Small Children, Big Impacts

Hearing the mantra of a child’s laughter can bring great joy. In a similar regard, receiving a kind look from a child can save you from your own darkness. Children absolutely fascinate me. Please refer to the photo below, where you will see a lovely little darling squatting to play with the dirt. What you can’t see pictured in this photo is that the child is really in front of the Catherine Palace, which with nearly 1 kilometer in circumference it is the most grandiose summer residence in all of Russia. What’s comical is that the little girl was more intrigued by the dirt, on which hundreds of tourists had walked on earlier that day, than an 18th century triumph.


Young stranger being amused by the dirt in front of the Catherine Palace.

It is this very fascination I have with the minds and personalities of youngsters that urged me to find a volunteer opportunity that involved youth to supplement my study abroad experience. The demand for English speakers is enormous in Russia, as the value of learning the international language of business and commerce is appreciated by many. Also, old stereotypes of an economic system fueled by vodka and general lawlessness have made native English teachers scarce in Russia. The demand for native speakers to teach English in Russia far exceeds the supply. With this in mind, I came across an opportunity to volunteer as an English teacher for first through eighth graders at a private academy about a half an hour outside of the city.

The English lessons commence after the students’ core classes and extracurricular activities have ended, leaving me with usually very drained students to work with. Clearly, an efficient plan needed to be implemented if I wanted my pupils to absorb as much knowledge in the limited time we had together. I noticed that combining both a communicative language approach (vocabulary and conversation exercises) and an interactive approach (opportunities in lessons for both speaking and listening), the kids started to build a basic understanding of English.

The classroom where the English lessons take place and subsequently where students build their foundation as future leaders.

The classroom where the English lessons take place and subsequently where students build their foundation as future leaders.

Once a week, I get individual time with every student and depending on their proficiency level, I facilitate question-and-answer sessions, Simon Says games, and deeper discussions on a variety of topics. One young girl in particular warms my heart like no other as she greets me in her best English and smiles with her newly growing adult teeth. Together, we read interesting tales and later complain about things like “silent E’s” in the English language. I can really see the wonder in her eyes.

One of my star students, Dasha, as she tries to read,

One of my star students, Dasha, as she tries to read, “school, bus, train…”

Teaching the language was certainly not as challenging as finding topics to discuss with some of the older students in the academy. The academy I volunteer at is quite prestigious, and therefore only attended by those who can afford it. I struggled speaking on the topic of public transportation in the city with one of my students as he very loudly grimaced at my mentioning of the St. Petersburg metro system (a quite fascinating and efficient system in my opinion). He couldn’t imagine himself riding in such a dirty and crowded cart when he could very easily be transported by his mother’s luxurious BMW. Certainly a response like this can infuriate many Russian citizens, particularly the estimated figure of 70 percent that is below the middle class. My first taste of the the wealthier side of Russia unexpectedly came from a young pupil of mine. I realize that his upbringing leaves public transportation out of his daily rhetoric.

While this attitude about elements of different social classes can certainly become more developed one day, a positive change for the low-income Russians is unlikely to come anytime soon. The highly monopolistic economy that’s controlled by a small number of political-business elites is not only slowing down the social mobility from the middle to the upper-middle class, but could even cease as a result of the current crises (low oil prices, Western sanctions, and deep-set economic problems). When the reality stands out to be very grim, I am reminded that I myself am still young and capable of making a change. I hope that by teaching students the English language, they too will become interested in ways they can use their abilities to make a positive impact. Who knows, maybe one of my pupils will save the Russian social class system one day.

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Time is Moving Too Fast for Me!

Hola Otra Vez!

I can’t believe I’m soon to begin my third month studying abroad in Costa Rica! El tiempo movido muy rapido! Does anyone else feel the sadness that ensues from time slipping so fast?

Every time I speak and write in Spanish and I know it’s grammatically incorrect, I always think of the memoir I read back in high school called Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris. While I’m sure my Spanish is still pretty goofy-sounding, I have definitely built stronger confidence in speaking and writing and can only imagine that I’ll talk bonita one day too. The month of October has been a compilation of hours of studying el preterite y el subjuntivo, my first purely Spanish conversation with my father, and a trip to Monteverde. And in-between these moments, seeing a beautiful movie called The Motorcycle Diaries, and appreciating the Cuban Revolution.

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

That's me in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve! It started to really shower right as I took this.

That’s me in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve! It started to really shower right as I took this.

My friend from the USAC program, Marley! She's a Gilman Scholarship recipient too! We were huddling for warmth in this picture.

My friend from the USAC program, Marley! She’s a Gilman Scholarship recipient too! We were huddling for warmth in this picture.

A view from our hotel in Monteverde. It is so lush and colorful there. Truly incredible.

A view from our hotel in Monteverde. It is so lush and colorful there. Truly incredible.

The University Studies Abroad Consortium program (USAC) in Heredia is Spanish intensive. We move from Beginning Spanish Level 1 through Intermediate Spanish Level 2 within one semester. This means I will have four separate grades per course, and naturally we have un examen casi siempre every two weeks. The first test I had at the beginning of October was muy fao. In fact, when our professor distributed the exams, he told us most of us had performed under par. In all honesty, I did have a moment of self-pity and frustration with myself for having performed so poorly. Though sometimes failure is the best way to find self-determination. During a conversation with my father on the phone, he told me to have more faith in myself and to study harder. And after my moment of self-pity had past, I was struck with determination to get an A on my next exam. Since then, I have spent hours-  I kid you not,  HOURS- on the floor in my host family’s sala with the light of a flameless candle and hot tea (gracias, mama tica), committing to memory all those wacky irregular verbs, and the patterns the CAR, GAR and ZAR verbs take on in the past (for example: yo buscar, yo busque).  I’ve gone through stacks (yes, STACKS) of flashcards. I’ve made three trips to El Rey, also known as el supermarcado muy barato, for more flashcards because I have been running out constantly.  Anyway, with the next exam, I did indeed pull an A!!! All of those hours studying and “si, se puede” moments literally saved my final grade in the course which turned out to be an A-. (The next course will be an A!!!)

This is what learning Spanish as a second language really looks like!

This is what learning Spanish as a second language really looks like!

Studying abroad in Heredia to gain Spanish as a second language has also made me feel closer with my Latin American family. I had my first conversation with my father in Spanish for almost twenty minutes via telephone. We spoke solely in Spanish, and it was moving hearing my father tell me “Este bien;” “This is good.” I hear everyone in Costa Rica say those words like they’re nothing, but when I heard my dad say them, I felt we connected on a closer level. I love my dad so much, and never would have imagined that one day I would be speaking with him in his native language. Even out of my four other sisters, two have completed years of Spanish in the classroom, but my dad said I was the only one he’s ever had a conversation with. Que fantastico, verdad? Es fue una momento muy bonito.

My classmate Mary was sweet enough to give me my very own chess set. It was very unexpected. This is my first chess set, and I'm so in love!

My classmate Mary was sweet enough to give me my very own chess set. It was very unexpected. This is my first chess set, and I’m so in love!

Before deciding to study abroad in Costa Rica, it was somewhat of a struggle for my mother to grasp my reasoning since I had previously studied abroad, and because this was to be my last year of undergrad. She felt that my time would have perhaps been better spent at my home university because it would be less expensive (which in reality, would not have been the case thanks to the Gilman Scholarship). My mom is from Germany by the way, and she speaks German and English fluently. My dad is Mexican, and he speaks Spanish and English fluently. Me? I have had five years of German courses throughout my high school education, including a semester of college German classes. Though I have fulfilled my dream of communicating with my mom’s side of the family with my butchered Deutch, I still have yet to call myself fluent in a second language.  Which is why, as my father and I ended our phone call, I requested him to communicate to my mom that I felt I made the best decision to study abroad in Costa Rica, and my father agreed.

I was lucky enough to get a picture with the son and wife of Alberto Granado. His son, who shares the same name, Alberto Granado, is to my left, and his wife, Delia Maria, is on my right! They accompanied us to Monteverde!

I was lucky enough to get a picture with the son and wife of Alberto Granado. His son, who shares the same name, is to my left, and his wife, Delia Maria, is on my right! They accompanied us to Monteverde!

What has truly been an incredible moment presented through my program with USAC, was meeting the Alberto Granado II, the son of Alberto I, who rode on a motorcycle journey throughout South America with Che Gueverra when Che was 23. USAC presented us with the film The Motorcyle Diaries, which is based on Che’s journal he kept throughout his journey in South America, before he would go on to become a revolutionary leader. It was neat thinking that at 22, I am close in age to how old Che was when he went on his journey. Before the movie, Alberto gave a speech about how accurate the film was to the journal, and it was such an honor to meet him and celebrate his mother’s 80th birthday during our program trip to Monteverde. As my Spanish professor noted to those of us who went to see the movie: “This is a moment you’ll remember for the rest of your lives.” During my semester abroad, I have become absolutely fascinated by the Cuban Revolution. For my Politics of Latin America course, I was given an assignment to present about the international relations between the United States and Cuba. And since, my curiosity about Cuban-American relations has flourished.

The USAC family celebrated Delia Maria's 80th birthday. After she blew out her candles, she began to get teary-eyed and then so did everyone else at our table!

The USAC family celebrated Delia Maria’s 80th birthday. After she blew out her candles, she began to get teary-eyed and then so did everyone else at our table!

On a side note, it turns out my Political Science professor is a professional chess player and played throughout graduate school competitively, which had me pretty excited.  He told me he’s a huge Bobby Fischer fan, and I finally got around to watching The Game of the Century. My professor was also kind enough to lend me Bobby Fischer Goes to War, which I am excited to start reading.

Wishing everyone a beautiful beginning to the start of November.



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An Introduction to Japan

Hello everyone! こにちは皆さん、

My name is Stephanie Lytle, and I’m currently studying abroad in the Toshima ward of Tokyo, Japan for the academic year of 2015-2016. I’m a double major in Anthropology and Psychology at the University of Miami, and I’m currently attending Sophia University in Japan. I’ve actually wanted to live in Japan for a while now. Two years ago, I applied to be a youth exchange student through Rotary International to go to Japan during a gap year after graduating high school. I ended up getting accepted into the program, but was instead sent to Northeastern Thailand. I’m honestly so happy that I ended up going there – it was an experience I never would’ve had otherwise. However, after returning to the U.S., I realized that I still wanted to live in Japan, so I applied through my university to study abroad and here I am!

I’ve been in Japan for about three months now, and it’s crazy how fast time goes when you’re studying abroad. It literally feels like it was a couple weeks ago when I arrived in Narita airport and felt the rush and nervousness of entering a country for the first time. Asia is a really different feeling than the States. The language, the culture, the food, and the scenery are all so different, and it can be a little overwhelming at first. I always try to keep an open mind when going abroad, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have some preconceived notions about Japanese people when I first came here that have been utterly proven wrong. I’m pretty sure everyone in the U.S. knows of the stereotype that all Japanese people are too serious, work too hard, and don’t ever relax. While Japanese people act formally towards people they don’t know and they are very hard-working, they are collectively a group of people that I would say are the best at having a good time out of other places I have traveled to. My roommate and I joke that Japanese culture is the epitome of “work hard, play hard.” Tokyo is a city that never sleeps, and places like karaoke bars are open until 1:00 or 2:00 am, even on a weekday. Japanese people definitely know how to balance being serious and having fun, and I find it almost comical that I used to think that they couldn’t.


The view from the entrance of my apartment.

I am finding Japan to be very unique for a number of reasons, but most noticeably because of the striking modern culture. Places such as Harajuku specifically cater to a type of fashion style that is based around being crazy and really out-there. But at the same time, I feel like Japanese culture is also much more connected to their historic traditions than America is. In the same city of Harajuku you also find one of the more famous shrines in Tokyo. Compared to the extreme modern atmosphere that exists outside this shrine, there is no trace of modernization inside the sacred grounds. Instead it feels more like stepping back in time. Japan has extremely polarized sides to its culture, and it’s extremely interesting to live in.


The path to my school from the local train station.

Now on the other hand, there are some similarities to American culture as well. Young Japanese people have most of the same interests in Japanese pop culture as young Americans do in American pop culture. Instead of being into the most recent American pop song, there is an array of music idols that Japanese people tend to like here. Instead of being into the most recent American film, it’s a Japanese film that everyone is talking about. It’s all essentially the same, just geared toward different cultures and languages. I love being able to find these interconnections between cultures, and find ways to relate to people around the world. It gives me new things to take an interest in, and in turn gives me a chance to share my culture with others around me.


A view of the Rainbow Bridge in Odaiba.

All in all, I’m really loving it here. The new language, food, friends, and culture, is all an amazing experience. It’s so weird to think that I’ve already been here for 1/4th of my study abroad experience, and I’m so excited to learn more about this amazing country in the meantime!

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Leaving the Comfort of Home

“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

The first time I walked around my neighborhood in Paris, I felt small. The buildings appeared to be larger than they actually were. I was in a foreign country and my family was miles away from me. The first two weeks were hard because I was frustrated by not being able to communicate with the locals as well as I hoped I would.

The street that I live on.

The street that I live on.

The area by my school.

The area by my school.

During a particular incident, I felt completely helpless. I wanted to purchase a French SIM card for my phone. I went into several stores I had researched online before leaving home and the employees all told me the same thing: “Our system is down. We cannot activate any SIM cards.” It was raining heavily that day. My feet were soaked and I just wanted to go home. I thought I was getting this response because the store clerks saw me as a tourist, but finally someone told me the truth. The only way I could get a SIM card quickly was to purchase it at a tabac and activate it myself. I purchased a SIM card and inserted it into my phone but it wasn’t working. I wished my tech-savvy brother could help me with this, however it was 6:00 AM in Chicago. Finally, I figured out what the problem was and my phone worked perfectly fine.

After being in Paris for a month, I feel like a local. At times I still have trouble trying to convey what I want and when I need help, but I have learned to be patient. So for all my fellow students applying to study abroad, patience is key. At first, you will want to go home or start counting down the days, but your experience will get easier. Now I don’t want to leave! I start to get sad just thinking about it. Studying abroad in Paris has truly been the best experience of my life. I’m so in love with this city. I can’t wait to continue to travel the world. I’m ready for the challenge.

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Studying Abroad as a Double Minority

As a member of the LGBTQ community, I remember feeling limited in the places I could study abroad. New York University (NYU) has a lavish second campus in Abu Dhabi, located on a trendy island and filled to the brim with oil-financed amenities. Yet, the campus feels absolutely off limits to me. United Arab Emirates has tough discriminatory laws against the LGBTQ community. London was a safe pick. I wonder sometimes though, if places like Abu Dhabi and Accra, Ghana were less discriminatory and actually wanted people like me there, would I have still chose London?

Britain (not including Ireland) legalized same-sex marriage in 2014. As a gay male, I feel the same in London as I do in New York City: safe. London also has a visible gay pride scene. The most popular area is SoHo, which is packed with LGBTQ-themed clubs and shops. Before coming here, every gay guy I talked to would look at me with quarter-sized eyes and squeal, “YOU HAVE TO GO TO HEAVEN!” Heaven is a gay club in SoHo that’s been around since the eighties- back when there wasn’t social media to link LGBT members up with each other, just clubs. It was nice to visit a place with so much proud cultural history to it.

It’s been interesting to explore the Black experience in Britain. A few weeks ago, I attended a lecture at The School of Oriental and Africana Studies on Black Feminism. The student lounge was packed with around one hundred students (mostly Black) coming together to talk about Black issues like culture appropriation, visibility, and how Black feminism differs from mainstream feminism.

During the question and answer session, a Black American woman stood up and expressed her amazement at learning how much Black Americans and Black Britons share in common. She pointed out the amazing and guilt-inducing fact that everyone in the room was expertly well-versed in American Black issues. Yet, most Black Americans know little to nothing about Black Britons and their struggles.

Because they are fewer in number, Black Brits don’t receive as much visibility as Black Americans. Blacks compose only 3% of Great Britain, whereas Blacks compose 13% of America. It’s almost as if they’re living in the Black American shadow, their experiences and struggles not given the proper international stage they deserve. The same is true with the Black French experience.

Being inside that student lounge was like meeting an extended part of my family for the first time.

Here’s another interesting thing: the term “Black” can be used to refer to any non-white British person. This practice was more frequent in the past, especially in the seventies. Asians, Indians, Afro-Caribbeans, and even the Irish joined together in solidarity and adopted a “politically Black” identity.  At the time, they were fine self-identifying as this, as they were all working together to eliminate discrimination. Over time however, agendas and needs changed and the use of “Black” as an umbrella term decreased. One person at the lecture stood up and asked the speakers if they thought the “politically Black” identity could be resurrected. One of them quickly responded, “Well, first, some groups would have to be okay with being called Black again. Because to some that’s seen as going backwards, not forwards.”

I have experienced some subtle forms of racism since coming to London to study abroad. My flatmate and I were on the bus when a group of white kids sat behind us. They were singing along to Kanye West’s “Gold Digger.” I braced myself and sure enough, they all rapped the n-word. I didn’t take offense to it. But it was when one of our tour guides joked to me and my fellow classmates, “Always stand on the right side of the escalator when you’re in the tube station! Otherwise, you’ll piss everyone off and get lynched!” Such an interesting word choice.

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Slo-Mo Mantis Shrimps, Past in Review, and Future Professions

Honestly, I am still deliberating about what I want to do professionally. I have a wide skill set, which is the direct result of my education in liberal arts schools since I entered kindergarten. As a college student, I feel that I am among millions all around the world that have no idea how they place in society or are differentiated. I am really no different from other students who have grown up in the American education system, even with my unique opportunity to be educated at an Australian University, which is akin to higher education in the United States. I picture myself as a non-potentiated cell, with no specialized instructions that tell me to do some specific societal task. Though when I do think about it, Australia is nearing the apex of my life’s turning point. And along the way I have found that studying abroad has had effects on my level of independence.

Independence is the drive to, for example, get out of the house and try something new when no one else is looking behind your back making sure that you are okay. It is the level of comfort that has changed. For me, I see the benefits of independence as the freedom to mold myself into whatever shape I want.

One of the ways that study abroad has given me independence is University of Queensland’s amazing curriculum. I am taking four classes; two are Biology related, one is Social Studies, and the last is Environmental. For my two Biology classes, I am taking Marine and Terrestrial Ecology. I have explored Australia’s marine fauna and animals in my first week abroad on Stradbroke Island at the Moreton Bay Research Station and observed Australia’s flora and plants in both Lamington and Girraween National Parks. Although both locations have aspects of flora and fauna ecology, they are specialized and are dominated by the landscape of the national parks and Stradbroke.

On Stradbroke Island, my group researched a question about the stomatopods, or mantis shrimps, which live in burrows under the dunes of the sandflats. We measured variables such as the distances of bait from their shelter, the state of the hole (open or closed), and time that the shrimp took to take the bait. The successes and failures were also noted, and our findings were presented to the class in a PowerPoint presentation.

In both the classroom and field, we learned how to gather data, work together in small teams, and present our findings in a timely fashion. This happened efficiently thanks to the stellar coordination of my group members; one of us had the clipboard to scribe, one observed a burrow, and another took pictures and video. Back at the station, we grabbed a table and dumped our data into Excel, and together made reasonable inferences as to what had happened. We observed that the mantis shrimp could smell the scent of the bait while submerged at higher tide, but not while the tide was low. I created a small video to add to our presentation, showing the mantis shrimp attacking the bait in slow-motion. This was a really fun part of working together with technology and I felt that seeing fauna in action really added a professional layer to our work.

I could be a field biologist working for National Geographic one day, who knows! But I believe that working together with my classmates has made me into someone that is more independent and self-sustaining. In a couple of days, I will be on a bus to Heron Island Research Station along the Great Barrier Reef, which will be a fruitful end to my Marine Ecology class. We will be researching at the station, creating our own experiments yet again, but at a real world diverse marine ecosystem, where anything can be found. Just like my future.

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Service-Learning in Jordan

After reaching a decision to study abroad in Jordan, and only after researching a multitude of programs, I applied to International Studies Abroad (ISA). ISA, as a fairly new study abroad program, seemed to satisfy both my academic and personal endeavors, and my budget too. Upon a further look into the program, I was surprised by the overall options ISA actually offered, in terms of its locations, sessions, courses, and opportunities. I decided to enroll in the Fall 2015 Jordan program, and noticed many course options that are similar to courses offered at my home institution in the U.S., including Arab/Israeli Conflict, Gender in Islam, U.S. Foreign Policy, and Arabic Language. Although these course descriptions were surely more advanced and detailed than that of my home institution’s, I envisioned a similar academic experience throughout my time in Jordan as in the U.S.. This predetermined vision would soon prove to be wrong, in the best way possible.

Although I had first settled on ISA’s basic Fall 2015 program in Jordan, I later decided to look into other options offered. Lo and behold, I stumbled upon something called “service-learning.” This component, in addition to regular coursework, is an add-on option to a semester abroad with ISA, one that is only offered in a limited amount of countries, and takes students “beyond the classroom experience” to provide them with the ability to work with local non-governmental organizations (NGO’s). After having discovered this opportunity, I immediately emailed ISA staff, and added the service-learning component to my program in Jordan. This was probably one of the best decisions in my life.

Currently I am dually enrolled as a student at The University of Amman Ahliyya, and as a volunteer English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at my placement NGO. My specific placement NGO is called The Family Development Association. This association works under the umbrella of the Ministry of Social Development in Jordan, and serves as a kindergarten school and host for various other programs, including an ESL workshop. My participation at The Family Development Association allows me to work with a variety of target groups, including a kindergarten group (ages 4-5), a “Youth @ Risk” group (ages 8-14), and older English Language Learners (ELL) groups (ages 10-14).


I volunteer three days a week at the NGO, and my responsibilities have allowed me to serve as both an assistant student teacher, and as an ESL teacher. On each of the three days I arrive at the NGO in the morning, where I first spend time with the kindergarten group until the end of their school day at 1:00 P.M.. During their session, my responsibilities are fairly widespread. I help facilitate various activities such as breakfast, recess, and lunch time. In addition, I am given time to host my own English lesson plan where I introduce the children to English letters and/or numbers and help them trace those letters/numbers (they are still learning to read and write). In cooperation with the staff at the NGO, we also facilitate story time, and arts and craft sessions as well.


After the normal school day ends at 1:00 P.M., and after the kindergartners all go home, The Family Development Association opens its doors to the other two groups I mentioned above, from 1:00 P.M. to 3:00 P. M..


My involvement with the Youth @ Risk group in particular has been a one-of-a-kind experience. These kids are often victims of financial, family, environmental, and social threats. Most of the kids in this group have parents or family members who are refugees, and in most cases a lot of these kids stopped attending school at an early age. The Family Development Association offers counseling specifically for this group, through its Save the Children NGO affiliate on site. I was lucky enough to even sit in on one of these sessions with the kids, where we created our own name tags and talked about ourselves and our interests in Arabic and English. I also work extensively with this group to teach them English in a fun, approachable manner. I have received amazing feedback during my sessions with these kids, and one of the young boys even stopped me after a class to personally ask if we could hold an English session every day.

In terms of the older ELL groups, my English lessons are facilitated in a more advanced fashion. I am able to do so because most of the members in this group have learned the basics of the language, which allows me to build off of their previous knowledge. In contrary, my lessons in the Youth @ Risk group focuses on the very basics.


My experience with ISA’s Service-Learning program has truly been a humbling and rewarding one. Throughout my short time volunteering at The Family Development Association, I have established great connections across the all-women staff, and all of the groups of kids. So much so, the staff even asked me to attend a field trip with them, the kindergartners greet me with a high-five every morning, and the young boys often stop to talk to me after our sessions.

I am so glad to make such a positive impact on the lives of these children, especially since they have already made one on me. I could have never imagined my semester abroad as an ESL teacher, and having no prior teaching experience, I was a bit worried at first. In spite, I quickly built relationships with staff and students alike, and received great feedback from all of the groups at the NGO. This experience has made me appreciate the importance of an education as the gateway to a successful future. It has also opened ideas for my very own future as an ESL teacher abroad. I want to thank both ISA and The Family Development Association for exposing me to this wonderful opportunity, which has enhanced my study abroad in Jordan unimaginably so.  


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