Expanding my Horizons

I’m on the beach at Kilwa as I’m writing this post. I’ve never seen water this blue and far spread out. You can walk for so long without ever losing your footing. This actually looks like an image from a postcard or a screensaver on a laptop. Over the weekend I’ve been on the edge of the Indian Ocean relaxing and watching fisherman in their boats. I see why so many people go to beaches now.

I left for Tanzania almost six weeks ago. Since then, I’ve learned a little Kiswahili, I’ve played hide-and-seek with monkeys, and I swam in a waterfall that I hiked to. I’ve tried squid and loved it, and now I look for greens at every meal. I camped on the edge of a village for three days to do some village mapping. I made eye contact with a sleepy lioness and heard hyenas outside of the tent in Mikumi National Park. The Udzungwa Mountains Ecological Center became my backyard.  As my professor keeps reminding us, not many people get to see the things I’ve seen.

 

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The waterfall from my hike to Sanje Falls.

 

Even though I haven’t fully digested this amazing experience yet, I can tell I’ve changed in a few ways. First of all, I have become more focused. It sounds cliché, but this experience has put things into perspective for me. When I was mapping a village named Msosa, a young woman from the village council accompanied our group. We went out at 6:30 in the morning and came back at 6:30 in the evening. The whole time, she was carrying her sleeping baby on her back. At some point, she was talking on the phone, walking, and breastfeeding her child at the same time. While we were camping, the women that work in the center made us pasta and beef stew from three bricks and some firewood. I may complain about being in school sometimes, but I will never take it for granted again. If anything, I got a reality check in the sense that there is so much more going on in the world than some of the things I used to complain about. If these amazing women can hold down their families and villages, then I can successfully earn a degree from Penn State.

I’ve also found that I’ve grown academically and professionally. I’ve never taken 400 level classes before this experience. I assumed that they would be hard. But taking three 400 level classes in six weeks was more intense than any other academic experience I’ve ever been though. I read about the complexities of conservation in a developing country, and I get to see those complexities first hand. We were challenged to create an independent project that addressed the needs of the community while conserving the biodiversity and ecosystem of the National Park. At first, I had no idea what I was going to do. I came into the program thinking that I was going to do research and recommend an easy renewable energy option like solar panels. But after the first day in the village, I knew I would have to change my approach. I learned to think about a problem from new angles. At the end of the three courses I took, I had produced a 17 page paper on fuelwood trees and their multiple characteristics. I made tables, developed an index, and created scenarios based on the best type and species of trees for the local villages to plant.

Besides the coursework, I learned that I love to travel. I always thought I would, but actually leaving the country confirmed it. Working in conservation in a developing country was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. But it opened up a new world of opportunities I never thought about. Now I can see myself working for the World Health Organization or USAID. My passion for environmental justice has gotten so much deeper now that I know how to link it to issues like biodiversity and energy. Studying abroad is a completely different educational experience than in the States. At home, you can only care so much about an issue because it seems so abstract. But I got the chance to learn about biodiversity conservation in one of the world’s 35 biodiversity hotspots.

I am excited to return home. My friends and family understand that I have been blessed with the opportunity of a lifetime. But not being able to communicate with the people I talk to everyday was really hard at some points during the experience. I remember being homesick about two weeks into my program. I was counting down the days until I could go home and eat cheese and talk to my boyfriend on Facetime. I missed my grandparents calling to check up on me every few days and my mom coming home with a pizza for a movie night. But each day I realized more and more how fortunate I was to be studying in Tanzania. And once I switched my focus to understanding all the issues around me, the days flew by.

Now that I have some time to reflect, I know I will miss certain things about my temporary home. For one, I love the people here. If there was a word I didn’t know, they were quick to help me learn it. They appreciated my attempts to learn and pronounced the words slowly enough that I could get them. The pride that everyone has here is incredible. There’s pride in families, in work, and in Tanzania in general. In every place that I went, people of all religions coexisted together in harmony. Neighbors looked out for each other and the children of the village were cared for by everybody. There was a genuine desire to help each other be as successful as possible. I wish more people in the United States could see what I saw.  I know I will be taking my lessons I learned back home with me.

