Pushing Your Limits: The Value of Study Abroad

Here’s a graph about culture shock, which should seem familiar since it pops up on this blog a lot.

Graph1_plain 

I’d really like to start this post with: I hate this graph.

“Hate” is a strong word, I know.  If you’d like, I have other words I could use to describe my relationship with this graph: loathe, despise, abhor, detest.

Not any better?  Alright, we’ll stick to hate.

I’m a math major.  And I’ve tried really, really hard, y’all, to spare you from hearing about that.  For example, fun story I almost wrote about: I had the same taxi driver two days in a row, and we ended up becoming friends! The way I was going to tell it: I literally calculated the odds that I would have the same taxi two days in a row– a little under 4 ten thousandths out of 1, for the curious– and then nestled that into a story about Pi Day because it happened in March.  (You’re welcome for changing that up.)

But now I have to write about a line graph, which is so solidly in my Mathematics Zone that there is no way to go about this without a little bit of SCIENCE.

Ahem, sorry for the caps lock, I got excited.

This is a line graph.  While the axes are unlabeled, the x-axis (along the bottom) is pretty obviously time, and the correspondence of “high points” with emotionally positive things, and vice versa, can lead us to guess that the y-axis is “happiness.”

Graph2_axes 

And now, my dear reader, let me add a straight line, marking “constant happiness” from where you began, pre-study abroad.


Graph3_LineOfConstantHappiness

And now, my dear reader, what do you notice?

You finish below the line of constant happiness.  You end up less happy.  Study abroad is a net negative.

What?!?

(Disclaimer, it’s not just me: I showed the original, unmarked graph to Juliana, my roommate, for whom– and I quote– even basic math is difficult, and she still immediately asked, “So life will never be as good as before?”)

I’ve studied abroad before, thanks to the US Dept. of State NSLI-Y scholarship, and I can assure you that my life improved significantly.  That summer in Morocco altered my goals in life, political views, interpersonal relationships, perception of myself, America, and Arabs… and all for the better.  Were there low points, both during my trip and during reverse culture shock after?  Of course.

But were my happiness and life, overall, improved?  Of course!

And now, with the amazing opportunity to study abroad a second time with the Gilman Scholarship, yeah, sure, I identify with this graph on some level.  I had a week there in month two where I just wanted to see my friends, the ones I’ve been friends with for years instead of all the ones I’d just met; I anticipate some absolutely terrible reverse culture shock next month, when I want to take a taxi to downtown and listen to live Arabic jazz, and realize I’m in Kentucky where nothing interesting happens ever; of course I’ve had some local minima– er, I mean, “downs.”

But I still hate this graph, and I want you to all know that it gets things so so so so so wrong with regard to the most important part: where you end should be way higher than where you began, because studying abroad is awesome and will make your life better.

Brought to you by your not-so-local math major.

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“We have scars”: Remembering and moving on in post-War Belgrade

Author’s note: I am a journalism student, so I wrote this in partial fulfillment of an assignment for my study abroad program on April 23rd, the anniversary of a bombing that killed 16. The NATO bombings are a sensitive topic in Serbia, but as an American I didn’t hear about them until I met some Serbian students in college. It was really revealing to speak with the people in this article, and challenging to reconcile my own “outsider'” perceptions to the tension between everything around me-physically and ideologically! But that’s what study abroad is all about, isn’t it?

BELGRADE – It is very quiet in this part of Tašmajdan Park, a stark contrast to what would have been a deafening sound 16 years ago when the building across the parking lot — Belgrade’s RTS (Radio Television Serbia) — was hit with a NATO missile, killing 16. But now the building stands half-obliterated, silent and exposed. Such a poignant reminder that, even when tucked behind St. Mark’s Church on one of Belgrade’s busiest boulevards, is still a raw and emotional sight.

On April 23, 1999, six hours before the strike, journalist Sanja Radan, who worked for RTS at the time, left work to stay in her friend’s home, concerned her apartment was too close to potential bombing targets in the city center. “Suddenly my friend and I heard specific sound of projectile flying over the building,” said Radan.

“The first pictures of that ruined building of RTS were played on city television Studio B…Pictures of people stuck in the rubble, without arms and legs, wounded and killed,” she said. “I started screaming, it was my first reaction that was stronger than me.”

The RTS building in Belgrade, Serbia, burns after it was hit with a NATO missile on April 23, 1999, killing 16 inside. Photo via SerbiaSos.

The RTS building in Belgrade, Serbia, burns after it was hit with a NATO missile on April 23, 1999, killing 16 inside. Photo via SerbiaSos.

