I’m Back and I’m Better

When I first saw the chart titled “Stages of Culture Shock and Reverse Culture Shock” in the Gilman blog-writing syllabus, I have to admit that I was more than a little skeptical. Before my study abroad orientation, I had never even heard of reverse culture shock. My program was only for six weeks, not six months. I thought that it wouldn’t be enough time to change me in a significant way. I thought I already knew myself and what I liked. After all, I grew up in Pittsburgh around people of all backgrounds. I came to East Africa with the assumption that my background as a black woman would enable me to escape culture shock. I went to Tanzania with what I thought was a mind open to learning, but the reality is that Eastern Africa expanded my horizons more than I could have ever imagined.

Culture shock and reverse cultureshock graph


Even though I was learning in a completely new and fascinating way, I found myself becoming fiercely homesick during my program. In the second week, I was already ready to go home. I missed cheese, clear English, and talking to my family and friends whenever I wanted to. I began to count down the days until I would be on the plane back to the States. I found myself stuck in stage 3 of culture shock: depressed, homesick, and hopeless. But by the end of the third week, I wasn’t thinking about coming back home. I was thinking about my independent project, going hiking, and reading for class. I became so tied to my new reality that having one hour of internet access a day and taking cold showers quickly became a part of my normal daily routine. At some point, I adapted to Tanzania so much that I stopped noticing that I was in a developing country and started noticing the potential to keep in advancing sustainably.

At the start of the last week of studying abroad, I began to have a sinking feeling in my stomach every time I thought about returning home. I felt like there was more work that I needed to do before I could be satisfied with leaving. Leaving the Udzungwa Mountains Ecological Monitoring Center was like leaving the best summer camp I never got the chance to attend. I will never forget the phenomenal staff. Even with a language barrier, the amazing ladies that made up the kitchen staff managed to take care of us when we were sick, feed us three times a day, and teach the girls how to wear fabric like they did. The ecologists and field assistants in the National Park always had their doors open for questions. They would drop whatever they were working on to accompany us to villages or act as a translator when our Swahili failed us. Overall, I experienced and witnessed a genuine kindness and willingness to help other people, no matter what their race or nationality, that I want to pass on to whoever I can. The unparalleled work ethic and determination of the people (the women in particular) put my life and problems immediately in perspective. Never again will I complain about a class at Penn State after seeing a woman walk, talk on the phone, and breastfeed at the same time.


The view from my SanjayWaterfalls hiking trip

The view from my Sanjay Waterfalls hiking trip.

Our tourguide was roped into takiing a picture with me on top of the falls

Our tour guide was roped into taking a picture with me on top of the falls.


My goal is to make is to stage 9 on the reverse culture side of the graph: incorporating what I learned from my study abroad into my new life and career. I’m still adjusting to being back home in the States. For instance, I didn’t expect to feel so uncomfortable in a room full of white people. I notice how much water I waste brushing my teeth or how Instagram doesn’t have the same appeal that it used to. Fall semester at Penn State should be interesting! I know I will eventually get used to my normal life, but the experiences I had are still fresh in my mind. The lessons I’ve learned are not leaving me anytime soon, so I might as well learn from them and apply them to the future. Now when I look for internships, an international component is a must. Applying conservation in a developing country came with a whole other set of complex challenges. I’m inspired to see how other issues fit in as well. For example, what is the role of environmental justice in a second or third world country? Studying abroad came with the realization that I can weave multiple issues together into a cohesive career. Whether I end up in policy or in a lab, I will always be grateful for my experience in Tanzania for changing my life.


Me in Washington DC the weekendbefore I left for Tanzania

Me in Washington DC the weekend before I left for Tanzania

Leave a comment

Filed under Africa, Janelle in Tanzania

Summer Solstice Holiday

Well, it was a fascinating long weekend, to say the least. The two-day holiday festivities began on Friday for what is known as Ligo, and the following day, Jani. Both days are filled with many celebrations in Latvia, celebrating the mid-summer holiday, which has deep-rooted connections to their pagan cultural pasts. Riga held various events throughout the city, filled with concerts and a festival-like atmosphere for the public to purchase food and beverages while singing both classical and contemporary Latvian music.

