for the upcoming semester. For now the main goals I want to accomplish while I’m here are to immerse myself in the Thai culture and learn the language, to listen to the stories of the people around me, and to travel elsewhere around Southeast Asia (when I find the time in between my classes) to explore the culture of the region as a whole.

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Getting around Bangkok using the ferries.

I hope you follow me on this exciting journey. Thank you for reading,

Arleen

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Understanding Casual Sexism in Costa Rica, Raising Awareness About Domestic Violence, and the Controversy Over Banca Kristal

Beunas,

Before studying abroad in Central America, I knew living in a machismo culture for the first time would be a challenge because of my strong feminist views. Machismo, an exaggerated sense of male pride to dominate females, reveals itself in everyday interactions here in Costa Rica. Feeling objectified so often here is one thing that continues to frustrate me most.

The casual sexism I’ve faced in Costa Rica has been a serious struggle for me at times. As a woman, I’ve constantly been put in positions where I feel uncomfortable because men think it’s a “compliment” to stare, blow kisses, and shout derogatory phrases at me in the street.

The moment which made me feel most upset was when I was having a conversation with a person here whom I considered to be a friend and he nonchalantly asked me my opinion on casual sex. It was particularly hurtful because it made me feel as if I was being ostensibly befriended for the sole purpose of being a sexual prospect, which my host mother and a local girl friend of mine here both explained to me is very common in this culture.

Posters displayed around campus to remind students of what sexual harassment is.

Posters displayed around campus to remind students of what sexual harassment is.

 

Another poster displayed around campus to remind students unwanted physical contact is a form of sexual violence.

Another poster displayed around campus to remind students unwanted physical contact is a form of sexual violence.

As a passionate feminist, I struggle with identifying the appropriate response to this casual sexism. As a person coming from another country, is it right to “look down” upon what has been traditionally the norm for this culture? Or does that make me ethnocentric? Here’s what I have come to conclude: It’s undignified to cause any person to feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Furthermore, treating other people like objects can be a step toward treating someone with violence, which is ultimately dangerous to a community. While I can understand that people in Costa Rica have been raised to think a certain way from childhood, I believe there is room for progress in treating all genders with dignity. Promoting change starts with understanding why culture in Costa Rica is permissive to treating women like objects.

Akin to culture in the United States, Costa Rica rears children with gender binary structures and terminology. Many words in Spanish can perpetuate shame and stereotypes associated with femininity. A prime example is the word esposa which directly translates to English as “wife,” but in Spanish is used to also refer to handcuffs. Furthermore, Spanish words can be used to undermine the power of femininity, such as consistently using the masculine noun to prevail in instances of referencing a group of people, whether they are of mixed gender or solely one. Niño prevails when referring to all children, though the feminine noun niñas is not  considered socially acceptable to refer to all children, unless it is a specific group of children who all identify as girls.  The same is true for the words  chicos and chicas, and ticos and ticas. In fact, if referring to a group of mixed gendered people with the feminine form, some may take offense to it.  The same is true in the United States, where people typically refer to a group of people as “guys,” but it would be considered undignified to refer to a group of men as “girls.” This is an example of how words can teach people to refer to women as of lesser value and thus perpetuate discrimination.

Furthermore, Costa Rica puts a lot of emphasis on the value of feminine beauty. I found it very interesting that my first few lessons in Spanish had so many gender binary descriptions. For instance, many of the basic phrases which addressed women commented on their appearance rather than intelligence or any other quality which suggests an accomplishment. Interestingly, I did not learn how to “compliment” a man on his beauty until a week after, when I was corrected after calling a man bonito.

One of my feminist friends holding up a picture which displays common sexist attitudes. It translates as "That new haircut makes you look more old."

One of my feminist friends holding up a picture which displays common sexist attitudes. It translates as “That new haircut makes you look more old.”

 

This is spray painted on a wall in Heredia Central. Abortion is illegal in Costa Rica. In 2007, it was reported that abortions preformed secretly rose from 22.3 for every 1,000 from 10.6 for every 1,000 women. Annually, this calculates to an estimation of 27,000  abortions being performed illegally in Costa Rica annually.

