Christina’s Final Study Abroad Reflections

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Odd One Out

A specter is haunting me in my final week in Russia. It is not the specter of communism, but rather of culture shock– the relentless, unremitting, and perhaps unavoidable period of time during one’s experience in a foreign community. It is finals week and throughout my four months in St. Petersburg I still have not felt culture shock. First I will refer to a general timeline that postulates the typical notions towards one’s surroundings before, during, and after their study abroad.

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The Red Square in Moscow.

First arriving in the new environment, the person would usually be perceiving their surroundings as new, interesting, and exciting. Soon, differences become apparent and irritating, thus resulting in serious frustrations, which could eventually turn into homesickness to the degree of one feeling helpless and depressed. Eventually with new strategies established to cope with the frustrations, the subject will start to accept and perhaps embrace cultural differences, usually to the extent of becoming close to the new friends made in the foreign country. Upon the subject’s return home, though some things seem to have returned to normal and have become routine again, they are not quite the same. Eventually, one will incorporate what they have learned and experienced in the foreign country into their new life and career.

That general timeline was crucial to reiterate because I am not one to have seen it as an accurate parallel to my experience. Instead, I was moderately familiar with the culture, language, and civilization having been born in Bulgaria. Certainly I had difficulties learning the language and needed some getting used to walking and using public transportation everywhere, but it is with confidence that I say I did not have any culture shock throughout my trip. In fact, I was thrilled to leave my small college town where I would see the repeating fashion styles on campus, where I had to eat the same processed food daily, and where social activities were beginning to seem repetitive and dull. As a write during finals week, indeed I am experiencing my first anxieties of having to return home.

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St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.

I can’t just expect to pick up exactly where I left off. My school has welcomed a new freshman class and I will be taking completely new classes outside of my field of study. My entire life I have had some feelings of alienation in school when I couldn’t speak English fluently or afford the most stylish brands. Today I simply worry about having a similar, if not intensified experience.  However I am often reminded that although difference can be new and intimidating, ultimately it is what makes us unique and cultured.  Perhaps the best measures I should take before returning home are a positive mental attitude, keeping in touch with new friends from Russia, and ultimately incorporating what I have learned abroad into my studies back at my home institution.

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Reflecting on the Impact of Central America

Hola!

Studying abroad changes you. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize these changes. I think before coming to Costa Rica, I had all of these ideas in my head about how much I would change, how much I expected to grow with the Spanish language, and learn to understand the culture. I was expecting it so much, that I didn’t really stop to consider all the little things, or people, that have made such a lasting impact on my experience in Costa Rica.

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A photo of San Jose at night. I took this from the balcony of a building in central Heredia.

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Hiking throughout Barva in northern Heredia was how I celebrated the end of an incredible semester. Ah, I loved it so much.

Number one: My host mom. Gosh, have I already written about how much I love her? She’s literally the most graceful and optimistic individual I’ve ever met. I’m seriously so thankful to have been placed with her. It overwhelms me how happy and safe she makes me feel and her sense of compassion for others. This past month has been overwhelming for me with stress and anxiety, and she has been by my side as a healer. She’s taken me to the beach, and made me hot chocolate at night while studying for my exams, and has just made me smile. I really admire her because she is so sweet and patient to everyone she encounters. I’d like to consider her not only a good representation of the faces of Costa Rica, but also of the embodiment of simple human kindness. I know I’m fortunate to have another five months with her, but I already know I will miss her so much when I head back to the States in May.

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Mayela, my host mom and I in Guanacaste. Ah, I love her so much!

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Mayela and I at Playa Flamingo right after sunset!