On Friday I decided to do some people watching, taking root on a park bench by the market off of the Daugava river trail. I found the people to be very energetic and full of life. The streets were packed full of pedestrians laughing in colorful attire. Some sported traditional garb in honor of the occasion. I gathered that a staple of the holiday weekend attire is the flower crown. My only experience with such strange headgear stems from pictures of Coachella or any other sort of music festival that you see a Kardashian at every other weekend. These crowns were delicately crafted; each blossom fastened tightly into place to form a vibrant floral ring. I also noticed the men sported a similar piece made of oak leaves. After seeing numerous people with the crown, I approached a street vendor to question its significance and history. The woman, who’s arms were layered with the crowns like a human abacus, informed me that the crowns were not for show but tradition. The wreaths prevent disasters and diseases for the women, and the men’s wreaths signify strength from the oak tree.



The view from the Daugava River looking into Old Town.


An alley way lined with holiday lights for the mid-summer holiday.


A man seen in Old Town sporting a crown made entirely of oak leaves. Such a crown symbolizes strength and perseverance.


The celebrations continued into the late night. Given that it was one of the longest days of the year (it is a solstice holiday after all) the sun managed to stay in the deep sky until close to midnight. The sunset was truly captivating, seemingly dancing on the Daugava river while the people continued to feast, laugh, and sing along with the local entertainment. Once the light got dim, I noticed a small man carrying a torch clutched above his head. He ran down the boulevard, beyond the food tents to a pyre located behind the concert stage that managed to elude me throughout the celebration. The flames climbed to the top of the hay strung pyre. One of my friends accompanying me informed me that it is tradition to attempt to jump over the fires if they are ground level, and doing so will bring you a year of good luck. While I cherish good fortune, I do believe I admire my skin to a greater extent.

After the fires had dampened, the night full of lights continued with a mighty display of fireworks along the river. They were launched into the air from the shoreline across from old town. Each firework burst at the peak of its climb and reflected all of its colors in the surf of the river. It was a mesmerizing scene, with people’s heads fixed on the sky anticipating the bursts of the artful display.

Sadly, my weekend did not conclude as great as it started. The holiday was full of wonder, but the Sunday following proved to be quite the test. I woke up the next day to find that my bike (or should I say my borrowed bike) was stolen from my apartment building. Knowing that things happen outside of my realm of my control was somewhat assuring. The setback truly had its consequences. On my way to work the following day my bus card had glitched out and deactivated, leaving me stranded on my connecting bus stop without means of getting to my internship. Again, I brushed off the accident and continued walking to work, enjoying the views and the smiling faces of the pedestrians I passed. Unfortunately, I had failed to look up the weather for the day. Latvia is known for its occasional thunderstorms that approach rather quickly. Like a scene from a cliché romantic comedy, I trudged my way to work using my backpack as a Spartan shield to block the rain from ruining my suit. I have since recovered quickly and gracefully from my late weekend mishaps, but I enjoyed the festivities nonetheless. Just goes to show you that you have your good days and your bad days in a new environment, and they can turn on the flip of a dime.

Maybe I should have jumped over the pyre after all for good luck?

Leave a comment

Filed under Eastern Europe, Garrett in Latvia

Meet Tan in Singapore

Leave a comment

Filed under East Asia, Tan in Singapore

The Return and Reverse Culture Shock

“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” – G. K. Chesterton

I surprised myself in so many ways when studying abroad in France, I experienced culture shock and homesickness like I never have before. While everyone told me to expect it, I figured that as a seasoned traveler and someone who’s lived abroad before, I would not miss New York so severely that I’d want my fun experience to end. However, between clashing with some aspects of the culture, finding myself lost at my host school, and balancing my U.S. life with my French life by keeping up with friends, family, and my involvements at school and work, I wished more and more each day that I could just give up the experience and go home. I remember crying to a friend, telling her how much I missed the Bronx.



When I got home, I went out and took so many pointless pictures of the streets and things around NYC because I had missed them so much. This picture was taken on a particularly beautiful day in the Bronx.