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The Clearing After a Storm

After my last exam, I walked aimlessly across the city – visiting my favorite spots one last time. With friends, I walked through Burrough Market, grabbing Ethiopian food from one of the many stands lined up outside. It was sunny, a rarity in London, a beautiful day that called for us to sit outside in the grass.

 

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On the grass in front of the Tate Modern Museum

 

The next morning followed a similar pattern. Making the most of my last full day in London, we started the day with a small picnic on the grounds of the Victoria and Albert Museum, complete with scones and clotted cream. We visited galleries in the Kensington area and spent the rest of the afternoon walking through Westminster, past London Bridge, Big Ben, and St. James’s Park. We winded through the city, purposefully making our way through all of our favorite places.

 

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Scones & Clotted Cream.

 

Still, it never solidified that I was leaving until I was well past the security checkpoint at the airport, which served as a tangible barrier between me and a city that I had grown to love. Frazzled, I spent the next 8 hours of my flight trying to make sense of conflicting emotions. Upon landing, I messaged my parents to let them know that I was safe. Mechanically, I lugged myself past crowds of hasty travelers and through U.S. customs.

 

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With friends in front of Big Ben on Westminster Bridge.

 

However, as I caught up with the world and scrolled through social media, an eerily familiar Safety Check notification turned on. During my time abroad, Safety Check had allowed me to let people know that I was okay during the attacks in Westminster. This time, it was Facebook, seemingly unaware of my transatlantic flight, that let me know that something else had happened. As I read the news, friends reached out asking if I was still in London. Quickly, we located each other, making sure that everyone was accounted for.

While it is often difficult to understand why these things happen, it was clear that the placement of these tragedies were meant to target the spirit of England. Only two weeks after the attacks in Manchester, the developments in London depicted harrowing images of London Bridge and Burrough Market. Yet, it was during this time that it was truly possible to see the heart and soul of what makes the United Kingdom so special. Beloved to both locals and visitors, Burrough Market is place that frequently serves as a meeting spot for hasty professionals, aspiring hipsters, and self-proclaimed foodies. As international students, it was a place where we felt welcomed. At 10:00 am, only eleven days after the attack, Burrough Market promptly reopened, reminding the world of England’s unbreakable spirit.

It is hard to put into words how rapidly, and often violently, the world is changing. During my past few months studying abroad, I never once felt unsafe. Yet, I also witnessed a country, like my own, go through unsettling ideological battles. I saw how broken communities across the world struggle to come together during a time when our differences often seem to overshadow our similarities. Still, in times of tragedy, I saw how those same communities stood together in solidarity – consistently reminding us that humor, charm, and unity outshine even the darkest parts of humanity. There is always a clearing after the rain and this type of hope, as it turns out, is a universal lesson that I’ll always remember.

 

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A clearing in the rain.

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Feeling Off Balance

“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” – Cesare Pavese

“You are constantly off balance”. Indeed, I am.

Let’s be honest here. In the first few weeks of studying abroad I have encountered obstacles I never imagined stumbling across. I had been preparing to travel to India for the past six months. India?! I thought this post was about Costa Rica, you might ask. Well, it is. Let me catch you up:

I had just landed in Leh, India, in the northern region of the Himalayan country side. Thrilled, nervous, but most importantly, excited about the opportunity of being able to volunteer for a non-profit organization.

Well, dreams sometimes are shattered faster than they’re created.

Culture shock, jetlag, and altitude sickness did not come as a surprise to me. I was mentally prepared for what this novel country was going to throw at me, I think. Those things did not affect me whatsoever. However, it was rather the level of carelessness, unprofessionalism, and lack of respect, not from the country, not from its people, but from the individual who I had gladly agreed to travel halfway across the world to volunteer for. That’s what shook me up the most.

 

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I stayed on the rooftop of a slightly unsafe hostel. The view of the mountains in the background was amazing though.

