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A Different Flavor of Normal

It has now been well over a month since my passage through Mexico and its rich cultures. With that time, I’ve been able to reflect, decompress and once again integrate myself into my home society of the University of Washington. The sense of a new year, new beginnings, it coincides well with the end of such a life changing month. Yet with all this reflective thought, claims of new roads to travel, and new frames of view to see the world through, I can’t stop asking myself the question which has proven most difficult to answer. What has really changed since Mexico? Am I a new different person, changed for better or worse? Have these self proclaimed prophecies of a changed life really taken root or even shown evidence of themselves in my daily life?

That’s why this final return post comes so late, nearly a month and a half after my return. I look back at my field journal and see all these bright hopes of bringing back all this learning and yet I feel I’ve made no effort towards any of these goals. It’s almost disturbing when I think about how fast I returned to my seemingly complacent self within the first couple days back. I’ve heard all these stories of “reverse culture shock” and feelings of loneliness in your knowledge but to me, it seems just like “normal” life.

So after exhausting observations of my physical actions through the world, I turned to focus more on my psyche. It was there that upon closer examination which I could notice the subtlest of changes. These new thought patterns lay deep, where Mexico has embedded itself in my most routine and closely held behaviors. It’s in how I make an active effort to use less water, taking shorter and less showers, trying to wash dishes faster. It’s in pausing for the smallest moments to consider my every action from the lens of an outside observer. The reason I’ve been having so much difficulty with seeing the change is because that change has been so ingrained as to seem natural.

So the way I see things now is this. I’m a busy college student. I can’t expect so much to change so fast. I’m not alone in this experience either. It’s a quest to be taken with classmates and others who dare to journey abroad. A month and a half ago, seeds were sown. These seeds today are only just beginning to take root but given time, they will grow into the most beautiful of orchards. Plans are being made. Work in migration, queer activism, abroad, all seem within the sphere of my future when before, not even a field of work was clear. Not all change is apparent even when given time. I’ll just have to trust my gut to tell me what the future holds, how to take action, and that this trip really has registered new thought. In the end, it really is just a slightly different flavor of the everyday normal.

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The Return and Reverse Culture Shock

Was it all a dream? Did all of that really happen? How can I even begin to explain to my friends and family back home about my experiences studying in Sápmi? I have identified closely with the stages of reverse culture shock in the past two weeks. I miss the Sámi culture and the closeness I developed with my hosts and random people that became friends. Before returning home home in Northern Illinois, I spent six days with my mother in Oslo which is the largest city in Norway. After studying so closely with the indigenous peoples, it was a shock to be surrounded by so many Norwegians and little evidence of Sámi presence. Spending the time with my mother was wonderful because we got to spend quality time together doing really fun things in a city neither of us had been to before, but I couldn’t eloquently express what I was thinking about after such an intensive month of immersion study. Fortunately the only stories I have to share are happy ones, this program couldn’t have gone any better.

Mom and I Exploring Oslo, Norway.

Mom and I Exploring Oslo, Norway

Part of me thinks I will be back there someday…maybe for a holiday or to visit an old friend. Part of me can’t imagine the next time I will ever get the chance to go to this part of the world…will any of those new friendships last the test of time? The last ten days back in small-town Illinois have been excellent, but complicated. I’ve been spending time with family and got to visit an old friend and explore downtown Chicago but mind is trying to adjust to American ways of life…and also knowing that I am leaving to study in Costa Rica soon. As an environmental studies major, I can’t help but find myself comparing the ecological health of place I visited in Norway, the Chicago river I walked beside, the tropic rain-forest I will find myself in for the next month…its too much for me to process in a short amount of time.

Things I have been so happy to have back in America are non-dairy milk options, the overwhelming choices available in any shopping or grocery store, and lower prices compared to Scandinavia, and the beautiful prairies and forests I grew up among. Thing I miss about my host country is the lower population density, vast and lush natural landscapes, being surrounded by foreign languages, and the general nomadic travel component of my particular course, and most of all the people that I got to share enlightening experiences with. The ego check that comes along with culture shock has taught me a lot about myself and what I would like to change.

On a walk in the windy city...the city by the lake...Chicago.

On a walk in the windy city…the city by the lake…Chicago.

I now know my strengths and weaknesses better than I had a month and a half ago the day I began my international journey. I can also identify qualities in other people in a way that I couldn’t before this experience; I feel like the more people who are different that you meet and interact closely with, the more about human behavior becomes apparent to you. People are so diverse, even among close communities. Generalizing and comparing one culture to another doesn’t do any good, but recognizing those beautiful and challenging uniquenesses is important. I wonder if I will ever see someone wearing the beautifully colored gahkti, or if I will ever eat reindeer or whale, or surf above the arctic circle again? Will the friends I made there ever come to visit me in America? So many people hear a lot about America and want to visit so badly, and I hope to be a good host to anyone who finds their way here.

On a hike enjoying the natural beauty of northern Illinois.

On a hike enjoying the natural beauty of northern Illinois.

