My Return

It’s so surreal that I am back at home. Time flew, and I still can’t believe it. It’s been a bit difficult for me to readjust to life back at home because every day was an adventure for me in Mexico. Now it’s like I am back to the reality of work, responsibilities, school, etc. This semester was very liberating and exciting, so the shift back to normality is a bit tough. Of course, I love what I do here in Oklahoma, but Mexico was a moment in my life where I could just live in the moment without much on my mind. I have felt the reverse culture shock simply from my encounters with people. In Mexico when you talked to people, you were always embraced and kissed on the checks, but that comfortability isn’t the same here, as well as the extreme sociability that people had in Mexico. The food is very different, as my stomach had to adjust again when I returned home.

I miss the excitement and spontaneous attitudes of people in Mexico. I miss the music, the traditional customs, and the weather. Coming back to the cold was not ideal for me. I wish I would’ve stayed another semester, but I will return someday. I think the major difference between the United States and Mexico is the rich culture that Mexico has and welcoming people. Never once did I see strangers upset with other strangers, it was always warm and positive energy. Mexico showed me the power of kindness and love towards others. I am excited for next semester, as I will be working for the Education Abroad Office to share my experience and participating in the Big XII Conference where I will be doing a workshop over cultural immersion and my experience. I am beyond blessed to have had this opportunity.

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3 Ways China Surprised Me

As my semester in China is coming to an end, I’ve been reflecting on my journey from the beginning to today. When I arrived, China didn’t quite defy my expectations or induce culture shock, but rather, I discovered some interesting surprises along the way.

1. The world revolves around smartphones.

All you need to survive in China is your smartphone (not applicable to tourists). This is one of the things I will miss the most. Useful smartphone applications in China are endless. For example, with WeChat, it’s an app that is an all-around platform for most purposes. I use it to pay for everything, from vending machines to public transportation to stores. I haven’t had a single instance in which WeChat Pay was not accepted. I use it as a messaging platform that also allows voice and video calls. I use it as a social media platform whenever I feel up to posting on WeChat Moments. I even use it to order food when I’m at restaurants. And what happens when you’re on low battery in such a smartphone dependent world? You can rent battery packs (available in stores, restaurants, etc.) for only 1 RMB/0.13 USD!

2. Their relationship with plastic waste varies.

It’s difficult to detail their general stance on environmental issues. At some stores, if you ask for a plastic bag (i.e. you didn’t bring your own reusable one), they charge you a few RMB for each plastic bag that you need. This encourages customers to be environmentally friendly and makes the store a few extra bucks. As you can see some establishments are trying to do their part when it comes to taking care of the environment, yet others are doing the opposite. At a lot of fast food chains and cafes, when you take a drink to go, they put your cup in its own little single use plastic bag with handles. The bags are recyclable, but I can’t help but wonder what the environmental impact is. To give you an idea of how large it may be, one of the chains that does this is KFC, the fast food chain with the biggest market share in China.

KFC Takeaway Drink

3. Cameras…EVERYWHERE.

China has the most security cameras in the world. Although you may be uncomfortable with the idea of so many cameras, it’s really quite beneficial (as long as you’re not up to anything nefarious of course). A friend of a friend had her wallet stolen during a weekend trip. Luckily, the police were able to quickly track the thief through the security cameras and get her wallet back to her.

Ankerbox Power Bank Rentals

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From the Pacific islands to NASA

Transferring Lessons Learned Abroad to America’s Leading Aerospace Agency

By Alyssa Kaewwilai (Sāmoa, 2019)

            This past year I have been graced with more amazing, life-changing opportunities than I could have ever imagined. Through the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship and the Gettysburg College Global Engagement Office, I was given the resources and support needed to study abroad in a nation I had previously merely dreamed of traveling to – the Pacific islands of Sāmoa. Imagine my joy when I was accepted to the School of International Training (SIT) program, Social and Environmental Change in Oceania, where I could fully adopt and embrace the Pacific culture as my own for an entire 4-5 months! As a Reach the World U.S Student Ambassador, I was also given the incredible opportunity to mentor a fifth-grade class in a Spanish immersion school during my travels to Sāmoa alongside excursions to Hawai’i and Fiji. The momentum of opportunities and adventures continues when I was greeted back to the United States with an internship offer at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center as an Earthdata GIS Software Engineering intern, an offer I used to believe was only obtainable in my wildest dreams!

As a first-generation and disadvantaged Thai-American female pursuing a STEM degree, I realized that I suddenly had a sea of opportunity ahead of me. What I didn’t expect, however, was how the abundance of lessons I learned abroad was incredibly applicable to my summer internship at NASA. These lessons have reshaped my engagement and perspectives of the world and everyday work life:

  1. Problem solving using limited resources

            I was faced with a multitude of challenges abroad in an environment that I was not familiar with. Similarly, I had to approach these situations from perspectives I did not use to viewing problems. I can still distinctly remember my first day after class when I needed to board the bus and find my way home, I was utterly and completely lost and without cell phone reception. Not only had I forgotten the Sāmoan name of the second bus I needed to transfer to but street addresses are also oftentimes not as referred to as reference as they are in America (not that I would have remembered my address anyhow!) After a prolonged period of panic, I began to calm myself down before evaluating my situation from a third-person perspective. That was when I began to think logically and recall familiar surroundings near my home. Piecing this information together with the kind advice of locals, I was miraculously able to navigate my way back to my host family in the Alafua Village.  