Number two: My Spanish professor. Gosh, I love him more than he’ll ever know. He’s actually a lawyer here in Costa Rica. He told our class of six at the beginning of the semester that after he suffered from a medical issue a few years ago, he wanted to do something good for his health and that’s why he joined the University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC) family as a professor. I believe he’s one of the rare individuals who teach for the sole purpose of making a difference in people’s lives because it makes him happy. Knowing that makes me happy, too. Especially because he’s had such an impact on my life in so many ways. Because of him, I’m able to communicate in a second language. Because of him, I’ve had my first conversation in Spanish with my dad and now my dad and I only communicate in Spanish. My professor has also been a reminder of the importance of laughing—especially at ourselves. We were going around the room in class one day, and he asked me to translate “give me” to Spanish, and I responded (with such confidence, I might add) digame (which actually means “tell me”), and he laughed so hard he went silent for a good twenty seconds, and then suddenly the whole classroom was laughing. I laughed so hard I cried! He definitely has made learning so much fun, and I know all six of us will miss having him as a mentor and professor.

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Arturo, my Spanish professor for Track I (“Baby Spanish”) and the whole class. All of us called ourselves his princesses! We will miss him so much!

Number three: Appreciating Latin American culture, and feeling more connected with my family roots has had such an impact on my life. Growing up in Houston, especially within my family culture, there was always this sense of indignity that lingered with being half Mexican. I’ve experienced so much negativity growing up and hearing people degrade anyone on the other side of the border with vile names and prejudice. My time living in Heredia has really helped me to take pride in how beautiful the people, the food, the customs, and the dancing of Latin American culture is. It’s also made me so happy to be able to communicate in a language I should have been raised to know. I can’t express enough how happy talking to my dad in Spanish makes me, or how grateful I am that so many people in Costa Rica have made me feel so welcomed (thank you everyone in the chess family, especially Martin, for always making me laugh).

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Martin, my chess club director who has made me feel so welcomed here throughout the semester. He always puts a smile on my face.

Number four: This country is truly so rich in beauty! Hiking throughout Barva has been such a life enriching experience. And seeing the beautiful beaches of Manuel Antonio and Flamingo have been incredible, especially experiencing this with my host mom. I look forward to experiencing more of the natural beauty Costa Rica has to offer.

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Playa Manuel Antonio. Everyone kept recommending I take a weekend trip there and I’m so glad I did. This beach is absolutely beautiful!

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Another of Barva. Doesn’t this look like a place fairies and elves would live?

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A butterfly landed on my friend’s shoe. We were completely focused and awe inspired for a good few minutes, and then the butterfly started to crawl on her leg and both of us began screaming. It was funny! Poor butterfly had a broken wing, so we put it on a leaf away from the car path and continued on our way.

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A grazing cow in Barva.

The past four months have truly changed my life. I’ve learned so much about the world, and about people. I’ve treasured all of it.  As I’ve concluded my first semester in Heredia, I can’t help but feel so excited for this one month break and for next semester to begin. This Christmas break, a friend and I are going to volunteer at a sea turtle conservation project from Christmas through New Year’s. I’m also thrilled for this upcoming semester! I’ll finally be able to start interning as a research assistant at Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica (UNA), where I’ll be helping a professor study the hydrology processes to improve water conservation. And then there’s applying for graduation, and my last semester of undergraduate, ever! Ah, life goes so quickly!

Wishing everyone holidays filled with joy, family, and hot cocoa!

Pura Vida,

Alexandria

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That’s me in the UNA Chess Club uniform! I know how to teach people how to play chess in Spanish (pieces, moves, annotations and all).

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Being happy in Costa Rica!

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Culture Shock & Reverse Culture Shock

Visiting Paris had always been a dream of mine. I know that’s cliche, but it’s true. As a little girl I dreamed of walking around the city, ogling at its architecture, eating baguettes and macaroons, and visiting all the museums. That dream finally came true when I was accepted to study abroad. Instead of just planning a week-long visit, I am actually studying and living in Paris.

Both my study abroad program and home institution warned me about the culture shock I might experience when arriving in Paris, but I didn’t really think too much about it. After the first two days of being in Paris, I started to feel lonely. I missed my family and friends. That feeling began to turn into excitement after an excursion to the Loire Valley with my study abroad program that following weekend. We toured historic castles of royals and aristocrats. I was in awe of the beauty and rich history of France.

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The Loire Valley in France.

