I made a new goal

After arriving in Slovenia a month ago, I have really started to get the hang of living and studying abroad. Even though Ljubljana is considered a small city compared to most European capitals, it is huge to me! I know my way around really well though with some help of the public transit app and kind people I meet on the street.

It has been very, very cold since I’ve been here compared to most Slovenian winters. Everyone keeps saying, “Oh, it’s going to warm up next week, and then you can really see Ljubljana.” It’s been several weeks and its still cold and snowy, but I have come to really love the city covered in snow. And I know all of the good places to go for hot chocolate and tea to warm you up after a very cold walk.

Before coming to Ljubljana I had this unspoken goal to visit every country in Europe. There was a part of me that knew that it was a really unrealistic goal, so I just never really vocalized it. However, it was always there. I figured out a completely realistic goal this week though.

I am going to make a friend from every country in Europe while I am here. 

I didn’t really understand how common it was to do a do a semester exchange in Europe, but it really is. From what I understand, Europe has this program called Erasmus, and students from all over can apply for it and go. So there are A LOT of exchange students in Ljubljana this semester (someone told me there are 900)!

It makes it really easy to make friends because all of us are in a new place, alone. And to make it even better, there is a student organization that just organizes trips and events for exchange students. So far I have been to an international dinner, a city tour, skiing in the Alps, and this week I’m going to Slovakia, Hungary, and Austria! All of these opportunities lead to making a lot of amazing friends from just about everywhere. I have a great start so far: Slovakia, Germany, Lithuania, Spain, Turkey, Iceland, Belgium, Finland, China, Argentina, Croatia, and of course Slovenia.

Here’s to setting achievable goals and meeting so many cool people.

Lake Bled(Picture of me and three friends at Lake Bled)

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Meet Gilman Scholar Arlette Hawkins

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Carnival 2018 in Rio de Janeiro


This past February, Brazil’s largest festival – Carnival – was celebrated all over Brazilian cities, from Rio de Janeiro to Bahia, Salvador. Carnival 2018 officially began on Friday, February 6, 2018; though pre-carnival festas (parties) began back in January and continued to the end of the month. Carnival officially ended on the 18th of February. According to Guinness Worlds Records, Rio de Janeiro’s carnival event is the world’s largest, with millions of Brazilians and foreigners in the streets of Rio enjoying their time with family and friends, dancing and listening to a variety of of Brazilian and foreign music.

Photo 1

Carnival’s history dates back hundreds of years when Egyptians celebrated the beginning of Spring. Thanks to Alexander the Great, the Greeks would adopt the festival thereafter, and soon too would Romans (after having converted to Christianity), creating a food festival attached to Christianity where all types of food were eaten before the beginning of Lent. In fact, it’s said Carnival means ‘carne vale’ which translates to ‘farewell to meat.” It is thus largely celebrated in western culture with a large population of Christians. However, today Carnival represents something completely different, for no longer is it attach to religious orthodoxy but people-to-people relations, with each carnival varying from society to society with a uniqueness of its own.

In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the Portuguese brought Carnival with them, yet would-be Brazilians (in large part African slaves) would wholly transformed the festival as it is known today in Brazil where people are one in the same and can pretend to be who they want, and what they want, for a few days. The cultural clash between Portuguese, Africans, and Natives, even created Samba music in the early 20th century, with Samba schools opening up years later and ‘Sambódromo’ (Sambadrome) being established decades after as a venue for incredible Carnival parades. I attended one of their parades the first weekend of the competition and they were incredible. They are the life to Carnival itself; representing a key part of the city of Rio, with every parade from different schools filled with metaphors and messages to Brazilians and outsiders from the working-people of Brazil. Though many locals do not attend the show, it attracts thousands of visitors from around the globe. Below is a picture of my favorite parade, by the samba school Paraíso do Tuiuti, in which they criticize the government, elites, and discuss slavery, posing a question to society: “Is slavery really extinct?”

Photo 2

From the first day of Carnival I enjoyed time with friends, going out to different ‘blocos’ with different types of music every day and experiencing a one in a lifetime event. The culture of Carnival is all about forgetting, enjoying precious time with people and pretending everything is perfect. It’s essentially Brazilian culture times one hundred, one of the hardest aspects of brazilian culture I’ve had to adjust; for in the states efficiency, quickness top.