The bombing was part of the NATO mission to force withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo, it’s southern autonomous province at the time. During the split of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, ethnic Albanian Kosovars began pushing for independence from Serbia. NATO, who intervened to end human rights violations against the Kosovars and later supported the Kosovo declaration of independence in 2008, justified bombing RTS due to its role as the Milosevic (Serbian president) administration’s main propaganda arm.

Unlike previous targets, the RTS was not completely evacuated before the strike. Some, like journalist Tamara Skrozzo, believe that the government used the 16 deaths—all technicians, not journalists—for their own purposes: “There is a theory that those people were put there as targets; that the government was informed but refused to evacuate in order to use the victims for their propaganda…I believe it 99.9 percent,” she said.

Others maintain that NATO should never have bombed a civilian building. Even Skrozzo, who was a young “opposition” journalist for an independent anti-Milosevic radio station in 1999, agrees.

“Those people who were killed weren’t the editors or journalists supporting Milosevic, but technicians who just wanted to feed their families and live their ‘ordinary’ lives,” she said. “Being angry [about it] doesn’t describe the feeling.”

While RTS manager Dragan Milanovic was sentenced in 2002 to ten years in Serbian prison for failing to protect his employees—the only conviction in relation to the bombing so far, Serbian, NATO or otherwise—many questions remain unanswered.

But no answers, no reason and no blame will bring the 16 employees that perished in RTS’ rubble back to their families. These are the sixteen families that erected a small monument in this sleepy corner of Tašmajdan. An upright stone sits opposite the bombed remains of RTS heralding “Zašto?” —which means “why?”—in Serbian Cyrillic to passersby.

It seems that all of Serbia, like Radan, identifies with these families’ pain. “I can’t sleep at night like so many Serbian people…[The families] are still asking themselves “why” just like me,” she said.

Flowers for the bombing's 16 victims are laid in front of a monument the 16 mourning families erected in Tasmajdan Park. The current RTS building can be seen in the background. Photo via B92.

Flowers for the bombing’s 16 victims are laid in front of a monument the 16 mourning families erected in Tasmajdan Park. The current RTS building can be seen in the background. Photo via B92.

“It’s really a tragedy, but you know in wars and situations like that, it happens. Always innocent people,” said 21 year old student Nevena Nikolić. Only six years old during the campaign, Nikolić’s three year old friend was killed in her home by wayward shrapnel from a different hit in Belgrade.

Between them—Radan, Skrozzo, and Nikolić—none denies the questions and pain still present in Serbian society. Some remains, like half-destroyed buildings, serve as everyday reminders. Nikolić said, “We have these scars, like destroyed buildings and such. But you know it’s more than 15 years from that moment…Now you just live with it.”

“[The buildings] are a small punch in the chest whenever I go by them, a reminder that is neither constructive, nor painful—just emotional,” said Skrozzo. “However, I wouldn’t change those remains, wouldn’t reconstruct the buildings, just like I wouldn’t change my memories of the bombing. Those were very hard times…but also times of getting to know yourself, rearranging your priorities and times of growing up.”

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Confusing Times

I have never been so confused about my future, and it’s wonderful!

Before I came to Turkey I thought I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I had it all figured out. After I got my bachelor’s degree, I would go to graduate school to pursue psychology. Now that I have lived abroad, everything has changed. My dreams of becoming a psychologist are still alive, but I don’t see myself trying to achieve it immediately after I graduate. Other things have really interested me and I feel that they need to be pursued before graduate school.

One of these interests came about when I began teaching English in Istanbul during my second semester. I don’t know if I will ever make teaching my career, but I have really come to enjoy teaching English as a second language. Maybe after I graduate I will go abroad again and teach English to people in a different part of the world.

When I first decided to study abroad people kept telling me that this adventure was going to be life changing. I, of course, just marked it as just another cliché. I knew it was going to be an amazing time and I would see some change in myself, but I never imagined that I would have been affected this much. Now, none of this came out of an “ah-ha” moment. With time I continued to think more critically about my academic and professional future, and my priorities began to shift.

Of course the changes that I have noticed are not all serious and related to my future. Before I came to Turkey I really despised tomatoes. I thought their texture and taste were off-putting and they didn’t need to be consumed by me. However, since I have been in Istanbul, I have come to love them. They go great with almost any meal, and I am disappointed that I forced myself to live without them for as long as I did.

So eventually I am going to go back to the U.S. and see my friends and family. I have learned quite a bit about myself during my time abroad, and this has certainly caused me to change. I am a little nervous to see how my changes will allow me to see things back home. I think I have become a much more passionate person since I have been here. Will I be able to bite my tongue every time one of my friends says something that I don’t agree with?

