Navigating US-Russia Relations on a Personal Level

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I think one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced in my study abroad experience is making friends with students of my own age. Russian college students my age are usually pretty shy at first, and you definitely have to approach them first. This can be absolutely terrifying if you’re feeling slightly intimidated and already concerned about your language abilities. Then there’s the added factor that Russian is a live language, and unlike our understanding professors, in the non-classroom setting, people speak quickly, conversationally, and often with rather unclear articulation. Russian intonation is also difficult because it’s very direct and strong. To my American ears, Russian intonation can sound aggressive or forceful because of the strong accented emphases (intonation Pattern #2!) when actually it could just be someone being emphatic and expressive.

 

Another thing I’ve noticed is that Russians are very direct. Americans seem to speak with a lot of “padding” and “cushioning.” I remember learning early on in maybe elementary school about the sandwich technique—say something nice, something critical, something nice. Here in Russia, there is no sandwich. People will tell you upfront and publicly that you’re acting sketch, missed the point, or your paper is subpar or that you shouldn’t use an elevator if you’re not old. Grades and commentary are also published publicly. There’s no “politically correct” culture.

 

Also, no one is interested in small talk. Given the tense relationship between America and Russia, I was nervous about navigating the difference of views, but there was definitely no hiding. From the very first night of staying with my host mom, I was asked about how I felt about Putin, Trump, Ukraine, homosexuality, and Jewish people…and the very first academic class I walked into I was asked by the professor about my personal view of communism and the Revolution of 1917. Mouths dropped literally open as my American friends and I stared at each other in disbelief. I also noticed in casual conversation with cashiers or even talking to my own peers, people are also not afraid to ask you about how much your parents make or how expensive your clothes are or other questions that would otherwise seem very rude (like I don’t even know the answers for these questions from all my American friends back home).

 

It can be very disconcerting at first to skip the “how’s the weather stage” and jump right into sociopolitical views and money but in a way, I’ve enjoyed being able to speak about real things. St. Petersburg, Russia is a highly cultured place. Everyone goes often to the theater, ballet, opera, or Philharmonic. People know their art, their books, their poems, and their history, and it’s just absolutely fascinating to get into a debate with someone over Brother’s Karamazov or the suprematist art movement and Malevich’s Black Square. I can hum Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and someone else will be able to recognize it and hum with me.

 

For me, so far the best way I’ve found to navigate controversial conversations or classes is to just listen and always ask why someone thinks the way they do and what happened in their lives or what they were exposed to that have helped them form their opinions. People are just people, and everyone’s opinions come from somewhere. I’ve been awakened to the power of the objective, respectful listening and asking questions. Once I quiet myself and let go of whatever righteous or defensive feelings I might have, I’ve realized there’s much I can learn simply by being exposed to these ideas and to completely opposite, different viewpoints.

 

I think it’s in these moments that I realize just how powerful study abroad is, and how happy I am with my decision to go to a more “off-the-beaten” country.

 

For one, in terms of language immersion, it’s been incredible.  While it’s not totally remote and you still can find English, it’s really not that dominant compared to like when I visited Tallinn, Estonia or Budapest, Hungary and signs were in English and pretty much everyone spoke perfect English. In my everyday interactions such as buying food from the grocery store or buying my bus tickets, I’ve been forced to use Russian and even though it can be embarrassing or awkward, every situation has made me improve.

 

For another, I have never been so challenged and thought so much about what I believe and where I come from. My Soviet music history class shows the perspective of the Russians during the Cold War. My Russian host mother provides the Russian perspective on current events. My Russian peers challenge my beliefs and my behavior as an American. And I can’t help but think as I approach the end about just how good it’s been for me. The idea of history as a prize being written by the victors has never been quite so tangible as now. The idea that there are no absolutes. That there’s always another side….

 

Of course, this doesn’t mean that I’ve changed my own beliefs or behavior. I am an American citizen—a product of my upbringing in rural Montana and my liberal arts education, but I am just a little bit more aware about what’s out there in the world and the myriad of ideas and beliefs that exist. It’s like my ideas have gone from 180 to 360. There’s an entire 3-D sphere of perspectives and it’s been an exciting challenge to expand my ideas of who I am, what I believe in, and how I want to shape the world.