Disparities during Carnival, however, are even more evident; with dozen of parents and teenagers during blocos selling alcohol, water, and whatnot  to support themselves, while other Brazilians and foreigners alike enjoying the festivities at mere feet away. In one of the most memorable moments during Carnival, a pair of three Brazilians adolescents, after having worked the whole day in the streets selling goods, waited for the bus one night while a group of Brazilians around the same age were drinking and waiting outside the metro to head to another bloco. In all, Carnival is something to experience, a place of festivities and enjoyment where I made new Brazilian friends, and even connected with some Americans and Canadians who were visiting, meeting an array of people and having the time of my life.

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Nothing Can Stop You


Almost 2 years ago, I bundled up all of my excitement, nervousness, and courage to board a plane to Shanghai, China. I had been anxiously awaiting the big day that I would travel out of the country for the first time and it had finally arrived. Ever since I can remember, I had always wanted to travel. In high school, I got on a plane for the first time for a summer program in Massachusetts, but once I got to college, it was time to up the ante and take a bigger step out of my comfort zone. Becoming a Gilman scholar allowed for that step to take place and for immense growth to follow.

After spending 6 weeks abroad in a country where I had never learned the language nor ever been out of the country was one of the most exhilarating, overwhelming and life-changing experiences I have ever encountered. I still think about life in China on a daily basis. Being able to articulate my experience abroad is also a reason I have become who I am today. When I got back to America, I applied for a job as an ambassador for the company I studied abroad through and had the opportunity to speak with many students at my undergraduate institution, highlighting the feasibility of studying abroad. This led to a few public speaking opportunities as well as professional development. With each moment I spent talking about my experience, I increased my communication skills and learned how to tailor my message based on my audience. Additionally, my confidence in myself has sky-rocketed since living in China. I have no reason to fear much of anything any longer because I conquered my fears. Each day in China brought a new challenge and each day, I overcame them. There is nothing that I cannot do and I have only become sure of that due to my experience abroad.

Whenever I am given the opportunity to speak with someone who has just an inkling of interest in studying abroad, I am confident that I can sway them to continue with the process. Having one on one conversations with students about my accomplishments since becoming a Gilman scholar is often more than enough to influence others to take a chance on themselves and pursue what they were always afraid of doing. That’s really all it is about. People need validation and some sort of security. I believe that when students see someone similar to them light up when they talk about their experience abroad, it lights up that doorway that was once so dim. Studying abroad no longer seems like an impossible dream to never come true. It’s about much more than the opportunity I was provided for me to go abroad. It is about how I have grown and elevated myself since then. Developing into a more conscious person only started with studying abroad; it continues in my daily life and my hope is that one day every student can experience how that feels.

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Nossa! My First Two Weeks in Brazil


Warm! Hot! Sizzling! All on their own, these words capture my first two weeks in São Paulo, Brazil well. The weather is tropical and stays a comfortable 70 to 80 degrees. The food is continuously cooked to absolute perfection and every bite leaves you yearning for more. The Brazilian people are gorgeous inside-and-out – exhibiting an always helpful, sunny deposition. My experience has been overwhelmingly positive despite the language barrier; I speak English, French, and Spanish, but no Portuguese. So positive that I have yet to experience much culture shock, but rather, I feel awe, love, and envy for a culture I have found in many ways to be better organized and more progressive than America’s.

The charming character of the Brazilian people became evident as soon as I hopped off the plane at GRU and jumped in the Uber. “Are you here for the first time?” I understood the driver ask. I confirmed that I was and that my Portuguese is very limited. He called his filha (daughter) who speaks English and had me talk to her. She told me that her pai (father) calls her when passengers do not speak Portuguese, so that she may talk to them and make them feel more comfortable. After telling her I would be in São Paulo until June, she gave me her phone number, so that I may ask her for advice on places to eat and travel. Feeling more comfortable, I got over my initial hesitation and spoke to the driver in my broken Portuñol (a jumble of Portuguese and Spanish) for the rest of my ride.