This is why I am surprised to be going through some common symptoms of reverse culture shock. I was excited to return home for so long, and my return was truly phenomenal. Meeting friends and family, giving out gifts, telling stories, and even reuniting with my good friend A at our school’s graduation kept me from feeling the burn. But with every adventure I spoke about, with every story I told, and with every song I played that made me nostalgic for Paris, I felt more sadness to not know when next I will return to these wonderful places.



I left behind my wonderful papa Victor, who I know I won’t see for at least another year. I also left behind many other family members who I won’t know when I’ll see next. Finding pictures like these all over my family’s home in Germany really got me nostalgic for a return.


As time goes on, it gets increasingly difficult to explain my experiences as thoroughly as I wish I could – experiences that I feel genuinely shaped the course of my life. While in Paris, I couldn’t amply describe what it felt like to have no one from my culture to relate to around me. I realized the stages of culture shock were hitting me hard. I definitely felt excitement to return home, which was even more amplified when I got home.



My first weeks home have been wonderful! I am so excited to be in New York to carry out a fun summer ’17 in my favorite place in the world!


I felt a bit of frustration and sadness at the inability to buy 3 euro bottles of wine and fancy cheese three minutes from my apartment. I missed the welfare state, where a doctor’s appointment without insurance cost me 23 euros; here in the US, now that my insurance hadn’t been renewed since my leaving, an appointment at my local clinic would cost $125 starting. I felt real sadness at the impossibility of traveling 4 hours to Germany to see my family, and a little bit of material frustration at the added shipping costs of some of my new favorite European vendors like Asos and Yves Rocher.



While I no longer have access to delicious, fresh German spargel (asparagus) which had just come into season while I was there, I could make do with what I found in supermarkets and still eat my nostalgia’s fill. Didn’t taste like Germany, but definitely satisfied my cravings for German food. (Baked potato with quark, spargel, and meat.)


Now, I genuinely feel as though I’m beginning to fit back into my old world, but with a new me. My new experiences, the knowledge I’ve gained, new tastes, all have turned me into a different person. Sure, my friends and family still love me and see me the same, but even without my repetitive stories of the good times and wonderful experiences I had abroad, as well as the shocking stories of bad experiences and weird adjustments, they know that I am different.

Leave a comment

Filed under Tammie in France, Western Europe

Top 7 Things To Do in Peru

I have been in Peru for three weeks, and feel as though I have lived a lifetime of experiences. I have surfed the longest wave in the world. I have been to the archaeological site of the most ancient people in the Americas. I have held ancient human remains which were desecrated by grave robbers. I have seen sacred mountains and valleys. I have heard ghost tales passed down a millennia. I have danced with Peruvians and joined in the music which always wafts through the streets. I have found sea glass washed ashore by the Pacific Ocean. I have had my heart broken as my peers and I meet with natural disaster victims each week, and had it lifted again at their hope and love and strength. I have learned from traditional healers and shopped for medicinal herbs. And I want everyone to be able to experience life in this beautiful country!

Of course, not everyone can live in Peru long enough to experience everything, so I’ve put together a list of must-sees and must-dos (including some must-eats!) in La Libertad, Peru.

Top 7 things to do in Trujillo and Huanchaco:

  1. Visit the Plaza de Armas in Trujillo. This historic town square was the center of Spanish colonialism, as seen in the incredibly well-preserved architecture and art. It is also the site where Peru declared its independence from Spain (giving the region its name “La Libertad”). The shops, artisans, and cafes will not disappoint. 

    cathedral plaza de armas trujillo

    This is the original cathedral built by the Spanish in the late 15th century. It is located in the Plaza de Armas in Trujillo and is open a few times each day for mass, confession, other church functions, and tours.

