Back Home, But as a Different Person

It’s a very odd feeling to be back in the U.S. I don’t know if I am just more aware of it now, or if it happened more this time, but I have been told “welcome back home” by people that usually don’t say it…or I don’t remember them saying it. The first person who told me that was a customs agent, who said it in an oddly genuine way: “Welcome back home, Mr. Mattozzi.” The next person was the flight attendant on my flight back to Portland, Maine. Whenever I fly back from school, I don’t remember them saying welcome home. The reason I am bringing this up is that I’m not sure if I feel at home. It’s a foolish thing to say, I know, I’ve spent all of my 21 years of life in this country, my childhood was here, most of my friends are here. But for some reason everything seems distant. I wouldn’t say I’m frustrated, or particularly lonely. Maybe misplaced is a good word. I feel like I had such a profound experience finding a part of myself that I have been struggling to find for a while. And now that I found it, I have to leave Morocco. As I mentioned in a previous post, I do have plans to go back to the region, not to reminisce on the past, but to grow and learn even more. Even though these plans are still in the “hopeful dream” phase, it is a comforting thought that will motivate me to do all that I can to achieve that goal of returning to Morocco.

 

Medina of Rabat

Medina of Rabat.

End of the day in Marrakesh

End of the day in Marrakesh.

It is not just the fact that I found my ethnic identity while studying abroad, but also that I grew so much as a journalist. I did things that gave me a taste of what it will be like to be a professional journalist. I worked on what I felt was an important topic that gave me the opportunity to speak with government officials, heads of NGOs and other people involved in my interests. I had deadlines and editing sessions with my advisor who writes for the New York Times, and I learned how to navigate through murky situations with little guidance. A few students on my study abroad program researched some pretty emotionally difficult topics, and when we felt overwhelmed or needed a break, we’d go out together and vent and get our minds off things. I know how to write better, interview better, look for details, and describe things in a way that will make people feel like they can relate and better understand the topic I am writing about. I learned that there are stories everywhere, you just have to ask the right kinds of questions and look hard enough. All of these things came together to form an experience that I believe impacted me on a very deep level. I know I have said this before, but I cannot emphasize enough how grateful I am to the Gilman Scholarship for giving me this absolutely stunning, amazing, life changing opportunity that I would not have had without Gilman.

 

Myself with my fellow journalism students

Myself with my fellow journalism students.

Myself and two friends I met while working on my independent study

Myself and two friends I met while working on my independent study project.

Now, to the future. In the short term, I am going to continue working on my project from Morocco to see if it can be published in the near future. For the long term, I am going to start organizing the specifics of my plan to study in the Mediterranean or in Southern Italy via the Fulbright, the Fulbright-National Geographic Fellowship, or another scholarship or grant. I have to dive in and do as much research as I can so I can be ready to answer any questions that come my way and help people understand the region and its collective history and culture better.
Whether I like it or not, I am back home, but as a different person. I should not dwell too much on the past and the little things I should have done while in Morocco. My eyes have been opened, and my curiosity has been piqued. This past semester has been an amazing journey, and I hope it is just the beginning.

 

Myself being pensive on the roof of our School, CCCL, in the Medina of Rabat .jpg

Me being pensive on the roof of our school in the Medina of Rabat.

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Transitioning Back Home in the United States

Hello from Houston,

As I reflect on my time as a Gilman scholar in Costa Rica, I think one of the greatest aspects I learned from my community in Heredia was a sense of humility. In my opinion, one of the most important reasons anyone should choose to study abroad is to learn how to connect to all people through a shared mutual respect. On my final exam for my Spanish course, the professor had us write an essay on what we felt had changed us most during our time studying abroad in Costa Rica. I reflected on how my perspective had changed on childhood memories I had of children in my grade school courses. I remember one student in my class who never spoke up and how some students would taunt him. It wasn’t until I had been put in similar situations of not being able to verbalize and speak my thoughts that I could perceive empathy for this child. After being that person who was sometimes silenced not by lack of intellectual capacity but rather lack of language skills, I definitely appreciate the courage it takes for other people who come to the United States without the ability to communicate in English.

I have been back in the United States for a little over a week now. I officially graduated from the University of Houston with my degree last Thursday and it has been incredibly surreal to think I completed both my program in Costa Rica and my undergraduate degree.  I cannot stop asking myself where the time has gone.