At NASA, I was oftentimes assigned mini projects where I needed to convert certain file types such as NetCDF and HDF files in order to make them compatible with various software and computer systems. I also used new, unfamiliar programs and Python scripts to manage satellite databases and information. Initially, I would feel small waves of nervousness whenever my attempts to complete a task did not work within the first few trials. However, utilizing my skills of problem solving which I obtained abroad I was able to invoke the help of both discovered online resources as well as other experienced employees. Much like with my dilemma commuting home in Sāmoa, I was able to use the available resources at hand and my own intuition to find answers to my problems.

  1. Handle difficult situations diplomatically

It is no surprise that I encountered a plethora of difficult situations during my time abroad – this is to be entirely expected when living in a foreign country for a prolonged period. Many times these issues dealt with miscommunication and misunderstandings with people in which general confusion led to feelings of frustration. Moreover, one of my greatest challenges abroad was trying my best to fully adopt fa’a Sāmoa, the Sāmoan way, inappropriate and suitable ways. This was a particularly difficult task on many personal levels during my week-long stay in the rural village of Amaile. There were many days when I felt like everything I said and did were either inappropriate in the cultural context or simply considered rude. This was by far the most difficult situation I had during the semester abroad which oftentimes left me feeling exasperated and isolated. However, I gradually learned to become more patient of myself and others. I slowly began to observe the people in my surroundings more often than I had earlier to see how others around me operated under fa’a Sāmoa. I also learned to be humble and ask my mentors and host family to clarify how my actions and words could be improved. 

I applied these same skills to my internship at NASA. Whenever I was assigned a project task with a steep learning curve such as working with Python libraries (something I had never done before) I would first sincerely tell my mentor that this was a new experience and that I would tackle the task to the best of my abilities. Whenever my attempts of completing the project goal failed and made me feel frustrated, I would calm myself down before thinking from a more level-headed perspective – What can I do to improve my situation? This was usually the moment when I would come up with solutions such as learning from past projects or speaking to my advisors about alternative paths to complete the task.  

  1. Be a self-reliant, functioning individual

The final portion of all SIT programs encourages students to conduct a month-long independent research project followed by a report. For this process, scholars conduct fieldwork and interviews revolving a research topic. I chose to conduct a study of the impacts and possibilities of future sustainable, climate-resilient technologies and urban design in Sāmoa. I needed to be confident in my communication, language, and academic skills in order to have a successful and all-inclusive study of my topic. For my specific project, I also set a goal for myself to learn how to use a computer-aided design software called SketchUp in order to render three-dimensional models of future sustainable Sāmoan homes. Through the process of my project, I gained entirely new experience of perseverance in not only gaining real, verbal feedback from candidates around the island but also self-teaching myself an advanced 3D modeling, mechanical engineering software with constrained use of the internet.  

I utilized these same skills of self-reliance during my internship at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Particularly in the beginning of the internship, there were moments when I felt symptoms of imposter syndrome in which I began to doubt my own skills and intellectual adequacy. I had still felt incredulous that I had earned one of the most prestigious and competitive science internships that a student, especially of my background, could be given. However, I learned to acknowledge that I had the academic foundation and experience that would help me excel at NASA. Despite the fact that I was working well beyond my comfort zone of gI utilized these same skills of self-reliance during my internship at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Particularly at the beginning of the internship, there were moments when I felt symptoms of imposter syndrome in which I began to doubt my own skills and intellectual adequacy. I had still felt incredulous that I had earned one of the most prestigious and competitive science internships that a student, especially of my background, could be given. However, I learned to acknowledge that I had the academic foundation and experience that would help me excel at NASA. Despite the fact that I was working well beyond my comfort zone of geographic information systems and learning new programming as well as data management skills, I knew that the only way to tackle these challenges was head-on. I am strong. I am confident. I am capable of accomplishing any and all goals that I set my mind to…

…and with that mentality, I conquered.

-Alyssa Kaewwilai

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The return and reverse culture shock after studying in Chile

In my finals week in Chile, I didn’t feel ready to come back. It was towards the beginning of my stay there that I missed family and friends from back home the most, and throughout the entire stay I thought about them, but it was in the final weeks that I realized that it may be a long time until I see my Chilean friends again. Over the five months, I formed really strong friendships with the locals, and it was hurting me knowing it may be a while until I see them again. While I did miss friends and family from back home, I always knew that in just under half a year I’d see them all again: there was a fixed date for when I knew I’d see them — I didn’t have that for my Chilean friends.

I also knew I was going to miss living in such a sunny, warmer city next to the ocean. The city felt so alive — there were a lot of people my age, so my activities to do, and it was so easy to get from place to place using public transportation. While I do think the Columbus Metropolitan area has some excellent characteristics, I did not look forward to experiencing a rapid change to much colder weather.