What I am trying to say is that studying abroad puts you in a wonderfully vulnerable situation. Good times and bad times are going to come your way, but the amazing thing is they will shape the way you think and behave. I am extremely excited to see how these changes in my life will affect the way I think and behave back in the U.S. Can you imagine all the different food dishes I have missed out on in the U.S. because I refused to eat tomatoes? This is a whole new world!

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Traveling: The Push to Success

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

Cesare Pavese’s perspective on travel is very true, however he forgot to mention that the brutality is self-inflicted. In the sense that the self-infliction is voluntary and it pushes a person out of their comfort zone to go after the wonders of the world. Who has ever heard of a traveler that only wants to stay within their comfort zone? I believe a traveler seeks adventure and, as Cesare Pavese said, that means accepting only having the essential things of air, sleep, dreams, the sea, and the sky.

As I have been living in England for a while, I have grown to learn that even I didn’t expect to be so out of my comfort zone. I came into this country already loving the culture and knowing the fact that it’s one of the countries that are most similar to the United States, but I have realized that the similarities are just above the surface. It was a brutal, but understanding, surprise to me when I realized that I’m much farther away from my comfort zone than I thought. At first, I was apprehensive and uncomfortable, but I soon realized that the different people, the different food (yes, it’s actually different too), and the different way of life here push my mind to be even more open than I already thought.

Even though I was uncomfortable in this new environment in the beginning, I have learned to adapt and appreciate it. I know that being out of my comfort zone won’t last long. Even though it’s a brutal push, it pushes me towards becoming the person I want to be in life. I want to be a person that has a broadened mind, more curious, and more eager to learn. One of the things that I have come to be familiar with again is the feeling of completely not knowing something and truly learning something new and alien to me. Through my study abroad program, I am pushed out of my comfort zone each day through learning new things and that just brings me closer to my destination in life.

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Living with the Maasai

The Maasai are an incredibly fascinating people, living off the land as pastoralists. They have managed to tightly hold on to their culture, despite the western influence constantly pushed upon them. It wasn’t until the last 15 years that the Maasai have begun to feel the changes that development brings. Clothing that was once goat and cow skin has now transitioned into the brightly-colored cloth shukas that Maasai clad themselves in. Where once Maasai spent their entire lives living as pastoralists in bomas, now many move to cities and are employed as guards or in the tourism industry. And for many years Maasai people went uneducated, until the local government imposed a law requiring all children to attend primary school. However, in spite of all this, they each still maintain many of the cultural customs that make them Maasai. From their clothing and facial piercings to their rituals and ceremonies, Maasai culture is very much thriving.

After spending several days living in a Maasai village near the edge of Lake Natron in northern Tanzania, I was able to get a glimpse into the culture and lifestyles of this fascinating tribe. Over the course of 4 days I lived side by side with the Maasai, sleeping in dung/stick huts known as bomas or outside under the stars atop a cowhide, all while being taught the Maasai way of life by my home-stay family. I learned to bathe in the river and collect firewood in the forest while carrying the load back on my head. I battled bedbugs, an endless swarm of flies, and the equatorial sun. I felt like a child as my mama and sister would have to dress me each day, as I was too incompetent to tie the Maasai cloth robes onto myself. I spent my nights sandwiched on a single cowhide bed by my sister, mama, and a 4 year old child. I was also welcomed by the kindest hearts and biggest helpings of food I could ever imagine. All of this I would never trade for the world.

My little Maasai brother Naayo

My little Maasai brother Naayo

The lessons I learned about the Maasai way of life during my short stay were far greater than any book or documentary could ever show me. And I still don’t even know the half of it! But from what I did learn and witness, it is worth sharing to those who may never get a chance to meet a Maasai.

 

Cows are the world to the Maasai, and some even believe that all the worlds cattle were gifts of god to the Maasai people. They are usually only slaughtered for large celebratory events, such as weddings. Otherwise, cows are used for their milk and their blood, both forms of sustenance which can be taken without needing to have the cow killed. Cows are also a form of currency, used for settling disagreements or as dowry for wives. It is possible to judge a Maasai man’s richness by the amount of cattle he possesses.