 

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I really miss my chess family. It was emotionally challenging saying bye to people who’ve been my friends since day one. Chess will never be the same without these enthusiastic learners, but I’m certainly thankful life brought us all together through a common passion.

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Before sending me off, they all signed my chess set with wishes for the future. I’ll always think of these faces when I’m thinking about my time as a student at my host university, Universidad Nacional. They taught me so much about the Spanish language and culture. Their friendship was truly such a gift.

 

The highlight of my return has definitely been celebrating graduation with my family.  My siblings and my parents were all lucky enough to get off work to see me walk and to also go to a celebratory dinner. It’s moments like that when I can’t believe how lucky I am to have such a supportive family. I have been so happy to be spending much-needed time with them.

Of course I also sent several photos of my graduation to my host mom in Costa Rica. She showered me in affection and congratulated me. I miss her so much already. How sweet she was to send me off with a coffee mug and a photo of us because she knows how much I love coffee. And a few weeks before leaving Costa Rica, she threw me a birthday party for my 23rd birthday! She baked me a pineapple upside down cake, and lasagna and played a CD with birthday songs to sing me happy birthday. I can’t believe she did all of that for me. I’m so grateful for having had such an incredible host mom who always made me feel safe, happy, loved and took care of me like her own daughter throughout my time in Costa Rica. I’ll treasure my moments with Mayela forever.

 

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My 23rd birthday was one of the best birthdays I’ve ever had. Mayela baked me a cake and had a small gathering at the house. She made a huge lasagna, and salad and put on a CD of different Spanish birthday songs. Both of us had two of our close friends over and all of us had such a great time singing and laughing.

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I think this photo is a great portrayal of the sense of warmth and love that filled my relationship with my host mom. She was the best part of my experience abroad and the person whom I turned to for advice with Spanish and life in Costa Rica. It was so touching that she put so much effort into making me feel so happy and special on my birthday. What’s more, she always made me feel like her daughter and for that, she will always be my second mom. I already miss her so much.

 

In terms of reverse culture shock, I’ve had my share of a few moments. I had become so accustomed to kissing people on the cheek when greeting them in Costa Rica that it took me two times of doing that here before I instantly became self-conscious for having done it. Luckily my friends and I laughed about it but I won’t be doing that again! The second aspect has been seeing physical changes to familiar places and people. I learned recently that my favorite tea place in Houston had been closed down. It was especially saddening because I had always associated it with my time as a student at University of Houston.

As of now, I am a proud alumni of the Gilman Scholarship Program and the University of Houston. With the language skills I’ve learned abroad, I will continue to work toward the common good in meaningful ways in the mental health field. I have been applying for mental health aid positions in psychiatric clinics where I know my Spanish would be used to serve people in the Spanish speaking populations. I’m hopeful within the coming years I can complete my prerequisites for a health professional school where I can continue toward my dream of being a bilingual psychiatric professional. I look forward to the long journey ahead with excitement for my future.

 

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Having finished my degree in Costa Rica, I officially graduated the University of Houston on May 12th! I definitely had an incredible senior year thanks to Gilman and am so excited to finally say “I did it!”

 

On a closing note, it has been such an honor writing for the Gilman Global Experience blog. There is no possible way I could have studied abroad without Gilman. Thank you so much for everything!

Warmest Wishes to All,

Alexandria Rodriguez

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Elizabeth Reflects on Global Citizenship

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A Word on Being Alone

There’s a stark reality underneath the layers of all the newness that comes with study abroad (new friends, new “family,” new places). The reality is that you have transported yourself into to a completely other culture that is a whole 12 hour flight away from your home. An entire different set of humans living their lives here just as you had been living yours. They are speaking a different language and eating different foods. They shop at stores you’ve never heard of and at weird times of the day. You are surrounded by the unfamiliar and in this reality you are alone.

 

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Studying abroad can sometimes feel like you’re upside down. This photo was in the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo and was taken by Elías Adasme of Chile.

 

I don’t want this to sound like a message of fear. I want to explain that this sense of alone-ness can be your greatest friend. You create your own reality. Maybe at home, your reality was influenced by your parents or things your friends shared with you, whether it be interests, activities, ideas. Study abroad is your chance to really think about what you’d like your reality to be about and go ahead and create it.

Last weekend’s circumstances called for me to venture solo. My study abroad program had a field trip to Santigo to visit a few historically important sites and I decided instead of taking the bus back that evening with the group, I would spend the night at a hostel.