  2. Visit the archaeological site Chan Chan. Chan Chan is a site of the Chimu people (the civilization just before the Incas). There are nine palaces across this 14 square km city, each with original engravings, art, ceramics, and rich histories. Here you will learn about the importance of the ocean in Chimu religion: the water provided everything (food, transportation, protection, etc.). Waves, fish, and pelicans (which showed fisherman where the fish were) are engraved in nearly every room. Duality is also an important element of Chimu religion: male and female, sun and moon, sea and sky.
    • A bonus feature of Chan Chan is most (if not all) of the site of wheelchair accessible! This is because the governor of the city was not supposed to have his feet touch the ground. He was carried everywhere by 4-6 men. If he were carried up or down stairs, he would have fallen off, so the palaces are constructed with flat paths and ramps. 
      original engravings chan chan

      A famous wall in Chan Chan showing the original engravings. It depicts some of the most important symbols in the Chimu culture and religion: horizontal lines represent the ocean waves; the fish are important because they were the largest food supply; and the birds at the bottom are pelicans, which helped fisherman locate where the fish were swimming.

      system of rooms in chan chan

      A large system of rooms in Chan Chan with original artwork engraved in the adobe. The holes in the walls were meant to give light in an otherwise dark space, and are designed to look like fishing nets.

  3. Visit Huaca de la LunaHuaca means temple. This is the temple of the moon, which lies on one side of an ancient city, while the temple of the sun (Huaca del Sol) lies on the other side. This archaeological site was once inhabited by the Moche people (the civilization which pre-dates the Chimu). Huaca de la Luna is full of incredible murals and tombs with the original paint still on the adobe. 

    original mural huaca de la luna

    A mural in the Huaca de la Luna spanning the length of an enormous room. The paint and engravings are the originals made by the Moche people. The face depicted on the mural is that of the greatest Mochica god, Ai Apaec. He has owl eyes (representing the sky or heavens), the teeth of a feline (representing the earth), hair like waves (representing the ocean), and is surrounded by serpents.

  4. Go to El Brujo/Museo de Cao. This is another archaeological Moche site, but with an exciting twist! Most of the archaeological record in Peru shows male rulers and healers. However, at this site, a powerful woman was found! Señora de Cao was either a Moche ruler or a high-ranking priestess, which challenged the idea that only Moche men could hold such positions. She passed away at age 25, possibly due to complications in childbirth. Her body was so well-preserved that her skin and hair remain in-tact, so much so that her extensive tattoos are still clearly visible.
    • Buying souvenirs at the gift shop on site is pretty expensive. However, souvenirs of equal quality can be found at the nearby city of Magdalena de Cao. 
      senora de cao tomb and mossoleum

      The mummy of Senora de Cao was found buried here (marked by logs over a rectangle in the ground) beside a grand, painted mausoleum. An adolescent girl was found buried in the same tomb, a high priest was buried with a another adolescent near the tomb, as well as a fisherman buried very near Senora de Cao’s.

      senora de cao replica

      A replica of what Senora de Cao may have looked like and the clothing and ceremonial dress she wore.

  5. Spend some time on the beach in Huanchaco. Huanchaco has been a settlement for thousands of years, originally by the Moche, or Mochica. As such, it has an incredibly rich history. Huanchaco is famous for having the longest surf in the world (more than a mile long!) There are plenty of excellent surf shops which can provide lessons, boards, and wet suits for a VERY low price! While on the beach, you’ll also be able to see the traditional (2,500-3,000 year old) caballitos de totoro or “reed horses” which are long slim boats made of dried reeds Fisherman use them as wave riders, and these boats are likely the earliest form of surfing. 
    my friend walking on the beach at sunset

    A picture of my friend walking along Huanchaco beach at sunset. We were collecting sea glass brought in by the ocean on the northern shore.

    reed boat on traditional fisherman house

    This is a smaller version of the traditional caballito de totorro. The house is sticks, adobe, and thatched reeds and grasses- a traditional home of a fisherman along the coast (because it is quick and simple to rebuild if the tides flood it). The boat is being dried after heavy use in the water.

  6. Eat Ceviche.  This famous Latin American dish has its origins in Peru nearly 2,000 years ago! It is a meal of fresh raw fish cured in lime juice and spiced with aji (a peppery hot sauce). Order some chicha morada (a sweet beverage made from purple corn) to wash it all down. It’s a must!
  7. While you’re here, don’t forget to enjoy the incredible street art! Peruvians have found a way to turn graffiti into absolute masterpieces. Take some time to go on a walk during siesta and look at the paintings decorating nearly every wall and building in the country.