What will I do now? Well…I’m going to be studying in Costa Rica for 23 days! It will be my final course of study for my first bachelor’s degree in Conservation Science and Management from the University of Washington. The course is in environmental science and restoration ecology through the school of environment and focuses on biodiversity and sustainability. I wish I could tell you all about it, but my Gilman International Scholar’s duties have come to an end with this final blog about my experiences in Sápmi. I look forward to seeing sloths, observe hundreds of species within each taxa, to eat exotic fruits, practice Spanish and scientific sketching, and to have the best final class any undergraduate student could ask for!

It’s been a pleasure writing for all of you. Peace.

 

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Costa Rica to College to Career

It has been two years since I was awarded the Gilman Scholarship to Costa Rica, and it has provided me the skills to be confident, flexible, and independent. So, I initially did not think that I would gain these skills when studying abroad- I thought that I could just get ahead by taking courses while having the opportunity to travel and become more advanced in my Spanish-speaking skills, but studying abroad allowed me to gain critical career skills by pushing me from my comfort zone.

Yes, I did expand my Spanish-speaking vocabulary, but more importantly I developed important cross-cultural communication skills. You see, I was in a home-stay program where I was able to live with a family and learn about the Costa Rican culture to truly adapt to the Pura Vida lifestyle. My communication skills developed immensely, and I am able to now interact with people with different backgrounds. Also, learning another language can make you a competitive applicant for a future career because you are able to connect with a greater range of people through communication.

Studying abroad will help you enhance your ability to adapt to a new environment. During my first days in Costa Rica I had no idea what to do, where to go, or how to have fun. I escaped the dim lighting of the library and was able to actually walk outside and study wildlife on campus (such as sloths) at the University of Costa Rica! Fortunately, I was able to make cheap affordable travel plans through contacting travel agencies. While traveling in Costa Rica, I was able to meet other college students while staying in hostels, which really opened my eyes as it was a completely different experience. However, that experience was a growing experience as I was able to meet and connect with others from all across the world. I was also able to develop new time management skills in order to balance my classes as well as traveling. Ultimately, studying abroad allowed me to gain the skills necessary such as time management and being flexible which are key skills in the workforce.

Being a Gilman Scholar means that you are not only given the opportunity to study abroad, but you are given a strong foundation to set up your future career through the experiences that you will gain.  Thank you Gilman for providing me with that foundation!

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Finishing college and Cambridge

This week I finished my college degree. In the past five years I have written dozens of papers, taken countless tests and quizzes, and spent hundreds of hours in the library, but Thursday night that all concluded when I submitted my final paper. As I said before it all feels a bit odd finishing my degree at the University of Cambridge, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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A pasture near River Great Ouse.

With the completion of this study abroad program I feel well prepared to jump into my next stage of life. In college I lived in the urban city of Berkeley, the rural mountain community of Monteverde Costa Rica, and now finally the historical town of Cambridge. I never thought going to university would provide the opportunity to travel and live in so many new places and I can confidently say that living abroad has been the most educational experiences during my time in college. Powerpoints, lectures, and discussions provide for academic growth, but living in a new country allows for growth in far more important ways.

Snapshots of St. Ives, Cambridgeshire on my 23rd birthday

Having visited the UK once before and having previously studied abroad, I did not experience the same radical personal changes that are common from your first time abroad. That being said, this experience was in no way any less important. At UC Berkeley students feel an intense pressure to immediately launch into a career, which makes a high stress environment conducive to rash decisions. Being here we were all so engaged with the Cambridge community and English culture that we didn’t have the mental space to worry too much about job apps and resumes. This is not to say that career planning was put on hold, to the contrary this program has provided the time to think deeply about my career priorities and goals. I have had many discussions with the locals, my professors, and my peers about careers in medicine and science. I even perused the job openings on the local hospital’s website this week. Studying abroad at the end of my college career has provided freedom and time to deeply ponder my career direction and aspirations, a luxury I would not have had if I was back home.

Local snacks! These were the best scones I have ever tried and we couldn’t resist indulging in the wild blackberries.

 Furthermore, living in Cambridge has given me a window into a different lifestyle. In the United States I would never have the chance to live in an 800-year-old building or visit ancient Roman sites such as Bath. There is a sense of permanence here that is oddly comforting: life has persisted for thousands of years and will continue to do so while you are here, and after you are gone. Layered upon this antiquity is a vibrant modern culture. Walking through the beautiful stone buildings you see live music almost every day, food from all over the world, and the distinctive youth fashion. Life here is founded on traditions and history, but also innovative and progressive. Getting to experience life in England I can now relate better to European foreigners and better understand what influences their morals and values. I will incorporate various habits and customs that I learned here when I return home.

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Gonville & Caius College on King’s Parade

A piece of England will always remain with me in the form of the growth I experienced here. Cambridge has given me a certain steadiness and confidence that I would not have had if I chose to do summer school in Berkeley. I feel more firm in who I am, but at the same time more open to change. Studying abroad has been an exercise in assessing my strengths and weakness; I know what I am capable of and what I need to work on. As I pack my bags, melancholy washes over me: it is difficult letting go of this beautiful chapter in my life, but I can’t help but be excited for the next one. I am no longer a university student, but I know that as long as I can travel I will never stop learning.