After navigating the metro system, I checked into my hostel. I was informed it was the largest hostel in Chile. While the man at the front desk was showing me around the hostel I experienced something like deja vu. The place felt like something that had appeared in a childhood dream. It had many staircases and hallways and a bohemian vibe. A kitchen with cooking things waiting to be discovered in the many cabinets. If you walked towards the center of the hostel you’d find yourself in an open air patio that continues on to the dining area. What looked like a modest, maybe shabby old brick building from the outside felt like a mansion of travelers from foreign lands on the inside.

 

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Santiago streets. It’s always the season to eat outside here.

 

After buying groceries, I spent a while under a tree in the park eating gummy worms and people watching. Perfect. I cooked dinner, a stir fry of broccoli, green onions, and bean sprouts while dancing around the other guests cooking their meals in the kitchen. We swapped a little Spanish as they monitored their pasta. Cooking dinner was very exciting because after three months of eating food cooked for me by my host family, it feels nourishing to cook for myself.

I felt like a queen.

I ate dinner with a table of girls I had never met, all from different countries all over the world. We talked and laughed and decided to find a place to dance that evening and went out together. We bonded over feelings of displacement and being inept at dancing the salsa.

In the morning the hostel had a nice breakfast included in the price of my stay so I ate as many pieces of bread as possible in true Chilean fashion, slathered in caramel-ly manjar* and consumed several cups of REAL coffee.** Fuel for my day. I planned to visit two art museums: Museo de Bellas Artes and Museo de Arte Conteporaneo.

*Manjar is similar to dulce de leche or a caramel-like spread. It bears resemblance to the caramel frequently used for caramel apples. However, Chileans put it on anything possible, like cakes, candy, donuts, and of course toasted bread for breakfast.

**It is rare to find real coffee here in Chile. If you order it in a restaurant or cafe, you will frequently receive a mug of hot water and packet of instant coffee powder on the side.

I had selected this hostel because of its walking distance to the art museums. I walked in the general direction of the museums and trusted my instincts. I stumbled upon a record sale and fingered through vinyls of many Chilean bands that I was ecstatic to recognize and had to restrain myself from spending all of my pesos.

 

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Records found at the pop up record fair. Los Prisioneros is a popular Chilean band that I recommend giving a listen.

 

I wandered through a flea market and craft vendors selling beautiful handmade clothing and jewelry. I walked through a cobblestone street surrounded by artsy cafes and bars. Eventually I found the art museums (free admission!) and spent several hours wandering around the two galleries. How fun it is to be on the other side of the earth and still be doing things you would do in your home town.

 

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Books for sale. Books in your second language seem to possess a new mystery because they reveal themselves in a whole different layer.

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More bizarre, cool things stumbled upon in the art market. Old cameras for sale.

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Photo found at Museo de Arte Contemporaneo. Called Las Dos Fridas, it is a play on the original painting by Frida Kahlo. This one is enacted by Chilean writer and artist Pedro Lemebel and photographed by Francisco Casas.

 

I got very hungry and decided to try the tiny cafe inside of the museum and was served an awesome meal of salad, soup, and spinach lasagna. The two cafe workers were about my age and had fantastic taste in music and when I paid for my meal we chatted about their great tunes.

I caught my bus back to Vina del Mar and was back home.

The point of this is that being alone is good for you. It develops self awareness, forces you to face your reality, and allows you to credit yourself with confidence. Embrace the uncomfortable zones of your identity. Pretend you are like a vegetable on a vine that needs rotation so that each side can face the sun. You may feel like a tree without roots for awhile, but by becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable you can learn a lot.

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Spring Break and Final Exams

It’s hard to believe my semester here is coming to a close. In exactly nine days, I’ll be back home in the United States working my summer job, preparing for the LSAT and senior year, and undoubtedly missing Athens. Thankfully though, it’s not yet time for me to say a somber goodbye to this wonderful country I’ve come to love and call home. Before that came my last adventure during spring break.

My friend Alex and I, like nearly everyone else in the College Year in Athens program, decided to take advantage of the eleven day Easter break we were given to travel around Europe and see some of the Greek islands. We first visited a close friend of mine studying abroad in Rome, where she showed us the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, the Vatican, and more. By more, I mean gelato. So. Much. Gelato. I regret nothing. I have wanted to go to Italy ever since I was a little girl, and it was everything I imagined and more. A bustling city with breathtaking ruins popping up ever so often, it’s reminiscent in many ways of Athens. We took a day trip to Florence where we saw the Duomo, learned how to haggle in the outdoor leather market (I was pretty good at negotiating, surprisingly enough), and ate the most amazing clam pasta ever.