Landing In Leh, India

It is an indescribable feeling seeing the highest mountain peaks in the world AND knowing your plane is going to be landing in between them…

 

I will deviate from upsetting you with the negative, and I will tell you that even negative experiences provide positive learning lessons. Being completely alone (and I mean that literally) in a country I had never traveled to before, with a language I had no understanding of, with no family, friends, communication, or even someone to guide me through the unknown, made me feel completely vulnerable, completely striped down to just me and my ability to survive. It made me appreciate not the materialistic things in life, but rather the spiritual and the emotional. It made me appreciate the love and the care I received from my friends, from my family, my teachers, and my mentors. It opened my eyes to the power of benevolence, of selflessness, and of compassion that I received from my loved ones.

Cesar Pavese is right.

Now, 16 days later, I am in a new country, experiencing a new culture, savoring delicious local food, dancing to the rhythm of music played in the street, and overall enjoying the little things I never thought I’d miss; the love and the warmth from the people I encounter. I must note, India is an incredible country. The cultural differences present make you see your current life in the United States as something from another world. It is a shame that I had to depart, but I am confident I will be able to return sometime soon in the future. But for now, it is time to focus on the present, and make the most out of every experience here in Costa Rica. My video blogs will provide more of an insight of what I am doing, make sure to check them out 🙂

 

Yummy Costa Rican Fish

Yummy Costa Rican fish. The eye is the best part 😉

Interviewing Gerardo Acosta (Manos Abiertas [NGO] founder) for my Honors Thesis

Gerardo is the founder of a non-profit called Manos Abiertas (Open Hands), which provides food, education, and health services to individuals living in high poverty neighborhoods. We traveled two hours to meet with him and spent 45 minutes talking about the incredible work he is doing. He will be part of my “Humans of Guanacaste” honors thesis exhibition, where I hope to raise money for organizations like his.

My Awesome Host Family X2

My awesome host family: Roy (host dad) and Samuel (he is a year old).

My Awesome Host Family

My awesome host family: Noily (host mom) and Camila (who I promise was smiling two seconds earlier). They have welcomed me with open arms and are pretty much like a second family to me now.

 

With Love,

Juan

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Let Your Voice Be Heard: Apply to be a Gilman Alumni Ambassador

Gilman Alumni Ambassador Lea Gober reflects on her experience sharing her study abroad journey with students and the international education community. 

The Gilman Scholarship opened my mind, my connections, and my career prospects to an international spectrum of possibilities. Since my return from studying abroad in London during the 2009-2010 academic school year, I have made it a personal mission to promote the importance of international education. This especially rings true in promoting the importance of international education within low income and communities of color.

 

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Lea Gober studying abroad in London, England in 2009-2010.

 

This 2016-2017 academic school year, I had the opportunity to participate in the Gilman Alumni Ambassador program. Through this program I was able to provide my testimony on the impact a global education can have on your career, self development, and contribution to society. I spoke at a study abroad seminar held at Barnard College, and at a Gilman advisor workshop held at the Institute of International Education New York office.

The Gilman advisor workshop was my most memorable experience. I spoke directly with approximately 40 faculty and staff members from universities around the country. My presentation focused on how Gilman affected my life and the critical value of helping low income and students of color pursue study abroad experiences. This exchange helped the attendees feel empowered to better assist these student demographics.

 

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Lea speaking to Gilman advisors at a workshop in New York in 2017.

 

I really appreciated their earnest interest in solving how more students could participate in study abroad. Collectively we knew cost was a significant barrier for many first generation college students. I spoke with one attendee, a law professor who was doubling as the International Education Advisor at a small college in Brooklyn. At this institution many of the students are first generation college students who, like myself, faced financial insecurity. Remembering my own apprehensions with funding my program, I could certainly relate to the concerns of the students. I provided my first hand account on how I funded my study abroad, which included additional scholarships outside of receiving Gilman. Seeing someone like me who resembles their students showed advisors the possibility of making global education a reality for their scholars.