A Maasai boma

A Maasai boma

 

The boma (the name for both the individual mud huts and the overall fenced in cluster of huts belonging to the patriarch) is constructed of cow dung and sticks, and is a surprisingly sturdy structure. The Maasai women are responsible for building their own boma after they are married. A single Maasai man may have upwards of 10 wives, meaning there will be 10 of these bomas in a single area. The lifestyle here is incredibly community oriented, with all the women looking after one another’s children. It feels like one big family, which extends to the idea of personal property. I discovered that if I wasn’t using my shoes or my flashlight, or really any of my belongings at any given moment, they then became fair game to anyone in the area. I would wake up one morning with my shoes missing, only to find my Maasai sister wearing them while she fetched water. I would see my headlamp being worn by little children and my Maasai mama alike. I soon came to realize that there really is no such thing as personal property, and much like everything else in the community, most things are shared.

A young boy at the entrance of the boma I stayed in during my time in Maasai land

A young boy at the entrance of the boma I stayed in during my time in Maasai land

 

Circumcisions and child births are the most celebrated events in Maasai culture, with elaborate ceremonies taking place for each. A boy can not transition into warrior-hood until he has undergone the circumcision process with his age class. Female circumcision is also a continuing custom, and most girls undergo this process shortly after puberty.

My pictured with Jackson, a warrior in my boma

Me pictured with Jackson, a warrior in my boma

 

Women spend their days cooking, beading and jewelry crafting, or gathering firewood and water. Maasai warriors, the Morani, spend their days hiking long miles herding cattle or goats, often napping in the shade of trees during the heat of the day.

 

Marriage occurs at a very young age, and children are revered, so having as many babies as possible is both desired and respected. Courting occurs between young women and warriors during night gatherings called asothos. Here, warriors dance and make a display of jumping as high as they can, shaking their hair at women that catch their eye. Women respond with a shoulder-shaking dance move, shimmying at the men. Both parties are chanting and singing all the while–females with their occasional high pitched additions to the men’s guttural growls and barking sounds. These gatherings last far into the night, with ours starting around 10 pm and lasting past midnight. The Maasai were very excited to have a few of us students attempt their dance moves!

Me and another student, Dan, with our Maasai families

Me and another student, Dan, with our Maasai families

 

Overall, the Maasai way of life is hard, monotonous, and sweaty. It would certainly be an incredible struggle for me to take to this way of life permanently. The Maasai however, flourish in maintaining the old ways of life. The only obvious modernized aspects of Maasai life include their use of cellphones and their going to the local town store to buy rice or a treat of soda. Time will only tell how development and modernization will affect the Maasai in the coming years, but for now, life remains simple. Beautiful, fierce, soft and kind, the Maasai are a people to be reckoned with.

Me with my Maasai mama and little brother Naayo

Me with my Maasai mama and little brother Naayo

My Maasai father, Matthew, and me

My Maasai father, Matthew, and me

My Maasai sister and her friend

My Maasai sister and her friend

 

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Serbia-Kosovo relations and sport: opening the global playing field

April 6th was International Day of Sport for Peace and Development. For that reason, I’ve included selections from a recent focus story I wrote for my study abroad program on the role sport is playing in Serbia-Kosovo relations, independence, state building, and etc.

BELGRADE – “We want to compete, and we will win,” said Nemanja Andjelkovic, a 32 year-old native of Smederevo, Serbia. But despite his passionate conviction, even Anjelkovic knows that sports in his homeland are not just about winning.

For this loyal Crvena Zvezda fan and others like him across the Balkans, sports define national identity and culture, even breaching into the political realm. Particularly between Serbia and Kosovo, the Yugoslav-era autonomous province that Serbia still legally recognizes as its own, political issues like independence and sport go hand-in-hand.

Although relations have progressed since the signing of the Brussels Agreement in 2013, political relations between Serbia and Kosovo remain icy.  Recent events outside of the political realm, however, seem to be building up to an impending standoff.

A year ago on March 5th, Kosovo played in its first FIFA-sanctioned friendly opposite Haiti. Then, in early December, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted—after five years of deliberation—to ratify Kosovo’s membership, as did the International Basketball Association (FIBA) on March 16th.

“Since wars and politics have played main roles on the social scene in the past several decades, [sport] has been one of the few means through which common people could send their message to the world,” said Anjelkovic. Kosovo has taken especial notice of this mutually supporting role of sport, politics and identity.

According to sports and national identity Ph-D candidate Dario Brentin, originally from Croatia, “There is no social field free of ideology and ideological struggles and hence sport and politics always mix. Sport is…particularly important in terms of symbolic politics.”

Serbian sports journalist Ivan Loncarevic agrees. “Sports and politics, especially in this part of the world, are always in the mix,” he said. “Politicians are using sport to emphasize differences, political mostly.”