This is spray painted on a wall in Heredia Central. Abortion is illegal in Costa Rica. In 2007, it was reported that abortions secretly rose to 22.3 for every 1,000 women from 10.6 for every 1,000 women. Annually, this calculates to an estimation of 27,000 abortions being performed illegally in Costa Rica annually.

To some, deconstructing casual sexism may seem trivial. However, the consequences of not addressing such a serious issue leads to everyday violence. Quite recently, The Tico Times reported about a man who was stabbed to death because he was attempting to raise awareness about the street harassment woman typically face in this culture. The murdered victim was filming another man who was looking up the skirts of women with a mirror on his shoe.

Costa Rica has taken progressive steps toward addressing serious gender issues. During a national soccer game, the scoreboard displayed the number of domestic violence calls the police received throughout the time of the game. Because soccer is to Costa Rica what American football is to the United States, thousands of people watched and considered the fact that sporting events are a prime time for domestic violence. Working three years with Crisis Intervention of Houston as a crisis hotline counselor, Super Bowl Sunday in the U.S. was cited as the day where the most domestic violence cases are consecutively reported. For that reason alone, it could be impactful if major sporting events in the U.S. could have something similarly displayed on the scoreboards. Costa Rica has also promoted laws which are meant to punish perpetrators of domestic violence. For instance, men who commit violence against their partners may not be allowed to keep a gun in the home or will be ordered to temporarily relocate while still providing financial support to his family. Additionally, the National Institute of Women in Costa Rica has established programs and shelter for gender-based violence. According to the Costa Rican Department of Police Intelligence, during the first three months of 2012 alone, law enforcement received an average of 222 reports of domestic violence per day. This amounted to a total of 19,975 domestic violence  cases in all of 2012 – 5,195 more cases than were reported in the first few months of 2011.

During a nationally aired soccer game, Costa Rica displayed a third score to tally the numbers of police reported domestic violence cases. Throughout this game, this number rose to 25.

During a nationally aired soccer game, Costa Rica displayed a third score to tally the numbers of police reported domestic violence cases. Throughout this game, this number rose to 25.

Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica has been spreading awareness about sexual harassment and the harmfulness of machismo culture with posters and presentations all throughout campus. I took photos of some of the displays in hopes of bringing these ideas back to my home university.

Posters displayed around campus to remind students of what sexual harassment is.

Posters displayed around campus to remind students of what sexual harassment is.

Currently, a big debate in Costa Rica surrounds Banco de Costa Rica (Costa Rica Bank), and their new women-only bank called Banca Kristal. Banca Kristal‘s slogan in the newly released advertisement is ninguna mujer es complicada, which translates as “nothing about women is complicated.” This advertisement can be found all around San Jose and Heredia. Though the idea for the bank is to empower women by giving them financial access, particularly those who face economic challenges, there is much criticism of the bank from local feminists because some argue it perpetuates stereotypical roles of women. For instance, the bank is all pink inside and outside, and offers women special savings accounts for beauty products, and according to The Tico Times, also distributes free clutch handbags to its clients. The advertisements, which can be seen on billboards near my home and during advertisements at the local cinema, all feature young and conventionally beautiful women. If this bank is meant to empower women by providing tools for economic stability, why is there so much emphasis on selling an image of beauty? How will a glamour advertisement help a community full of women refugees from Nicaragua recognize this bank as source of help? We shall see what the future has in store for this bank and how it impacts the community.

The giant billboard in front of my neighborhood which translates as "Nothing about Women is complicated." This is an advertisement for Banca Kristal. Does this ad challenge or perpetuate sexism?

The giant billboard in front of my neighborhood which translates as “Nothing about women is complicated.” This is an advertisement for Banca Kristal. Does this ad challenge or perpetuate sexism?

Let’s hope this year brings more awareness about gender issues so that we can generate change!

Sincerely,

Alexandria

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The Return (Unaffiliated with Derrick Rose)

My final days in St. Petersburg went as usual: I would avoid the massive pothole that is usually filed with water outside of our building door, I would reply to the graffiti remarks in my head on my walk to school, passing by the tastiest Georgian restaurant that became a Friday evening favorite, and running diagonally to cross a huge intersection before the cars started going for us – all done of course in St. Petersburg fashion, with rain clouds denigrating the sky in the background. Though everything appeared typical, my thoughts and pangs in my heart spoke more solemnly. This anguish was sourced from my growing relationship with my family in Russia (mom, bro, sister), knowing that although I was returning to America, I was leaving my family behind.