I fully recommend participating in the Gilman Alumni Ambassador program. Not only was I able to get the word out about Gilman and network with other international education enthusiasts, I had the opportunity to develop my public speaking skills. This is a great opportunity for anyone- from students newly returning from abroad to a veteran like myself who studied abroad 7 years ago. Apply and let your voice be heard!

Gilman Alumni Ambassador applications are now open! Apply here by July 24.

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Coming Full Circle: My Host Family

It had been exactly 2 years since I had boarded my bus to Vilnius, Lithuania and left my host family behind in Riga, filled with the memories of my adventures and time spent with them. Before arriving in Latvia for the first time in 2015 I was honestly not looking forward to having a host family. I had grown accustomed to a tenacious independence in my first year at West Virginia University. My schedule was fixed, my stubborn perception of adulthood was cemented, and I had convinced myself to gather as much emotional distance away from my host family as possible. This lasted less than 2 days. Gita, Odriya, and Orist welcomed me to Latvia with such compassion and support that I attempted to avoid. My first night, my host Mother, Gita, was working late and was not able to greet me right away. The kids, Odriya and Orist, did their best to entertain me as most kids of age 11 and 14 do by showing me their favorite YouTube videos. I found comfort in their simplicity and approachability.

The next morning, I woke to the smell of fresh eggs and blini (pancakes) lingering in the air and calling me to the kitchen. It was here where I realized that Gita, my host mother who always remained with a vibrant smile on her face, did not speak English. While you might think that it is quite problematic, I embraced the circumstances pretty well if you ask me. Relying on my, at the time juvenile, Russian Language skills accompanied with my above average charades capabilities, we had a pleasant first interaction for which I will never forget. As the weeks went on, every day I felt eager to come home from class and experience the love and compassion that I had never expected. I taught Odriya and Orest how to throw a football and they taught me the value of being a positive exemplar of culture in the lives of others. Gita and I often had tea together, as she assisted me with my homework and spoke with such candor about the history of Latvia and life in the Soviet Union. I gained so much from these intuitive discussions, which arguably solidified my interests in the region, and served as my reason to return. On my last day, they escorted me to the bus stop even though I had persisted that it wasn’t needed. They looked at me as if I had gone crazy. Over the weeks I had experienced life with them, and it had been quite the life indeed. I felt as if I had been there my whole life in my short 4 weeks staying there.

 

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The last time I saw my host family in person at the travel center before taking a bus to Vilnius Lithuania. (June 2015)

 

Once I arrived in Riga roughly 3 weeks ago, I immediately sent Odriya a message from the airport, it wasn’t 20 minutes before I received a reply of “When will we meet?” My hectic work schedule and the office’s location away from the city center prevented me from immediately going for a visit. Finally, one evening I had my chance and informed them of my free evening in Old Town. We had decided to get ice cream somewhere in the city. I instructed Odriya to choose her favorite ice cream place in the city for our gathering, and she replied: “McDonald’s it is”. She had not changed much after all. We met and Gita ran into my arms like a horse charging into battle, giving me the warmest and most tender of hugs. The children, well I guess “teenagers” now, followed suit. Gita then pulled from her purse a black sleeping mask, for which I had been searching for since I had left in order to evade the long sun-filled nights in the Baltic. After all this time she had kept it for me. “I knew you would come back, and it would be here for you,” she said laughing.

We purchased our ice cream and went to the neighboring park for a stroll. We relived the memories of my visit two years ago as we walked through the tumultuous crowds feeding the birds along the canal. My Russian had drastically improved since Gita and I had first met. We held a pleasant conversation (no charades this time), with Odriya and Orest (who don’t speak Russian) chiming in to translate Latvian occasionally or add in their thoughts on a particular memory. I had informed them of my bike escapades in the city, and they had reflected on the time I had nearly lost my eyebrows to the flames of a charcoal grill I had claimed to know how to light. In this way, we also spoke about our current dreams, and the dreams we once had sought. I felt like I had never left them, speaking to them as I had spoken two years ago. They walked me back to the bus stop before making plans to travel to the countryside in the beginning of July for a relaxing hiatus. I assured them that this time I would not be responsible for the charcoal grill. We chuckled. And like all conclusions to our conversations, Gita told me she loved me, as a mother would tell her own child.