 

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Ma Famille Française

One of the most exciting aspects of your time abroad is the incredible, completely random people you will meet along the way that will become a very important part of not only your study abroad experience but your friends/family for the rest of your life.

If you’re like me, you may be planning to study abroad in a more independent manner – as in you are not going with a program led, a pre-planned group of students who will be with you for the duration of your time abroad with a host. If you’re doing it like me, you are moving solo… to a new country…for a year. Sounds a bit scary.

When I enrolled in my year-long program to Lyon, France I had never been to France, or even Europe, and I did not speak French. Needless to say, I was a bit worried. I decided to download Tandem, a language learning app that matches you with people around the world who you can practice language with via message or video chat. You want to learn their native language, and they want to learn yours. It’s a great way to develop local dialect and practice your pronunciation, but I never thought it would lead to new friendships. By an amazing stroke of luck I was matched with a French student, Alex, from Lyon, France! By an even more amazing stroke of luck, Alex would be coming to study in my hometown in Idaho at the same time I would be going to France.

Neither of us had ever been to our exchange countries and quickly agreed that we would ask our families to look after one another when we arrived. We coordinated with each other, and our program coordinators, to arrange our arrivals, housing, moving help, etc. When I arrived in France, Alex’s uncle & cousin, Magid & Kenza, were eagerly waiting for me at the airport, saying “BIENVENUE ERIS!”, and ready to help me get all settled into my French life. I would never have expected that they would become an unforgettable and vital part of my year in Lyon. From football games to dinners, a beautiful engraved bracelet that I still wear every single day, and even helping me break into my own apartment when I locked myself out, they were the best French family I could have asked for.

Fast forward to present day, 2.5 years later, and I have just returned from my first post-exchange trip back to France to see Magid, Kenza, Emmanuel, and friends. It’s still incredible to me that near-strangers have become a permanent and irreplaceable part of my time in Lyon and my life, truly like family.

I strongly encourage you to explore new and exciting channels to meet new people, before, during, and after your time abroad. We live in an age where we are not confined to just those around us. We have the opportunity to make connections around the world, and you never know how those people will impact your life and your time abroad.

Cheers and happy travels,

Eris

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Then and Now: What I’ve Learned

The first thought I had leaving Dubai airport, as I struggled to drag my old worn out suitcase and keep up with my driver as he escorted me into the parking garage was, “Wow, it’s really humid.”

My second thought was, “What have I gotten myself into?”

As a rambunctious and adventurous woman its hard for me to admit, but that first night was rough. Exhausted and alone I walked into a bare dorm room and just laid on the bed, the protective plastic crinkling underneath me. The silence was suffocating. I unzipped my bag and slowly filled in the empty spaces: carefully placing my picture frames, hanging my clothes, and laying out my bedding preparing for a relatively sleepless night.

Nearly four months later— and in the midst of my final weeks in the semester – I often reflect on that first night and why I chose the UAE.  When people think of study abroad they think of grand adventures and luxurious excursions, but as I sift through the memories of the last few months my favorite ones are the small and mundane moments. Going for karak down the road, coffee dates, bonfires in the desert, late night rehearsals, and conversations in simple and broken Arabic.  The biggest lessons and the happiest moments were where I least expected them, and when I stopped trying to seek them out and trying to plan for them. I had to learn to go with the flow, something that does not come naturally to me in the slightest. Time is more relative for Arabs culturally and letting go of my American view on time and punctuality was a great hurdle.

Academically this semester was similar to my previous one back home, except a few credit hours lighter. Another thing no one tells you about study abroad is that you still have homework to do, essays to write, and tests to study for. However, it is much more about what you are learning that what grade you get. I audited a course for the first time, Arabic linguistics. I begged the professor to let me take it, confident I was up to the challenge. If I recall correctly her email back started with “let’s be realistic” and ended with instructions for who I needed permission from if I wanted to audit it. As a student who tends to obsess over percentages and my GPA, it was both uncomfortable and relieving to sit in a classroom knowing that I could make infinitesimal mistakes and it wouldn’t matter. A feeling I hope I can carry with me when I return home.