I started to make friends with other students in my program and at the host institution. I began to create my own routine. However, that feeling of loneliness and frustration returned during my second week in Paris. As I mentioned in my previous post, my French speaking skills were not at the level I wanted them to be. Therefore, I faced some challenges when it came to communicating with the locals. After lots of practice and studying for my language class, I finally started to feel more comfortable with French and began to feel like a local because I started to take possession of key places in my neighborhood: my local boulangerie, my grocery store, my favorite restaurant. Now, the people who work at the places welcome me with warm smiles and sometimes they even remember my favorite order.

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Patissier in Paris. They sell pastries, chocolate, and bread.

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Montmartre neighborhood in Paris.

After the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13th that claimed the lives of 130 people,  I was faced with another challenge: should I stay in Paris or should I return home? For a week, I battled with this decision. I love studying abroad in Paris, but I was also afraid and I missed my family more than ever. After seeing the resilience of Parisians after the attacks, I decided to stay. I wouldn’t let fear get the best of me and ruin my experience. I worked extremely hard to get the opportunity to study abroad and I was determined to enjoy this experience completely.

The thought of leaving Paris makes me sad even though I miss my hometown. I am disappointed that my study abroad program ends before the summer season in Paris. It is my favorite season and while Paris is beautiful in the fall, I can only imagine how beautifully everything blossoms in the summer. Although I am very much looking forward to being home with my friends and family, I know that I will always look back on my study abroad experience every day that I am home. Paris has my heart forever.

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Discussing “What” and “Who” in Russia

Language is not a neutral entity. It forms opinions and attitudes. It can be used to degrade differences and inflict violence or to proclaim diversity and achieve recognition. I am a firm believer that the understanding of the “other” through language and culture is the key to future success in democratic development in the world. Thus, failure to speak the language and neglect the cultural differences of your opponents leads to a predictable defeat of spreading democratic values.

Prior to my study abroad experience, I had only taken two semesters of Russian language, which introduced me to the basics, equipped me with a solid foundation of vocabulary, and had me comprehending speech. However, upon arriving in Russia, I quickly realized that having a basic understanding of the language from a textbook and actually utilizing it to communicate with locals are separate battles. My immersion in the language quickly stripped my initial fear of speaking Russian, and soon enough I developed a feel for the language and am now able to follow complex lines of argument and participate appropriately and meaningfully in many social interactions with locals.

Studying the Russian language for me is not only an academic challenge. After graduating from Illinois Wesleyan University, I aim to enroll in a graduate program in international development where Russian as a language and Russia as a geographical and political entity will be the focus of my future academic inspiration. I have even been thinking about pursuing the field of library and information science, where my desire to conduct research in a discipline focusing on Russia and the Russophone world can be made realistic.

The knowledge and perspectives gained thus far from my study abroad experience and particularly my sustained study of Russian language has truly intensified this desire and commitment to developing and further advancing my language skills. Aside from my conversation and grammar classes here, my Russian History, Russian Civilization, and Presidential Elections courses have equipped me with a newly intensified desire to pursue professional training that could lead me to a career in any field dealing with Russia, including government, education, and human rights.

I am aware that the above information sounds quite polished and projects me as someone who knows exactly what they want in life and has a couple of strategies to get there. The reality is that I don’t know where “there” is, though I can tell you with certainty where my “here” is at the moment. I often cringe at the question, “What are you doing after you graduate?” and insist that I reword it first. (Brief nostalgia turn: It’s quite funny realizing that I am being picky about the diction of a simple sentence in English when I couldn’t even participate in the Month Song in kindergarten when I first moved to America. Hopefully I am making my mom proud.) Returning to the matter: The “What are you doing after you graduate?” question is built on the foundation of “what,” which implies that we should put on our soothsayer hats and reply with some official job title. The question that I prefer being asked is, “Who do you want to be after you graduate?” That question awakens all components that make up who I am and causes them to fight to get their turn to respond. In fact, by answering to “who,” we, the millennial generation, will most likely end up answering the “what,” however we will be dong this indirectly by first expanding on the person that we are each trying to develop. This allows us to explore possibilities in greater depth and removes the veil from the often covered timeline after higher education, that part of our lives (the rest of it) that has a deeper reward than just the monetary one we will receive from our careers.