 

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The view from the Vatican duomo.

 

After leaving Italy, Alex and I spent a few days on Santorini Island, arguably one of the most beautiful islands of Greece. We stayed in Thira, close to the sea overlooking the rocky cliffs that drop to the ocean, and even visited the black sand beach in Perissa, which was unlike any beach I’d ever seen before. From there we took a ferry boat to Mykonos, where we stayed for 3 days in an Air BnB with two other friends for Easter. It’s true what’s often said about Mediterranean waters–it’s the clearest blue you will ever see. The beach near our Air BnB was phenomenal, and almost empty because we arrived just before tourist season began. On Easter our host Sissy invited us to have lunch with her family, and it was absolutely amazing! The hospitality and kindness of Greek people never ceases to amaze me.

 

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Easter lunch with our Air BnB host and her family.

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The view from the Caldera in Santorini.

 

Now it’s back to reality. Final exams start this week, and the Greek language exam is my first. Of course, Greek is also the test I’m most worried about, but I’ve been studying non-stop, so hopefully an A is in my future! Besides that I have a philosophy paper, Greek myth and religion paper, and two essays for my Greek political science class to write. Stress is very much a state of being at the moment, but I’m staying motivated to finish this semester out with a strong GPA. Sleep can be caught up on later! The next time I’ll be writing for this blog will be from home, and there will probably be tears involved. So for now I’m going to tackle my exams and appreciate my last week in Greece as much as possible!

 

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Me in Mykonos.

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Morocco and Mezzogiorno

My study abroad experience in Morocco has made me more confident than ever that I want to pursue a profession in journalism. Meeting professional journalists, being put in positions as real journalists and not students, and being able to go after stories that we had some freedom with gave me the chance to see what my life might be like as a journalist. I want to be the best journalist I can be, and there are some things I have learned I need to improve on. I really need to buckle down with my language skills, especially Arabic. Struggling to communicate with people to have more productive interviews has motivated me to do much more to master Arabic and other languages as well.

At this point, I am still unsure if I will go to graduate school. I am getting mixed advice from my teachers and mentors. On the one hand, if I were to get into a graduate program at a school like Columbia Journalism School, or Berkeley, then that would be clearly beneficial. However, the advice I have been given recently has been more along the lines of simply going into the workforce. This, my advisors say, gives me the most opportunity to learn true field reporting skills that are not always learned in grad school.

 

Air show in Marrakesh

An air show in Marrakesh.

 

What has changed is what I plan to pursue after I graduate. I am very interested now in applying for scholarships like Fulbright to study post-colonial effects on Southern Italy, or a comparative study between Mediterranean countries. The more time I spend here in Morocco, the more I realize how important it is to promote the history of my heritage’s specific area, or of the greater Mediterranean area as a whole.

 

View of the Hassan area in Rabat

The view of the Hassan area in Rabat.

 

There was a point where I was on a train from Rabat to Marrakesh where we passed some very rural and poor areas, and I could not help but think of Mezzogiorno, the Southern region of Italy. (I apologize that I keep harping on this, but the awareness that I have gained from studying abroad in Morocco has had a fairly profound impact on how I see myself, the area around me, and my family’s Italian roots.) Looking at the landscape and the ocean in the distance, it just looked so familiar. Morocco and the Mezzogiorno have been victims to similar kinds of destruction. As I am Neapolitan, I feel like it is not only my place, but my duty to ensure my country is given the proper respect and opportunity it deserves. My ancestors fought and gave their lives to defend our sovereignty and dignity, and were defeated. I feel like it is my responsibility to carry on their fight in a way that I can: through journalism. I would do that by exposing the effects colonization still has on the people of the Mezzogiorno through research and field work. If I can, in addition to that, bring the same awareness I now have of the region to other people in the region, I would feel I have completed something very important.

 

Sunset over the neighborhood we stayed in Marrakesh

The sunset over my neighborhood in Marrakesh.

My professional goals have not changed, but have felt more solid and confident. I think my academic goals have changed to reflect my greater awareness of a history and culture that I am a part of, something I am not sure would have happened to the extent that it has, had I not studied abroad in Morocco. And for that, I have one more thing to be grateful for.