I came to the UAE to get better at my Arabic. If I have to say I have one regret it is that I did not take enough risks and talk to enough people in Arabic because I was too embarrassed. That being said I learned so much more about the culture and world perspective of Arabs, each one different then the other. To look past superficial differences, at first I didn’t think we were that different and in truth we weren’t thanks to the internet and globalization. Honestly it was almost more fun to listen to what questions they had for me, a common one being what I thought about american gun control policy. But a lot of these people faced things I never had to deal with, including arranged marriages and parental pressure to get married. In the end I learned to listen to everything and never assume.

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My Shakespearean Tragedy…but Everything Works Out in the End

My study abroad was not glamorous. In fact, during the initial week of my study abroad in Guayaquil, Ecuador at La Universidad Casa Grande, I felt as if Shakespeare could have written a tragedy detailing my immersive experience. I didn’t travel to 12 other countries, drink espresso and eat pastries every morning, nor attend beach parties and sightsee with other exchange students (I was the only student who was not from the same university in France). I was not confident enough in my Spanish to get a bus ticket and explore Ecuador on my own and my host family situation was not ideal. I was destined to be miserable.

I communicated my concerns to my director at Nebraska Wesleyan University and while she agreed to look into a replacement option, she encouraged me to first visit La Universidad Casa Grande to be certain that there was nothing for me in Guayaquil. As fate would have it, my university was phenomenal. The professors allowed me to explore topics like Rafael Correa’s revolución ciudadana and public policy formation for improved orthodontic care in Medellín, Colombia. The academic rigor included analytical papers about economic, political, and social development in Latin America, weekly group presentations, and weekly Spanish reading assignments. This experience inspired my interest in inter-American development and I have become an advocate for sustained relations between countries in the Western Hemisphere and human security that extends beyond regional borders. My study abroad affirmed my career path and ultimately led to a semester-long internship with the Department of State.

Outside of the classroom, I knew that if I was to travel anywhere in Ecuador, I would have to do it alone, considering my circumstances – and so I did. I lived with indigenous families in the Amazon Rainforest and Sierra Nevadas, biked an active volcano, scuba dove in the Galapagos, and took weekend trips to various communities known for silver and orchids – large exports in Ecuador. Because of the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, I not only gained the experience of a lifetime, but learned how to do it alone. As I have reflected on my life experiences thus far, the one thing that has been quite easy to learn is that I have an obligation to my community to create spaces for citizen-state interactions. Whether in the classroom or in the public arena, I believe it is my responsibility to use my academic training to understand political, social, and economic phenomenon to identify and suggest more efficient systems under which everyone can prosper. I internalized that I am capable of taking care of myself and was reassured that while this small-town Nebraska, first-generation college student has struggled to keep moving at times, I am resilient and deserving of life opportunities. As I look to graduation in May, I can confidently say that my study abroad opened a door to a world that Nebraska could not have offered me and for that, I am ever grateful.

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What experiences from your time abroad as a Gilman Scholar continue to resonate and influence you today?

One aspect of my study abroad experience that continues to resonate with and influence me today is the cultural lifestyle of the Brazilian people. From my perspective, Brazilians are selfless, social and outgoing. Unlike Americans, Brazilians do not concern themselves with the future. Rather, they indulge in the present moment and prioritize relationships.

 

Rosa, my Contemporary Brazilian Social debates professor at my host university, once said, “Brazilians are a happy people. Brazilians are social, friendly and anything but shy. If you sit by a Brazilian on the bus, you will know all about his or her life by the time you reach your bus stop.” It’s true. The Brazilians that I met were chatty, friendly, welcoming, open and very outgoing. I was able to be myself around Brazilians without the fear being judged. As a result, I developed a strong sense of belonging within the Brazilian community.