The language barrier is also present with my roommate, João. In fact, I do not think I or any of the others in the CET program have truly mastered the pronunciation of his name. He jokingly clinches his nose when he practices it with us, because like much of the language, it has a very nasal intonation. João does not speak English, but did start taking classes when he signed up for the CET program, which is very sweet. Fortunately, my Spanish has provided me with a smaller learning curve than would have most and I have been able to pick up the language quickly. Thus, our conversations are flowing much better than on Day 1. I have also agreed to help him with his English, yet, just the curse words and slang have stuck.

Four others live in Apartment 13 with us. Despite the omens associated with that number, I feel fortunate to live with my suitemates. Being gay in a foreign country worried me. Brazil is said to be progressive, but so is the US and my experiences there are not always safe. Accordingly, I asked for suitemates who identified as I do and the CET program came through; all of us are queer. Relating to my suitemates makes the exchange easy, because we instinctively guide each other through the aspects of our cultures that already feel like home. Our Brazilian suitemates have shown us Brazilian drag queen Pabllo Vittar’s music videos and on our second night we went to a gay dance club. Meanwhile, we have shown them episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race (which is available on Brazilian Netflix…take notes U.S.) and Super Bowl performances from artists like Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Madonna.

I’ve learned that my concerns are far from the truth. Brazil’s mainstream is very queer and as result, queer individuals are well accepted. In fact, statistics show that 1 in 5 men living in Rio de Janeiro are queer and that last year’s Pride Parade in São Paulo was the world’s largest with more than 5 million people attending. Artists like Pabllo Vittar appear in nationwide commercials and have millions of views on their videos. On the streets of São Paulo, I see queer couples holding hands and kissing and walking their children. Being “visibly queer” was concerning as I do dress fluidly, but I found that even people who are not part of the queer community, embrace non-conventional expression. In São Paulo, I don’t get the same double-takes I would in U.S. queer havens like New York and Washington, DC.

Budgeting for this trip was also a concern as I depend on wages to maintain myself throughout the semester, but I am not allowed to work in Brazil on my student visa. I hustled and was fortunate enough to receive grants from the CET and Gilman programs, but even then study abroad fees and airfare ate into a lot of that money. To my surprise, my suite-mates (both the American and Brazilian students) come from working class backgrounds and must also “ball on a budget.” The CET program selects only students on 100% scholarships to PUC as roommates for the program. This is special because it affords those on the program insight into the lives of individuals who are more approximately situated to the average Brazilian. Additionally, these suite-mates better understand how to navigate Brazil on a budget and have been helpful at getting us out to activities and sights that are cheaper.

These connections with the Brazilian suite-mates have made conversations about inequality, poverty, and race as daily and substantive as Brazilian bread. Just about anything we see in the news or in the street sparks up a deep, meaningful conversation about the legacy of slavery (Brazil was the last Western nation to emancipate slavery) and how there are still structures in place to keep people of color (which is politically correct in the United State, but not in Brazil) behind. It was surprising, yet comforting to see that this progressive, anti-fascist movement is alive all over the world and that my suite-mates were familiar with the works of many of my favorite activists, theorists, and writers.

In all, the people involved in the CET program – teachers, Brazilian roommates, and American students – share truly caring, inquisitive, and thoughtful qualities. It doesn’t feel like anyone came on the trip for the sake of traveling abroad, which I found surprising, because that is often the sense I gain from hearing others talk about their abroad experience. This is telling of the kind of culture and material the CET program has established for itself. It seems to naturally attract students that seek to truly immerse themselves and understand the other side of Brazil. Yes, Brazil has world-class beaches, great food, and beautiful people, but as I mentioned earlier, also a lot of inequality. CET Brazil has dedicated its curriculum and activities to understanding the what, when, where, who, why, and how of that inequality.

All this said, I do not aim to mislead. While my experience has been positive, I must recognize that I live here as an American, am attending one of Brazil’s best schools, and reside in a predominantly White and rich neighborhood. My experience is marked with many privileges that are exclusive and rare for most of Brazil’s population. Though I am read as Black in the US, in Brazil, I am read as a light-skinned foreigner and will accordingly be shielded from unequal treatment. In come CET’s classes on economics, history, politics, and society. Those classes have not yet started – yes, you read that right, I’ve been abroad for two weeks and still have yet to do much schoolwork. But once classes begin, that intercultural conflict will take the front seat of these blogs, while my own experience serves to supplement.