 

Me standing on the roof of our apartment in Marrakesh

Me standing on the roof of our apartment in Marrakesh.

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Volunteering While Abroad

Making volunteer work part of your study abroad experience is a great opportunity to learn more about the culture you are living in. It allows you to see the country through a different lens that you don’t get to see when traveling as a tourist. It gives you the opportunity to understand the struggles that the country faces and how you can help with them.

I have had the opportunity to participate in a couple of volunteer activities mostly geared towards environmental conservation and farming, since that is related to my field of study. They were enriching experiences that made me more in touch with Thailand. Some of them touched me so much and expanded my knowledge of many of the struggles that people face that we never hear about or learn in a classroom. It also has given me the chance to then share what I learned with others through things like social media.

One of the experiences that really opened my eyes was when I got the opportunity to volunteer in an elephant sanctuary where they rescue elephants that are abused and exploited in rides and shows for tourists. For many tourists that come to Thailand, riding an elephant is on their top to do list, or going to shows where these elephants perform. What they don’t think about is the abuse that these animals go through to learn these tricks and the pain they have to go through when people ride them. I cried so much when I was learning about this and I hope that people educate themselves and instead of riding elephants, choose to instead learn about the many other ways they can connect with beautiful creatures.

Feeding rescued elephants from explotation and abuse by tourist treeking and shows

Feeding elephants rescued from exploitation and abuse by tourist trekking and shows.

Spending time with dogs rescued from the 2011 Bangkok flood

Spending time with dogs rescued from the 2011 Bangkok flood.

As an exchange student looking for volunteer opportunities, I found that the biggest challenges are the language barrier and the flexibility of the programs. The language barrier is something that is very difficult to work around, especially when you arrive in a country without knowing any of the language like I did. While there are many volunteer opportunities for foreigners, the majority revolve around teaching English to Thai people. Teaching English is a great way to give back to the community since this is a skill that is very useful for the people of Thailand, but if you are not a native English speaker (like me) it is difficult and requires a very strong commitment. This also brings me to my other piece of advice which is understanding the importance of flexibility. While studying abroad I believe that your utmost priority is to study, followed by learning from your travels and involvement in your community. What I found was that many volunteer programs in Thailand ask for a lot of time from their volunteers, something that is very difficult as a student since you can’t skip class. I understand the need for long-term volunteers because the organizations need responsible people who they can regularly count on to expand their mission. But as an exchange student this is not always possible.

Mangrove reforestation. Many areas are being lost to shirmp and salt farms.

Volunteering with mangrove reforestation. Many areas are being lost to shrimp and salt farms.

Visiting orquid farms in Bangkok for future work experience

Volunteering at the orchid farms in Bangkok.

To overcome this, I recommend talking to your host university about potential places you could volunteer as a student. This way you overcome the language barrier, since the host university has connections with different people and they can help you visit multiple organizations to learn more about different issues and needs in your host country. This method worked well for me, and I was blessed by the fact that the International Office of our university organizes entire trips for international students to volunteer and learn about the issues of the country, something that I hope many other universities implement and that I will suggest to my own university back  home.

Another thing that I wish I thought about more before coming here is the opportunity to participate in an internship as a volunteer. Since paid internships are rare and tricky with student visas, volunteer internships are a great way to build up your professional resume while simultaneously volunteering in an area of your choice. I can imagine this is a great way to earn credit while abroad, and it also allows you to have a set time during the week to work on something you are passionate about.

Apart from volunteering I strongly recommend learning about the minorities in your host country because you will learn a great deal about situations you probably didn’t know existed. I had the opportunity to visit a community center and mosque for Thai Muslims, the biggest minority in Thailand, and learned so many things I was very ignorant about before. One thing that really impacted me was learning how Thailand is affected by the global refugee crisis, in addition to the European and Middle Eastern countries you hear about in the news. Many Burmese and Chinese Muslims leave their country and come to Thailand to escape persecution from their governments and that is something I was very ignorant about before and glad I could learn about.

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Visiting and interacting with the kids at a Muslim community center.

It doesn’t matter what kind of volunteering you choose to get involved in. Every kind action matters and impacts at least one person. When you see the results of your efforts, it fills you with great pride and a deeper connection with your surroundings. After our final exams I will have some time before leaving Thailand, and I look forward to dedicating that time to visiting and volunteering at local farms for a couple of weeks. As I begin packing to return to Puerto Rico, I will also remember to donate everything I can’t take back home with me in my luggage.

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