 

An example that illustrates the Brazilian character is their approach to life’s circumstances. Even amidst high levels of poverty, (in Brazil’s slums (favelas)) Brazilians were happy and content. Rather than dwell in self-pity, Brazilians found happiness in the small joys of life. Brazilians turned their negative situation into a positive one. They built a strong sense of community around them; cared for their neighbors and devoted their lives to improving the lives of others. Even when they had very little for themselves, they gave more than one can think possible.

 

A perfect example of this occurred when I volunteered as an English teacher at a local Non-Profit Organization, in a Brazilian favela. During my time as a volunteer, I met the coordinator of the NGO (Andreia) and discovered that Andreia too, was a resident of the favela. Rather than seeing herself as a victim,  Andreia chose to improve her community by running her own nonprofit for local children.

 

Because this perspective has influenced me in many ways, I no longer take anything for granted; family, friends or material possessions.I am thankful for everything I have and I indulge in life just a little bit more than before I studied abroad. I am no longer a self-centered individual. I am more confident, more secure and more self-aware. I care more about relationships and I have chosen to devote my life to improving the lives of those around me.

 

In order to share my experiences with students who are considering applying to the Gilman scholarship, I will give public presentations to community colleges, informing students about studying abroad, the Gilman scholarship and my experience studying abroad in general. The goal of these presentations will not only be to encourage students to apply for the Gilman scholarship but to increase the likeliness of working with students directly, in order to encourage them further to study abroad and apply for the Gilman scholarship. Upon working directly with students, I will further share my experience studying abroad and give students specific resources to help them do so, such as helping them through the Gilman scholarship application process and providing external resources for extra help.

 

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The Accelerated Guide to Learning a Language

I have always had a mission, a mission to have a full conversation in Arabic without any stuttering or mistakes. This goal seemed very simple and straightforward, but never attainable. Even though my continuous studying throughout my education I always conjugated a word wrong or forgot the translation of a specific word. To tackle this I thought the best way would be going to a country that spoke the language. This thought process pushed me towards Jordan, but when I chose a city I chose one knowing that the native population does not understand the English Language. At first, this seemed like a great idea and ended up being one, but getting adjusted to it was a challenge.

The Arabic language is unique as it is written from right to left, has over 30 different letters, exclusive phonemes not found in any other languages, too many dialects, and the list goes on. Having a moderate level of understanding I was really proud of myself, but the second I arrived I realized I did not know as much. I have always learned standard Arabic and was quite familiar with the Syrian dialect. In Jordan, the dialect was different. They pronounce many sounds differently, leaving me confused even though I knew the vocabulary. To make matters worse they switched out many common words to others I never heard of. Nonetheless, I was determined to reach my goal, which now included learning a new dialect.

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The first objective was to register for classes. I was enrolled in Arabic literature and speech, along with biochemistry and human physiology (I am a biology major). This was great for the learning process as I learned more detailed grammar, many new words, and strangely enough lots of biological terms in Arabic. This was great when I later volunteered as a translator for foreign physicians in refugee camps. Yet, I kept stuttering every time I spoke to locals when buying groceries or simply getting directions. This was frustrating and I wanted to improve this. I realized a part of the deficiency turned out to be my lack of confidence in my speech. That I didn’t feel like I was proficient enough and was scared of embarrassing myself which shied me away from interacting with others in the language.

Little did I know that these mistakes are the only way to improve. With this new mentality, I began speaking to anyone and everyone. In the beginning, many embarrassing mistakes were made, but the end result was that I reached my goal– I spoke Arabic fluently. I even got their accent and dialect down that the locals barely knew I was a foreigner. What I learned from this experience is that the best way to increase the proficiency of a language is to be confident in your abilities. It also requires you to take advantage of your environment by speaking to everyone. Locals are always interested in foreigners and are usually looking to learn about life abroad. This was the reason I spoke so fluently.  This process resulted in me speaking to a variety of folks including local vendors, classmates, officers, elders, and sheikhs. This experience taught me so much about their culture, their personal struggles many faced, and the wisdom many had to offer.