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The Best Adventures Start Last Minute

It’s 9 PM, the mingling of Italian, Spanish and English outside my bedroom is intoxicating, but welcomed. It is an environment that I have grown accustomed to and surely one that I will miss once this is all over.

It is funny to think about all the things that you will miss when you still have them close to you. Like how I’m just nine stops away from Il Duomo di Milano, the easiness of hopping on a train and getting out in front of the largest cathedral in Italy is a sensation of it’s own. The fact that every street you walk through is filled with amazing architecture, from baroque to modern skyscrapers, Milan has it all. It is also that feeling that you get when someone greets you with a ‘Ciao!’ and a smile every time they see you, even if you have only had one short conversation. Milan has an air of its own that is difficult to describe, but I am sure that it is a sentiment that everyone feels while on their study abroad.

It has been two weeks since I first arrived in Milan, Italy and I still cannot believe that I am here. This is mainly due to the fact that I was not sure if my study abroad was going to take place. I remember how sure I felt back in September 2017, finalizing all my university requisites and turning in my application. Back then, I was sure that everything was going to be alright. But as a student from the University of Puerto Rico — Río Piedras, and as a Puerto Rican overall, long term and short term plans have been in a tailspin ever since Hurricanes Irma and María hit our shores. Even after four months, life in the Island is a struggle for many and life is not close to being ‘back to normal’ as much as they make it seem. In spite of it all, I have been one of the few who has had the opportunity to continue their education through different means. For me, this has been through study abroad. I was fortunate enough to become a visiting student at Brown University for the 2017 fall semester and ecstatic to be able to continue with my Spring 2018 study abroad plans at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan (Cattolica/Unicatt).

I would be lying if I did not say that the two months before arriving in Italy were filled with anxiety. Between finishing my semester at Brown, contacting my home institution back in Puerto Rico, selecting my Italian classes and getting my visa in order in Boston, I felt like I was all over the place and nowhere at the same time. Everything that I was doing was being done last minute, but thankfully, everyone that I was in contact with had a helpful disposition. Which is why that after two weeks of being in this city, that I still cannot believe that I am here. As I walk through the streets of Milan and marvel in its beauty, I am always reminded of how lucky I am to be a part of this. Of how easy it has been to connect with likeminded people and to have created wonderful experiences in just two weeks. However, I sometimes have to remind myself when feeling overwhelmed, that everyone is in the same boat: this is a new city, a new language, and a new culture. You just have to try and go with it. Adjusting is not something that happens overnight, for some it takes a while and that is nothing to be ashamed of.

Which is why I’m thankful that Cattolica connects its international students with the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) an organization that brings international students together through different extracurricular activities. Being part of an organization like this not only chips away at the fear of having to go all out by yourself in a big new city, but it also gives you the opportunity to connect with those around you.

During my first week, ESN Unicatt Milano, prepared a ‘Welcome Aperitivo’ where we had the opportunity to mingle with various international students. It is through this Italian tradition of light eating and drinks, that I was able to meet the people which I would spend a day in Verona. A Sunday filled with quaint streets, city views and of course, la Casa di Giulietta or Juliet’s House. 

This weekend, after hearing my Intensive Italian professor talk about the festivities happening throughout Italy, I along with another student decided to head to Venice for il Carnevale di Venezia. A journey that started as a joke of ‘maybe we should go?’, led to us running to Milano Centrale at 6am on a Saturday to catch our morning train to the floating city.

Two trips filled with laughter and adventure, that would not have happened if I had not made a split second decision. This is something that I plan to take advantage of while in Italy. To not only connect through the organizations that Cattolica has to offer, but to explore what Italy is made of. From the outside, one may think that the country that looks like a boot is just a mixture of pasta, fashion and art, and while that may be, each region has its own quality and I look forward to discovering them.

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Lovin’ Ljubljana

Have you ever been to one of those really small towns? You know the type of town that is so small that you would miss it if you simply blinked. The one with only a single gas station, a family grocery store, and a post office. The town that you see on the road signs as you drive by, but never actually imagine people live there.

Believe me when I say, people do actually live there.

My name is Ashley, and I am from that type of town. 