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Meaningful relationships in Brazil

One of the most meaningful relationships during my time abroad was with a local Brazilian student named Gabriel Barros. I was introduced to “Gabe” by my Portuguese instructor; for the sole purpose of tutoring. Gabe was an Engineering major and thus, he was fairly busy. In all honesty, I can say that Gabriel was a terrible tutor (of course I am being funny)! I cannot say that I learned very much during our tutor sessions. In accordance to my host university’s policy, Gabriel and I could not socialize off of school grounds. Therefore, Gabriel and I did not “hang out” much, aside from when he went with me to get my first tattoo, went to the movies, and gave me a ride to the airport for my departure. Even though Gabriel was a terrible tutor, he was a great friend. We did not spend a lot of time together in Rio de Janeiro, but our lost time was made up during our reunion in Tokyo Japan!

I feel like I really got to know Gabriel in Tokyo. I brought him several snacks from the U.S. (as his birthday was on my arrival in Japan) and we rented a hostel together. I came to understand his sense of humor and he mine (although, it took us both a while to get accustomed to, ie- he didn’t understand my sarcasm so he became irritated whenever I said something sarcastic. I thought that his reaction was funny so I would deliberately be sarcastic to get him upset)

My time with Gabriel in Tokyo was well spent! Every morning, we planned out our schedule over a cup of Japanese espresso (Gabriel wines a lot if he doesn’t have coffee). On several occasions, we had 100 Yen sushi together (which is very cheap), went people watching in the Shibuya district (cool place to people watch), went Anime shopping in Akihabara (Gabriel likes Anime, I don’t), tried several Ramen dishes at the Yokohama Ramen Museum, visited Mt. Fuji, bathed in a public onsen, had a blast in Roppongi, and we did so much more! Unfortunately, our time together ended after I was scheduled to depart to Osaka and Kyoto, 8 days after our trip to Tokyo. But even though our time in Tokyo is over, our adventures together are not!

Gabriel and I have been actively in contact over the years. Mainly, via Facebook messenger and Facebook video chat. Until next time Gabbi!!

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My Return

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It’s amazing how fast you can feel at home in a new environment. I was in South Korea for almost a month, and in just that time I was able to adapt to the culture and embrace the changes. I was enjoying my stay so much that at one point I was wishing that I could stay longer. Despite all of this, I am amazed that I haven’t suffered any major or negative reverse culture shock since I’ve returned.

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On August 5th, Cherry and I took a taxi to the airport at around 6am. I remember being wide awake and watching as we passed through Seoul. I was trying to absorb some last minute images before I had to enter the airport. The taxi driver had the radio on at low volume, and Cherry was sleeping to my left. At first, I was a little melancholy, but soon I felt at peace.

I looked over the recent texts my mother had sent me asking for my flight information. After that, I thought about my family and friends that were anxiously waiting for me to return. They were my priority.

When I arrived in New York it was Sunday afternoon. As soon as I got home I showered, changed, and then ate the food my mother had prepared. I was chatting with my brothers, my mother was taking care of me, my sister was asking random pop-culture questions, and my dad was silently shuffling around the apartment. It felt like any other Sunday.

The next morning at 8am I had my driving lesson (my road test is this upcoming week!) and then I went to work an 8 hour shift at the Hunter College Library. It was a busy day, and thanks to that I was very aware of the differences between New York and Seoul.

I was in rush to make it to my driving lesson that morning, so I ended up forgetting my earphones at home. Usually I hate walking in New York City without earphones since they serve as an armor, protecting me from the craziness that goes on throughout this city. To my surprise I didn’t realize that I had left my earphones until I was on 7 train heading towards the driving school. I was so comfortable walking to the train station that I guess it reminded me of walking to a station in Seoul. Never, during my time in South Korea, did I use my earphones while I was walking outside.

However, that comfort of walking music-less in the streets only lasted that one day. On my way home after work I was approached three times by panhandlers and abruptly surprised by a subway singer. My armor was needed.

On another note, I find it funny that I still bow a little to people when I say thank you. In South Korea my friends and I were pleasntly surprised at how nice most employees from stores, cafes, restaurants, the subway, etc. were to us, so we always used to give 45 degree angle bows. Perhaps it’s the fact that kindness between strangers can sometimes be a rarity here in New York that I always have the urge to give certain people big bows. When I start doing a bow, I quickly remind myself that I’m not in South Korea, so I end giving a little head bow.

Other than these minor instances, I think I’ve adjusted well back into my old life here in New York. Of course I miss my Korean friends, Yohan and Aeju, as well as my little crew of New York City friends that I became close with on this trip, but it’s not in a painful way. Whenever I think of them I just smile. I know that I will go back to South Korea sometime next year, alongside the new friends I have here in New York.

In addition, this study abroad program has heavily influenced my academic future. I definitely want to take more media production classes during my last two semesters. I also want to find a media internship that will allow me to work with people within the Documentary field. If I find an internship like this and end up enjoying it, then perhaps I will apply to a master’s program that specializes in camera production. My ultimate goal is to find a career that is within this field of work.

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A Day in the Life in Spain

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