After five years of phoning to the city government to fix the pothole, they finally came around to it... and just plopped a pile of asphalt on a fraction of the hole. It's still progress and I will actually miss that pothole that greeted me every day before entering our building.

After five years of phoning to the city government to fix the pothole, they finally came around to it… and just plopped a pile of asphalt in a fraction of the hole. It’s still progress and I will actually miss that pothole that greeted me every day before entering our building.

This meant that I would be bereft of my Russian mother’s delicious borsch, the interesting conversations with my sister on Jewish art, and the reverberations from my brother’s guitar, voice, and even harder-hitting lyrics. The core of my sadness wasn’t simply leaving behind the aspects of their care for me, it was more so the frustration that came with knowing that they are the ones who have to continue living there during the economic hardships in Russia. Though the ruble’s depreciation may have been convenient for the American students, the hard-hitting financial, economic, and social impact on Russia that comes with major recession and high inflation is devastating to communities, including that of my host family.

I realize that this financial crisis is a burden that cannot be immediately solved by regular citizens, let alone myself, so I really had to focus on the good aspects of my experience there. On my last day in Russia, my mom there prepared a meal for the four of us, my brother prepared some music that he performed with his guitar, and my sister also participated in the entertaining conversations. When it was finally time to leave, I will never forget the sullen faces of my host mom and sister through the glass window of my taxi. The taxi driver asked me if I was going home and with a brief moment to think, I replied with, “da.”

I am very thankful for the love, care, and hospitality that my host family in Russia provided. We are a team that is not to be separated anytime soon. I have made a promise to return and I choose to live by my word.

I am also very thankful for the excitement and mirth of the holiday season in America. Upon my return, streets were gleaming with decorative lights, Christmas trees were elaborately and sumptuously adorned, and my friends and family welcomed me with wide smiles and open arms. I think that if it weren’t for Christmas, my 21st birthday and New Years all within three days of each other, my return would have been a little more gloomy. Fortunately, I am surrounded by loved ones that made my adjustment back to the States as warm and welcoming as a cup of Russian tea.

Until next time, my dear St. Petersburg.

As the famous saying goes, you can take the girl out of Russia, but you can't take the Russia out of the girl. Adorned with a Soviet wool scarf on Christmas Day.

As the famous saying goes, you can take the girl out of Russia, but you can’t take the Russia out of the girl. Adorned with a Soviet wool scarf on Christmas Day.

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Farewell and Reflection

Saying goodbye to all of the friends that I made in Paris was very hard for me. They were the people who I had grown close to throughout my time abroad, so there were lots of tears. We all promised to keep in touch and that this would not be the last time we would see each other. It was hard to say goodbye to Paris as well. I had the best experience of my life. On my last day, I decided to walk around the neighborhood and listen to music. I wanted to absorb the beauty of Paris for the last time.

My friend Sofia from my program, AIFS

My friend Sofia from my program, AIFS

Upon arriving back in the United States, I found myself still speaking French. For example, at the airport I would say “merci” and “pardon” instead of “thank you” and “excuse me.” I remember my mother asking me a question and I replied “ouais,” which means “yeah.” It felt surreal being at home. Just yesterday I was walking around Paris and eating at a café with friends. I love my hometown, Chicago, but I miss the architecture of Paris so much. I miss being able to step outside and be less than five minutes away from a boulangerie. However, I was so excited to eat Chicago pizza again. It’s what we’re famous for. I was happy to be able to find exactly what I was looking for at the grocery store. And of course, I was happy to see my friends and family again.

The Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower

Studying abroad has been such a life changing experience for me. At first, I planned on going to graduate school and earning my Ph.D. in Chicago. Now, I think I want to earn a degree abroad or at least in another city. There’s so much to see around the world and I want to try to experience it all. I want to be a global citizen. For now, I will continue my study of the French language so that I can become fluent and plan for my summer visit to Paris!

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