These things are just the beginning. The possibilities for your adventures and your studies are endless in Peru! If you’re interested in archaeology, you’re in luck: La Libertad region is rich with as-yet undiscovered evidences of ancient civilizations. If you are passionate about art, the entire coast is filled with artisan shops. If cooking is your path, there are incredible chefs everywhere. If you are going into medicine, you might be interested in learning from traditional healers about medicinal herbs and healing practices. I hope if you come to Peru you’ll find it as thrilling as I have. There is so much to learn and so much wonder to see!

Leave a comment

Filed under McKinley in Peru, south america

Mom Abroad: Challenges and Adjustments During My First Week in Italy

“I’m signing up to study abroad in Italy, which is 4 weeks long, and I may stay over a few weeks longer to visit friends in Europe. I know that life for you will be very different with me gone all of June, and maybe most of July, but I really need to do this.” My four children looked at me, at each other, and back at me. Then the question I was waiting for fell out of the 17 year old son’s mouth, “But…who will buy the groceries?”‘



The most recent photo of all four of my children, taken in December 2016. They’re kinda just chilling in the backyard- hard to get teens to take a photo!


As a single, forty-one year old, work-at-home mother (and primary caregiver) for my four children, committing to a study abroad program was not an easy nor simple decision. Many considerations had to be taken into account. Who *would* actually buy the groceries? How would my 17 year old get to work? My sons are old enough to manage themselves. But, what would I do with the girls? They certainly couldn’t just stay home – alone – for two months while I bounced around Europe. Planning for this experience abroad has been both overwhelming and exciting. Between my last minute anxiety about being so far away from my children to spending my third night in Florence at the local ER, getting to Italy and settling in has come with its fair share of ups and downs.

At the root of my struggle has been the internal conflict of being a fully autonomous adult in America versus a suddenly very dependent study abroad student in a foreign land. For my younger classmates, being here in Italy isn’t that much different than being in the dorms at college. Run out of money? Call Dad. Get lost? Smartphone Map App to the rescue. Health takes a turn for the worse? Mom will call your family doctor and take care of you. But when I ended up in the ER (dehydration is a buzz kill!) calling my study abroad contacts (teacher, program, insurance) was the last thing on my mind! As a health-conscious adult, I knew that I was dehydrated to the point of needing medical attention. So I took myself to the local hospital and communicated as best I could with the staff. After a long, frustrating, night in the ER, it finally occurred to me, “I should totally have brought an Italian speaking person with me.” I mean, obviously, right?

It’s here in these little moments where I realize as an older, non-traditional, study abroad student my mindset and outlook on things is just different from my classmates. Over the last week I’ve learned to ask for help with more things, double check my prerogatives to make sure I’m not being overly ambitious, and communicate with my group about my day-to-day agenda more than I ever would have to if I were stateside. Personally, I think it’s a great lesson for me in the value of community. So many times as Americans, we operate in a sort of self-imposed solitary confinement. And for the most part, it probably works for most of us. However, experiencing the value of an in-person team has taught me more about myself than I expected.



My study abroad group with our Texas State University banner at Palazzo Pitti. I’m in the back with my hand up.


This is the power of a study abroad program. Yes, I am a 41 year old mother of four. But I’m still on a journey. I’m still growing and changing. And I’m so grateful to be able to experience the whole of this experience. And as for my 20, 17, 15, and 13 year old children? They are fine. I get a text from one or two of them every day asking me things like, “How do I use the toaster oven, again?” to “The iPad mini isn’t working, Mom!” To which I’m having a lot of fun replying, “Sorry, can’t really help you with that while I’m 5,000 miles away. YouTube it!” My children are not youngsters anymore. They do not need me to personally feed and water them every day. They must learn to be more independent and what a better way for them to learn some life-management skills than with me in Italy?