Surprisingly, I actually seem to have adapted just fine to the cold. I do, though, greatly miss the public transportation and the ocean. But more than anything, I miss the friends that I met there. Fortunately, my mom made the great suggestion that I offer my friends and host family the opportunity to stay in my home for free anytime that they visit the U.S., which hopefully will decrease the amount of time until I next see some of them. I do know some won’t be able to come though, so I know for sure I’ll return to visit Chile some day and visit my friends. 

Nonetheless, I cannot deny that I am really happy to see my family and friends from Ohio again. Many expected me to feel much more relaxed now that I’m back, given the civil unrest that occurred in Chile while I was there. That’s not really the case though. I realized while I was there that despite the seriousness of the situation and the fact that people died, the homicide rate in the U.S. is still notably higher than that of Chile, and while the situation is undeniably alarming, the death count is not nearly great enough to change that fact. Aside from the macro-scale, a more direct comparison between Valparaíso and Columbus shows that Columbus also has the higher homicide rate between the two. The life expectancy is also higher in Chile than the U.S. I was quite a bit more likely to get robbed while in the Valparaíso region, but I was also quite a bit less likely to get shot or stabbed. I never heard of any mass shootings while in Chile. I certainly never heard of any school shootings nor hear of any past instances of one.

While there, I saw news of buildings looted and destroyed, police/military officers killing protesters through excessive force, and protesters starting fires started that killed people. Now that I’m back, I see a lot more news of shootings. The situations are different, but do I feel safer? Not really. I’m actually almost certainly more likely to die prematurely now that I have to drive a car instead of being able to ride a bus (I live in the Columbus Metropolitan area, but currently outside of the city, so no public buses until I move inside the city after graduation).

I’m not paranoid and living in fear though. Instead, I hope to use what I’ve learned for the better. I always thought good public transportation required massive infrastructure changes, but living in Viña del Mar, Valparaíso Region, I realized that just having more buses makes a world of difference. I want to share this knowledge, as car crashes kill tens of thousands of people in the U.S. each year and buses are not only much safer, but also much better for the environment and more accessible to people of lower incomes. 

I have one more semester of college, so I’m currently looking for jobs as a software developer after I graduate. Until then, I’ll be thinking of who I can share my experience with so that they can have a similar experience. I’ve never met any American math or science major that has studied a semester abroad in a university taught in a different language, but I’d highly recommend it, because it gives you the opportunity to improve your language skills, communication skills, and learn a new culture and place, all while still improving your knowledge about your major. It also gives you the opportunity to form a lot of new, strong relationships. 

I’m grateful to be able to see my family and friends from Ohio again, I look forward to seeing my Chilean friends and host family again some day, I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to use what I’ve learned to better my own community, and am so thankful the Gilman Scholarship gave me the opportunity to experience all of this.

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Ecuador, Ama la Vida

In the last three weeks, I have been on more airplanes than I can count. After wrapping up my internship and finishing my classes, I embarked on a trip to the Galapagos Islands, Machu Picchu, Cusco, and then finally to the coast of Ecuador. Three days later I traveled through four cities in less than 24 hours to finally land in Des Moines, IA for Christmas with my parents.

I have experienced so many extremes in such a short time that it’s been hard to notice the culture shock that I feel. There are so many things I didn’t realize I would miss from Ecuador that now seem so far away and out of reach.

When I first arrived in Des Moines, I felt the glances of people in the airport. I quickly realized that my tan skin was a giveaway that I hadn’t been living in Iowa for the last four months. The next day I went to church with my parents and felt the need to hug EVERYONE as I would have done in Quito. After a few awkward hugs, I remembered that this wasn’t the norm here in the U.S.

Going from warm and sunny Quito to frigid and snowy eastern Iowa creates a stark contrast. I miss speaking Spanish with my friends and coworkers.  I miss the affordable and accessible fruit market down the street from my apartment. I really miss my homestay parents and being able to see them on a regular basis. I miss being able to walk everywhere and see so much of the city through public transportation. These are all things that filled my daily life and are now replaced by completely different things. This isn’t all bad, I love being able to drive my car again, seeing my parents and reconnecting with my college friends. I love the holiday festivities and the snow that arrived just in time for Christmas.

I’ve noticed that certain things stick out to me more than they used to, and sometimes this makes me feel frustrated or upset. Consumerism is so prevalent in the U.S., and it seems that the things we think make us happy really make us more stressed out and anxious. I’ve been looking up and around me a lot more in grocery stores and malls, and so many people look worn out. Feeling the need to buy a certain amount of Christmas presents can get overwhelming. I’ve also noticed how much I miss the collective culture of Ecuador. I miss besitos and the expectation to greet everyone in a room. It feels that people are more easily overlooked here in the U.S. and I hope that I can bring some of the hospitality I learned in Ecuador back to my college campus.

Ecuador was easily one of the most impactful experiences of my life. I hope to go back to my last three semesters of college and bring some new energy to my university study abroad department. I will be an ambassador for my program and share my incredible experience with incoming students. I also hope to make more connections with the Spanish speaking students on campus and continue to practice and my speaking abilities. Ecuador has given me more confidence in myself and newfound friendships that I know I will have for the rest of my life.

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