Others, like the celebrated Serbian NBA star and head of Serbian National Olympic Committee Vlade Divac, advocate that sports and politics should be approached separately. In an interview with Reuters, he said, “I had a similar situation when we [Yugoslavia] were banned from competing in 1992 Olympics, so I insist that we look at this issue with sporting eyes and let the politicians do their job.”

But are the two—sport and politics—already intertwined in this case?

“Although Mr. Divac is a basketball legend, he does not represent the majority’s way of thinking in Serbia,” said Andjelkovic. “Sporting eyes cannot be opened while the real ones are closed.”

Ultimately, Loncarevic suggested collaboration. “The first thing needed is willingness to start from the beginning, as equal partners, neighbors, he said, “But that first step is sometimes ignored.”

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The 28th Rule

I finished “40 Rules of Love” by the Turkish author Elif Shafak last week.  The book is named for the 40 Rules of Love formulated by Shams of Tabriz, a famous Sufi (Muslim mystic).  He was most famous for his relationship with the poet Rumi, another Sufi, who began the tradition of the whirling dervishes.

I say I finished the book, but I really mean that I read through the English translation; I’ve just started it in Arabic.  I’m a full 9 pages into the Arabic version, which may not sound like much, but I’m proud of it.

Arabic is a difficult language– it’s commonly accepted as one of the four hardest languages for native English speakers to learn, in fact.  Some days I stare at a page of Arabic conjugations, realize that I’ve forgotten to shorten a long vowel to a short one on a third-person irregular feminine plural, and curse my younger self for not choosing Spanish or French.  But if you gave me the chance to go back and pick again?  I’d stick with Arabic, because I really do love it (even if the grammar is a wee bit obnoxious).

Being in Jordan has shown me just how much more I have to learn.  It’s easy to get into your fourth or fifth Arabic class, start reading news articles, and think, “Man, I’ve learned so much!”  But the day-to-day struggle to direct taxi drivers or order coffee is a stark reminder that I’m not even close to where I want to be.  Not yet.

It’s also made me more committed than ever, though, to reaching that level.  I’m constantly exposed to new, beautiful aspects of the language and culture, which inspires me to learn more.  I’m finding new reasons to learn Arabic every day– a book I want to read, a beautiful song to play, or a really neat person I’d love to get to know, but can only do so in Arabic.

Thankfully study abroad is the sink-or-swim of language learning, so I get a little bit better every day.  I’m also better able to appreciate the skills that I do have– and being 9 pages into a novel, believe it or not, feels like an accomplishment.

I understood all 9 pages.  Sure, I had to look up quite a few words… but I didn’t have to look up any sentence in its entirety.  Arabic grammar is different enough from English that occasionally I’ll know every single word in a sentence, and still not be sure what it’s saying; that hasn’t happened so far.  9 pages in, and I understand what’s happening.

It’s 8 weeks into my time here, and I’m starting to feel the same way about Jordan.  I’m still occasionally confused by something, but overall I know what’s going on.  I understand the world around me.  I can read the street signs well enough to navigate home if I’m not sure where I am, I now generally have pleasant chats with people I meet. I feel comfortable here.  It requires more effort than being in the US, but it isn’t exhausting, it isn’t overwhelming, and it’s incredibly rewarding.  I’m genuinely enjoying day-to-day life here.

I’m also really enjoying this novel.  I liked it in English, and the prose sounds even more beautiful in Arabic.  I’ll be sad to finish it, when I make it through it the last 493 pages (so, um, maybe in like three years?).  Before that happens, though, something else will end: my time in Jordan.  I’m already starting to worry about the fact that I’m halfway done– half of my days here, my short and sweet four months, are gone.

But I shouldn’t worry.  The whole point of the novel, which draws heavily on Sufi themes, is that we only have now.  We can worry about the past or the future, but– in this instant– neither one exist.  I only have myself sitting in the afternoon sun writing about this book, and you only have yourself, right now, reading my words.

It’s a lesson I’m trying to learn by heart this semester, enjoying each of my days here, but not counting.  Maybe I don’t have two more months– maybe I’ll get struck by lightning and die today (knock on wood) or maybe I’ll return and be in Jordan for years in the future.  It’s impossible to know.  But today?  I have today in Jordan, today to enjoy sunlight and reading and maybe even a lazy weekend nap.  It’s very in-line with Arab culture, which is slower than at home, less concerned with where you’ll be in five years, more about enjoying where you are right now.  So I’m going to take some deep breaths of the sandy Jordanian air, and think about  the 28th Rule of Love: “The past is an interpretation. The future is an illusion… If you want to experience eternal illumination, put the past and the future out of your mind and remain within the present moment.”

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