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Now that I have reached this goal, how do I maintain it? Here are a few tips that I feel that helped me. Like I stated before, practice makes perfect, so you need to expose yourself to the language. For me, I began with changing my phone’s language to Arabic. It surprisingly helps since you are going to be using it constantly throughout the day. Other ways to keep the language fresh is reading. I am not saying to read a whole book, but simply reading news articles or poetry is always a good idea. Anything short that could be easily translated. I even began to watch movies and shows in Arabic to help keep the ball rolling. Thankfully for my speaking skills, I come from an Arab background so I have my family and even my community to practice with.

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Lastly, I wanted to point out that this newly acquired skill should be put to use. I found a local organization that helps resettle Syrian refugee families. They were looking for English teachers and tutors for adults and kids. Seeing this opportunity, I took it. This was great as I had the opportunity to do my part in aiding many refugees in the resettlement process but also had the opportunity to practice my Arabic. In the end, learning a language is such a big accomplishment, and has opened so many doors for me. Knowing that I have one language down, I can’t wait to learn the next.

 

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First in My Family: To Go Abroad

First in My Family: To Go Abroad

One of the best parts of college is that it often a time and place that many “first-time” experiences happen. Although I wasn’t the first in my family to go to college, I definitely was the first to go abroad. This was thanks to the Gilman Scholarship I was awarded to complete a two-month internship in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2015. From my first time abroad I’d like to share three other types of first experiences that stay with me today.

One of the essential life-skill first experiences I had abroad was how to prepare foods that I had never cooked myself. While it’s exciting to eat out as much as possible, I found that after the first month abroad I was hungry for more home cooked meals, let alone watching my budget. To my surprise, some groceries I expected to find weren’t available, such as canned beans, peanut butter, and maple syrup. I had never cooked raw beans before, and it took me a couple attempts to cook them right. I noticed that gas stoves are common in Brazil, and this was also my first time cooking on one.

While on the subject of food, I’d also like to discuss the coffee in Brazil. I was a fan of large hot or iced mochas and lattes, but I discovered that outside of Starbucks in Rio de Janeiro it’s not common to find larges coffees on the menu. Brazilians tend to drink smaller and stronger servings of coffee, such as a cappuccino or espresso. It’s not part of their culture to order to-go cups of coffee. Drive-thru coffee stands are not a thing there. I actually now prefer a cappuccino rather than a large mocha or latte.

Going abroad typically involves learning the language, or at least practicing. While I had taken Portuguese classes in college an hour a day, five days a week, what I wish I had included in my practice was going a full 24 hours without English, let alone two months. I remember it taking around two weeks until I became comfortable with not resorting back to English every day. I found it important to experience entire days in Portuguese, which was a first for me.

Although Portuguese is the main language, I was surprised to discover how often I heard English pop music in stores. I also heard a live band speak to the audience in Portuguese but then sing completely in English.  Some of the local college students I spoke with were not fluent in English for conversation, but their favorite singers were from the USA, such as Beyoncé and Adam Levine. I realized that they were learning English primarily through music. I was then inspired to find a Brazilian singer I would listen to in order to learn more about the language, and I became a fan of Vanessa da Mata’s music.

My last “first experience” I’ll mention here was one of the more impactful for me. I had less than two weeks left of my internship when I lost my iPhone. Since I still had my laptop I decided I’d be fine without my phone. What I failed to realize is how long, nearly a decade, it had been since I last was without a phone for more than a weekend. I still accessed the internet on my phone, but I was now experiencing life without it at my fingertips. I found that I was much more observant of my surroundings, and rather than always stopping to take a picture, I felt more “in the moment” of where I was, and those good memories to have.

Looking back on these first experiences abroad, I see similarities to my second travel abroad, to Switzerland and France this summer. I again lost my phone towards the end of my trip. Although this was unfortunate, I actually found myself learning more about my new environment hands-on than when I was busy navigating and documenting it through my phone.

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