 

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Our barbecue grill out in the countryside, 10 minutes later I would partially lose my eyebrow.

 

Looking back at my experiences with my host family, I was wrong for first forming a stubborn divide. Going to Latvia in 2015 I put up a barrier to shade me from experiencing what I missed the most: the love of my family. I learned that a host family can reciprocate just as much love as your own can show. My tip: a host family is your way of truly assimilating into a culture. You must embrace your caretakers and learn from them as you are learning in your own classrooms. They are valuable resources for your education abroad and who knows, they may change the scope of your life through their kindness. Gita, Odriya, and Orest showed me that love and compassion reach beyond borders and beyond culture. I am glad to have them present in my life still today. Another update is due for our further visits. Who knew coming full circle could be this thrilling?

 

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Our ice cream reunion in the park adjacent from the Freedom Monument last week!

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The Challenges of Studying Abroad

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Filed under Central America, Juan in Costa Rica

The Return Home

I’ve been back in the United States for about a week now. It didn’t really hit me that I was leaving Chile until a few days after I got home. I felt as if I was just going on another trip as part of my program. Even stranger though was the fact that I felt as though I had barely left the U.S. when I got back to Dallas. It didn’t feel as if I had been away for around four months. The time went by much quicker than I thought it would.

I still feel like I’m adjusting but it’s gotten easier. Probably one of the hardest things to adjust to at first was all the English I was hearing. I had been so used to having to focus on a conversation to really understand what was going on. I was so overwhelmed by being able to understand everything people were saying. I couldn’t tune out all the conversations going on around me for a few days. Also, I kept responding to questions asked in English in Spanish. This was especially apparent on my flight from Santiago to Dallas. The flight attendants would ask me something in English and I would almost always respond in Spanish. I am still saying ‘permiso‘  instead of excuse me and ‘gracias‘ instead of thank you. I often find myself not being able to think of the English word I want to use in conversations. I also have started using strangely translated English phrases. This means that when trying to say “a lack of something,” I have said “a fault of something” instead because in Spanish the phrase is falta de algo.

 

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My greeting when I got off the plane.

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My sentiments after 33 hours of travel with only 3 hours of sleep.

 

Other that this, I don’t feel like I’ve experienced a ton of reverse culture shock. One of the things I was not expecting was how my body would react to eating food that I was accustom to eating in the U.S. before leaving. After four months of almost only bread, meat, potatoes, and avocado, my stomach is not up to the task of processing spicier food or even large amounts of vegetables.

Also, it’s been interesting getting back into working and being on my feet for long hours. The last month and a half of my time in Chile I was inside talking to people or working on my paper. I had been doing a lot of work but it was mostly on my own time. Being on a strict schedule has been a change and I’m still getting used to that. Additionally, I have been used to spending almost all my time with the same 23 other people who have similar schedules to me. Most of my friends from Whitman College live in other areas of the country than I do and many of my friends from high school are spending the summer elsewhere or have since moved away. I keep thinking that I should text other students from my program before remembering that they are all around the world at the moment. I also keep thinking that I see people from my program when I’m out, even though I know that none of them are close to my town.

I am so thankful for all of the experiences that I had in Chile during my time there. I am even more thankful for the people that I met. My Putre and Arica host families were amazing and I am so lucky to still be in contact with them. I hope that I stay in contact with them for the rest of my life. I also hope to remain in contact with the people I met on my program. It was so amazing to talk to people with so many different perspectives. Almost all of my classes in college have very like-minded people and many are majoring in the same subject with similar career interests as me. On my program in Chile, there were anthropology majors, biology majors, chemistry majors, public health majors and sociology majors. There were people who also wanted to go to medical school, as well as people wanting to go to nursing school, work in public health or who wanted to pursue careers in anthropology. Overall, I think the people that I met, both Chileans and other study abroad students, were what really made my experience in Chile what it was and it has been the hardest to adjust to being away from these people after returning to the United States.

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