Now you must be certain, from the revamped information above, that I must really have some answers in my back pocket. Well just like the nearly empty pockets that my family had coming to America, my current pockets are also bereft of anything valuable. I am more focused on living deeply and sucking out all the marrow from life, both during my study abroad experience and back at my home institution. I know that though my pockets feel empty of polished and impressive answers, I am gaining such knowledge that no one will be able to take from me. My education and adventures in Russia are recalibrating my previous prospects for my future and making sure that I find out who I would like to be before I get too caught up in becoming a highly marketable “what.”

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Christina’s Cultural Integration

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Staying Focused

At the beginning of the semester, I romanticized the idea of moving to a foreign country, getting a job, finding someone special, and beginning a whole new life (partially because my best friend just accomplished that very thing). However, London is (and never was meant to be) the place for me. It’s too cloudy, extremely expensive, and way too proper. Paradoxically, studying abroad in London has made me realize New York is the best place for me to be as a writer, student, and person.

I’m studying abroad relatively late in my academic career, during the first semester of my senior year. Most people go abroad their junior year, and at New York University, even their sophomore or freshman year. So my London thoughts have been centered around: WHAT AM I GOING TO DO WHEN I GRADUATE?!!!!!

Well, now I have one answer: not live in London.

This is how indecisive I am. In September, I was so convinced London was the place for me. I probed through my academic requirements to see if there was any way I could finesse staying the entire academic year. I came up with this delusional plan: flying back to New York for the winter term, paying out of pocket for a winter course, flying back to London for the spring semester, then flying back to New York at the end of May to complete my senior colloquium.

I was mad.

This decision was one hundred percent influenced by a certain person I had recently met. This is the part where I take the time to tell you: Be cautious about letting people in your life influence your academic and professional goals. Especially people you just met in a foreign country, or someone you think is “one of a kind” and just “gets you.” Trust me, almost every one of my friends here has their own version of this person. It can and will happen to you.

When I finally accepted there was no realistic way of staying in London the entire year, I set my eyes on graduate school. Since freshman year I’ve known I want to complete a Masters of Fine Arts in fiction writing. So I just readjusted that goal to completing a MFA in Britain. That was in September. Since then, people and situations have changed, time has passed, and my mom’s fried chicken has become greatly missed. A week ago, I went through my list of dream graduate schools and started my applications. Then, last night, it dawned on me: what happened to all of my British schools? None had even passed through my mind when I picked my final schools. Although my study abroad experience has been great, this was proof to me that I am not meant to stay here beyond this semester.

I have gained a lot from my fashion business courses. I have learned to look at pop culture, fashion, and advertising with a more critical eye, taking into account gendered advertising, cultural appropriation, and subcultures. My biggest lesson has been learning about the amount of attractive coercion that occurs in fashion advertising, promising huge things such as happiness, love, or attraction. The same thing occurs in other formats, like TV, pop videos, and movies. We all participate in the fashion system whether we like it or not. Rejecting fashion is as much of a statement as is participating in it. I’ve had to rethink my relationship with pop culture and how I want to work within it. I’ve come to acknowledge that some of my pop culture loves play upon the same concepts I criticize in my essays (such as performing for the male gaze and cultural appropriation) and I’ve had to ask if these moves are conscious or just my favorite artists unconsciously embodying what society has drilled into them?

This study abroad experience has affirmed my dream to pursue a career in fashion journalism. I still see a lot of power and positivity in it. It’s a great space for artistic expression, identity creation, and fantasy. If I am so lucky to land a job in the fashion world, I want to work in the creative department, more than the business/public relations side, though I am glad to have learned about that aspect through my classes here. Through a creative position, I can influence the design, visuals, and advertising to be more thoughtful about how they operate within our culture.

And no one can change my plans.

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