Filed under Sarah in Italy, Western Europe

Expanding my Horizons

I’m on the beach at Kilwa as I’m writing this post. I’ve never seen water this blue and far spread out. You can walk for so long without ever losing your footing. This actually looks like an image from a postcard or a screensaver on a laptop. Over the weekend I’ve been on the edge of the Indian Ocean relaxing and watching fisherman in their boats. I see why so many people go to beaches now.

I left for Tanzania almost six weeks ago. Since then, I’ve learned a little Kiswahili, I’ve played hide-and-seek with monkeys, and I swam in a waterfall that I hiked to. I’ve tried squid and loved it, and now I look for greens at every meal. I camped on the edge of a village for three days to do some village mapping. I made eye contact with a sleepy lioness and heard hyenas outside of the tent in Mikumi National Park. The Udzungwa Mountains Ecological Center became my backyard.  As my professor keeps reminding us, not many people get to see the things I’ve seen.


KODAK Digital Still Camera

The waterfall from my hike to Sanje Falls.


Even though I haven’t fully digested this amazing experience yet, I can tell I’ve changed in a few ways. First of all, I have become more focused. It sounds cliché, but this experience has put things into perspective for me. When I was mapping a village named Msosa, a young woman from the village council accompanied our group. We went out at 6:30 in the morning and came back at 6:30 in the evening. The whole time, she was carrying her sleeping baby on her back. At some point, she was talking on the phone, walking, and breastfeeding her child at the same time. While we were camping, the women that work in the center made us pasta and beef stew from three bricks and some firewood. I may complain about being in school sometimes, but I will never take it for granted again. If anything, I got a reality check in the sense that there is so much more going on in the world than some of the things I used to complain about. If these amazing women can hold down their families and villages, then I can successfully earn a degree from Penn State.

I’ve also found that I’ve grown academically and professionally. I’ve never taken 400 level classes before this experience. I assumed that they would be hard. But taking three 400 level classes in six weeks was more intense than any other academic experience I’ve ever been though. I read about the complexities of conservation in a developing country, and I get to see those complexities first hand. We were challenged to create an independent project that addressed the needs of the community while conserving the biodiversity and ecosystem of the National Park. At first, I had no idea what I was going to do. I came into the program thinking that I was going to do research and recommend an easy renewable energy option like solar panels. But after the first day in the village, I knew I would have to change my approach. I learned to think about a problem from new angles. At the end of the three courses I took, I had produced a 17 page paper on fuelwood trees and their multiple characteristics. I made tables, developed an index, and created scenarios based on the best type and species of trees for the local villages to plant.

Besides the coursework, I learned that I love to travel. I always thought I would, but actually leaving the country confirmed it. Working in conservation in a developing country was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. But it opened up a new world of opportunities I never thought about. Now I can see myself working for the World Health Organization or USAID. My passion for environmental justice has gotten so much deeper now that I know how to link it to issues like biodiversity and energy. Studying abroad is a completely different educational experience than in the States. At home, you can only care so much about an issue because it seems so abstract. But I got the chance to learn about biodiversity conservation in one of the world’s 35 biodiversity hotspots.

I am excited to return home. My friends and family understand that I have been blessed with the opportunity of a lifetime. But not being able to communicate with the people I talk to everyday was really hard at some points during the experience. I remember being homesick about two weeks into my program. I was counting down the days until I could go home and eat cheese and talk to my boyfriend on Facetime. I missed my grandparents calling to check up on me every few days and my mom coming home with a pizza for a movie night. But each day I realized more and more how fortunate I was to be studying in Tanzania. And once I switched my focus to understanding all the issues around me, the days flew by.

Now that I have some time to reflect, I know I will miss certain things about my temporary home. For one, I love the people here. If there was a word I didn’t know, they were quick to help me learn it. They appreciated my attempts to learn and pronounced the words slowly enough that I could get them. The pride that everyone has here is incredible. There’s pride in families, in work, and in Tanzania in general. In every place that I went, people of all religions coexisted together in harmony. Neighbors looked out for each other and the children of the village were cared for by everybody. There was a genuine desire to help each other be as successful as possible. I wish more people in the United States could see what I saw.  I know I will be taking my lessons I learned back home with me.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized