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A New Beginning and A New Lifestyle

Marhaba! My name is Sofia Sinnokrot and I am a second year student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. For the 2018-2019 academic year I will be studying abroad in Amman, Jordan. Being half Palestinian and visiting the Middle East several times in my life, I do not share the culture shock that many of my fellow peers have experienced from the moment they saw the McDonald’s sign written in Arabic.


However, visiting the Middle East and living in the Middle East are two completely different situations; the latter in which I was not prepared for. In the United States, we take for granted many aspects of our daily lives that are additional privileges in other parts of the world. For example, Jordan is one of the poorest water countries in the world. That being said, my apartment is only given a measurable tank of water for the month. Once that water runs out, we have to wait until the next refillment period or pay a large amount of money to get a new tank before. We are not able to drink the tap water from our kitchen sink, and have to pay for additional water jugs once we run out of drinking water. It is emphasised that laundry should only be done on the first day that our water is refilled since a load of laundry requires a significant amount of water. Water alone is a major change for me to adjust to while I am here. Being a runner, I consume at least 3 liters of water a day. Not having access to water fountains in buildings is something that is actively on my conscious and an adjustment I have had to account for in my daily routine. Coming from Chicago, unlimited drinkable running water was a norm for me that I took for granted. The same goes for electricity. Electricity in Amman is very expensive, and drying machines are rare household items. Instead of having my laundry done in a few hours, I have to hang my clothes up outside and wait two days for them to dry.


Life in Amman is very different compared to life in the United States. Most of the food in the supermarkets are imported from nearby countries. Thus, grocery shopping can become very expensive. Vegetables that are imported are sprayed with an extreme amount of pesticides and the chemical taste of them has made eating food an unpleasurable experience. Although I could go on forever comparing the simple life of living in America to the more complex adjustment of living in Amman, there are many positive aspects to each scenario. For one, I have become water conscious. With global warming on the rise, gaining environmental friendly traits is NOT something that should be talked about in a negative way. Jordan being a poor water country is extremely unfortunate, but I am now conscientious of my water usage. As well, instead of buying from supermarkets where goods are imported, I have learned to buy from local sellers. Not only is the food comparably fresh and cheap, I am helping the seller’s family as well as the Jordanian economy.

veggie stand

It is the little things that I do not normally think about that make adjusting to life in Amman a little bit more difficult than I expected. Nonetheless, I love my life here so far and I am very excited for the next few months!

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Finishing college and Cambridge

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


A pasture near River Great Ouse.

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

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

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

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

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


Gonville & Caius College on King’s Parade

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




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A Day in the Life in Spain

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Lessons about Learning, Taught through Teaching

Being abroad is an opportunity to learn so much about the world we live in, and while I haven’t yet talked much about what I’ve learned with my program’s workshops and partners, I’d like to use this space to talk about how I’ve learned. What I’ve learned comes next post and ho’ mama, it’ll be a big one! My trip to Mexico City is through one of the University of Washington’s “faculty led” programs. My program director Anu and her staff Panch, Rafa, and Sasha have designed this trip with intentional placement of lecture locations and more importantly, a wide variety of experts in every topic. While some of Anu’s partners use standard lecturing, some have gone above and beyond with the most wild forms of pedagogy. Most of which involved me crying in the end.

Just this week with an expert on migration, Dani used what he called “the pedagogy of the oppressed.” It began simply, as most do, with us writing a couple things. It was two lists of five items each, the first being things most important to us, and the other being people and ideas in the same category. These were my lists to start:

Okay, still simple. At this point in the workshop, we were all still laughing and having a fun time getting to know Dani a bit more. Then came the imaginary scenario, which consisted of three stages. We all sat down and closed our eyes to listen to Dani speak a scenario of a calm night at home.

“You have your nighttime cup of tea, read a book maybe, all is calm. You go to look at the tv and drop in horror to realize that your city has just been bombed. The United States has been attacked and you need to leave. You grab what you can and leave your home. At this point cross off two items off either list. Hurry, you have no time to think, just do!”

He ran around the room ushering us to cross our items as quickly as possible making it hard to think. It was a bit of a shock, especially when I was feeling so immersed. I frantically glanced at my lists taking away internet and safety. Feeling a little startled but still okay, we continued to stage two.

“You begin walking in search of a new home, avoiding conflict and strife. After walking for many weeks, your feet sore, hungry, maybe not having showered in a while (I was thinking to myself how I kept water access in my lists so I was good, just imagining walking with my family). Finally, you arrive at the border to Mexico, thousands of people waiting to get through. Please all of you, make two lines side by side facing forward.”

The ten of us students did as he asked, unsure of what was to follow. Dani then got up to stand in front of us all. He said something in Spanish at this point (I don’t know Spanish) but I could tell he was acting as a customs officer. “Papeles! Papeles!” The officer gestured to our lists in hand, which I guess acted as entrance forms. He began working his way down the line, looking at each list. I was near the back. “Yoooouuuuu… (*looks at papers*), you can go in. Welcome to Mexico! And you, hmmm, family huh? You can’t go in, turn back to the city being bombed behind you, you’re dead.” Us in the back were shocked at what we saw, some breaking out in emotion as they found their supposed fate. He claimed one could go in if they did him a “favor” with a disgusting grin and look in his eyes. “I’ll let you think about the decision and come back.” Finally, he came to me. I was terrified. He takes my papers by force, looking at both lists. “You can come in, but only if you have to cross out everything on these lists, only you get in.” My heart skipped a beat. It was on the next beat when a quiet “no” found its way out. “Are you sure? You will die in that city being bombed behind you.” Still unable to think, a more muffled and nervous “no” tumbled across my tongue. “Alright, turn around. You’re dead.” After a few seconds of shell shock I thought to myself, I couldn’t leave my family, my friends, everything that made me feel like me and then some. I couldn’t leave it behind. I’d rather have died than lost it all for a chance to continue. It was at that point I realized, I likely would have committed suicide if I had gone through. Having gotten through depression earlier this year, I knew it would resurface far worse. Either way I would have died…

I was a ghost in a shell for the rest of that presentation. A third stage had a happier ending about rebuilding a future for those who got through but I was too distraught to fully participate. Dani took us through just an inkling of the emotion and struggle that comes with migration. I was in tears for over an hour, far after the exercise was over and well into the lecture section. This was some of the most powerful learning I’ve had on this trip.

Another workshop was on gender and violence. After a lecture about the horror of Mexico’s feminicides, we were all asked to split into two groups, “men” and “women.” There were more women than men so we improvised. Each group had six people (some staff joined in) and were given simple rules for the exercise. The “women” could not talk. They had to sit down and try to swap seats with each other in the circle of chairs. They had to use eyes to communicate. I was placed in the “men” group. We had to prevent the “women” from standing up by any means necessary. That was our only rule. You could tell by the discomfort expressed by all of our faces that no one wanted to grab them by the shoulders to hold them down. Instead, we rushed to block them by crowding the middle of the circle but they could still swap side by side. So we started blocking their vision. I took my raincoat and held it in front of my colleague Maana. After a minute, she began to look frustrated and upset, not being able to yell at me either. Every passing second built my guilt up higher and higher, pillar by pillar into a mental Burj Khalifa. The exercise ended, “men” being victorious with their obvious advantage in the rules. The prize was nothing.

It was time for a debrief and our instructor, Marcela asked a very simple question. “Why didn’t you work together?” Then it hit me, there were so many possible workarounds. “Crouching isn’t standing!” I thought. We weren’t inherently against each other or anything like that. I was wrong, there was a prize. The Burj Khalifa of Guilt becoming a tower so tall that it pierced the stratosphere, a sight to surely see. After the debrief, I walked out and just sat alone. It was so easy to just stop the “women” with our advantage that we didn’t think to help them. We just wanted to win so to speak. The metaphor to society was clear yet also the most foul, disgusting thought you could come to. Far more powerful than just saying that society has a patriarchy.

There’s one more practice in pedagogy I’d like to share. Don’t worry, I realize this is long but this one is far simpler than either of the previous. We spent a day shopping! We left at ten to visit La Mercede, the largest public market in the city spanning many warehouses full of small stands. They sold everything from fruit to anti-witchcraft soap. It was crowded, smelly, unsanitary in some places like the warehouse full of animal cages filled with pigeons, chickens, puppies and chickens. You could smell the animal rights abuse. We rushed from section to section to section following our group leader, Rafa. The ground was cracked in some places causing me to trip several times. The day had no lecture, just observing our surroundings.

After a few hours at La Merced, we left to for a second unannounced market located in Polanco. Polanco is one of the richest neighborhoods in Mexico, containing the most expensive strip in all Latin America. After a short walk, we arrived at El Palacio de Hierro, a single store designed to look like a mall holding stalls for each and every high end brand like Louis Vuitton and Coach. It was built with the intention of being the very best for the very highest class. Upon going inside, I could feel the inequality as a pit in my gut. It was like walking inside a diamond with how fancy it was set up. What was worse was the whole area felt like home in Seattle. I found myself split between wanting to buy things and protesting the blatant waste and classism. They had a TV in the ceiling acting as a sky or stained glass window depending on the time! Shame? Guilt? No, it was pure disgust that I felt in the end. I couldn’t stand being in the area any longer. I was glad to leave and never return.


Each of these methods in teaching have something in common, feeling. So often in the classroom we have facts and theories spat at us from a distance. How often does a teacher let us learn through experience or emotion? It may be more difficult but the power of these more personal pedagogies is easily worth the trouble. These lessons may be the most painful to experience, but they are easily my favorite moments in my time abroad thus far.

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A day in Cambridge

It’s 6 am and the rumblings of tourist season are already drifting through my window. My room is perched above King’s Parade, a historically significant street that attracts flocks of tourists to its shops, restaurants, and colleges. Since I don’t have class until 10:15 am, I grab my ear plugs and try and doze a little longer. Eventually I am woken by either my alarm, or the humidity from this perpetual heat wave. My family would be quick to inform you that I am the antithesis of a morning person, so it’s not till I have downed my morning bowl of matcha tea that I can contemplate my day’s schedule. Classes, homework, and some sort of evening activity.



Descending the spiral staircase from my bedroom I pop in my headphones and brace myself for the crowds. After 15 minutes of deftly dodging honking cars, screeching children, and racing cyclists, I arrive at class in the Engineering building. During my final three weeks at Cambridge I am taking one class, Behavior Ecology, which means I have lecture five times a week, and seminar twice a week, for one hour and fifteen minutes each. Lectures usually consist of a standard PowerPoint presentation, whereas seminars are much smaller and we partake in demonstrations, activities, and discussions.

After my morning lecture on predator-prey behavior, I have a two-hour break until my seminar. There isn’t quite enough time to return to King’s College for lunch, so I meet some friends at our favorite coffee shop across the street from the lecture hall. The cafe, Hot Numbers, always has delicious sandwiches, drinks, and salads; I cringe to think of how much of my food money has been spent here.

 After getting a snack and finishing a bit of work, I head to Pembroke College where my seminar group is meeting. Today we are exploring Coe Fen, a semi-rural meadow that adjoins the busy city center. Here hotels and pubs populate one side of the River Cam and cattle roam through wild fields on the other side. We follow our professor to various locations as he points out examples of wildlife behavior he explained in the morning lecture. Even through the heat and humidity is oppressive, it’s exciting to be outside and learning about the local flora and fauna.


Our professor explaining how animals distribute according to the amount of food resources in the environment by feeding the mallards and Canadian geese bread chunks.

I walk back to King’s as my mind buzzes with damsel fly mating patterns and goose feeding habits. During dinner my friends and I swap stories of our day, or of our lives back home. Evenings here are almost always different. If we have exams I will head to the library, if I feel a bit antsy I will take a sunset stroll along the River Cam, or if I have time I will take part in one of the program coordinated events. Almost every night there is some sort of optional social program or lecture, but everyone’s favorite event is the formal hall.


Dinner at King’s College


My bedroom desk where I attempt to study

During the school year most Cambridge colleges have formal hall multiple times a week. Cocktail dresses or suits are required and the three-course meal is always delicious. The grand hall rings with laughter and the tinkling of utensils. After the beautiful candlelit affair everyone goes out to the bar or club to dance off the endless wine.


Some of my friends before our second formal.


My friend is also graduating from UC Berkeley when we finish our courses in two weeks.

Since there are only three formal dinners most nights are occupied elsewise. Regardless of the evening activity the best part of every day is returning to King’s College and stepping into the courtyard just beyond the gate. On the right King’s Chapel soars toward the sky, in front is the stunning Gibb’s Building, and to the left is the building where I live. A delicate silence permeates the open space, one that is almost startling after the sudden cessation of the day’s activity. The stained-glass windows of King’s Chapel twinkle from a mysterious inward light and the cool night breeze plays with my sun dress. If the weather permits, the sky alights with thousands of stars. The sweetness of these moments provides a breath of time for reflection and gratitude.

gibbs building

Gibb’s Building is the first thing you see as you walk through the gates of King’s College.

Heading left to my building, I climb the spiral staircase, rinse off the day’s sunscreen, and crawl into bed. I listen to the murmuring of the late-night lovers or the random guffaw from friends walking home from the pub. These sounds lull me to sleep as think about all that occurred during the day and prepare for tomorrow’s adventure.


Looking over the River Cam at the back of Gibb’s Building and King’s Chapel.

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