Lovin Ljubljana

I was born and raised in Inkom, Idaho aka ‘Inkom Stinkom.’ Most people don’t use that name much anymore, but as a child I remember hearing it a lot. Now it just comes as a habit to chime in, “Yep, I’m from Inkom, Inkom Stinkom. I’m sure you’ve never heard of it.” The conversation always ends up with me naming the closest ‘big’ town to Inkom just to provide some sort of context.

Shortly after graduating high school, I moved to the big city of Logan, Utah to attend Utah State University (USU).

(Disclaimer: Logan is actually a really small city, but compared to Inkom it felt huge to me).

After three declared majors, a two year break, and a new job as a bicycle mechanic I realized that basically everything had changed since I moved to Logan. Well, almost everything. The one thing that remained the same through those 4 years, was that I new I wanted to study abroad. I didn’t care where or when, but I wanted to do it.

By the end of 2015 I was finally settled on a major – Landscape Architecture. This was a huge change from my previous three majors (psychology, international studies, and pre-law and constitutional studies), but this time I was sure. 

(Note: I know that many people think that landscape architecture is just mowing lawns, and I’m here to tell you that is not the case! If you were under that impression, that is okay, but from now on you’ll know better. Watch the following video for a short intro to what landscape architecture is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zbx3FDDNeQM

Fast forward two years. I am in love with my program! It’s that type of thing where I love to wake up and go to school, and I’m willing to stay up all night. Not because I have to, but because I genuinely enjoy it. (Yes, I’m a nerd). So I was faced with a dilemma. Do I leave this place that I love to fulfill my dream of studying abroad or do I stay?

I won’t lie. It was a really hard decision for me.

My department at Utah State has had a long standing relationship with the University of Ljubljana in Ljubljana, Slovenia so I knew that study abroad was possible for me, and it wouldn’t delay my graduation. The struggle in deciding for me was simply the thought of leaving a place that I was really comfortable. A place I had worked really hard to network in, where I had made lasting relationships, and became involved with student leadership. The department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning (LAEP) at USU had become my new home. How could I leave it?

With an outpouring of love and support from my close friends, family, and faculty members at USU, I decided to do it.

“I’m going to Slovenia!” I said it a lot after I made my decision, but it really never seemed real. I spent the entire fall semester of 2017 applying, preparing, and saving. It was the most difficult semester I think I have ever had. My class load was difficult, and there was so much to figure out between transportation, lodging, vaccinations, visas, classes, etc. I know that it was meant to be though, because everything just fell in to place.

I’ll save you the details of the planning, because of there are many. Just take it from me when I say that all of the hard work is worth it. 

As I write this, I am sitting on my bed in Ljubljana, Slovenia. It is my second night here, and I already feel at home. Don’t get me wrong, culture shock is real. Currently I feel a mix of emotions – excited, nervous, happy, uncomfortable, and yet completely comfortable. It’s like all my emotions are in a big mixing bowl, and I’m trying to figure out which one is going to surface next.

I’m okay with that reality though. Being in a new country without my family for the first time is hard, but I’ve done hard things before and survived. So bring on all of the emotions! These next few months are going to be amazing!

I do have a few goals that I want to accomplish while I am here.

  1. Visit at least 13 new countries (which will bring my total to 20)
  2. Learn how to understand the basics of Slovene
  3. Go to Kurentovanje in Ptuj (this is a traditional holiday in Slovenia known throughout the country as Pust, and Ptuj is the old village where the grand celebration kurentovanje takes place. The easiest way it has been explained to me is to compare it to Halloween, everyone dresses up as some type of monster to scare away winter)

I’m excited to accomplish all of these goals, and many more, but the third one is happening soon! Kurentovanje is on Tuesday (2.13.18), so I will definitely be attending that. I can’t wait to experience is, and learn more about what the holiday is.

I know that as I continue on this crazy adventure my eyes will be opened to a lot of things. I will probably continue to have a mixing bowl full of emotions, and I know things will be hard. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

From one small town in Idaho, to a little bigger town in Utah, to a really big city in Slovenia (even though most Europeans consider it to be a small town in comparison to other capital cities), I feel confident that I will be okay.

-Ashley in Ljubljana-




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