Tag Archives: Reflections

It’s about culture

I’ve been sitting here for almost an hour writing, deleting, and rewriting just the first sentence of this post. It seems nearly impossible to put my experience into words, but I am going to do my best.

My time in Slovenia was life changing. I laughed. I cried. I learned to love. I tried new things. I accomplished goals. I made life-changing relationships. I would do it again in a heart beat, and since being home there have been several times where that is all I want to do.

I loved my time abroad, not because I wanted to be away from home, but because of who I have become from my experiences while I was gone. In the time I was gone I visited eight countries and lived in two, and the most important thing that I learned from all of it was that I have culture too.

I grew up in a small, conservative town. Everyone in my family going back for generations on both sides are Caucasian.  We enjoy family time, camping, card games, eating good food, and finding good deals while shopping. Since I was a little girl I have wanted to travel the world because quite frankly, I didn’t think that I had much of a culture and what little culture I did have was boring.

So, finally, 2018 was my year. At the age of 24, I was going to experience  r e a l culture. I left in February to study abroad in Slovenia, and in June went directly to India for an internship.

I forgot to pack a hat in Iceland.

I ate the best gelato imaginable in Italy.

I fell in love in Slovenia.

I sketched in Austria.

I ate delicious halusky in Slovakia.

I stood in awe of the Parliament building in Hungary.

I explored the catacombs in Serbia.

I rode a bike in Denmark.

I swam in the sea in Croatia.

I ate with my hands in India.

It is impossible to describe everything I experienced in these countries. It was incredible, but now I’m home. Back to a small, conservative town that I used to think had no culture. But guess what? I was completely wrong.

I have a culture that is completely different than every one I experienced, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a culture. Out of the 10 countries I have now been to, none of them were the same. Each one had something a bit different whether it was the food, the currency, the language there was always something unique.

So now I am learning to notice and appreciate my culture, and I think that by doing that I will be better equipped to appreciate other cultures. I think that traveling isn’t really about going and seeing other places, but it is a way to teach each of us to appreciate what we have. We are all unique and a bit odd, but that’s what makes us great.

Traveling taught me that our cultures are all very different, but most importantly, we’re all human. And it is that similarity that bonds us together.

Cultures will differ, but humans are humans. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, how you eat your food, or what you wear. We all need companionship and acceptance. So where ever you may be reading this, take a look around and remember that we’re all trying our best in the way that we know how to. So let’s just smile and appreciate the differences, because they really don’t matter.





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Initial Thoughts from Distrito Federal

The passage from home to foreign land is more than just a change of geography, it’s a change of mode. It’s a shift from the relaxing yet somewhat dull confines of a lonely summer break to the exciting yet slightly frightening experience of foreign study. Hi, my name is Alex and today marks my sixth day in Ciudad de Mexico. I’m a genderqueer identifying, Interdisciplinary Honors student at the University of Washington and during this trip I will be studying queer communities, public health and migration throughout our southern neighbor.


Me at the National Autonomous University of Mexico standing in front of the Central Library

Coming into my program, I had one expectation, to learn. I wanted a blank slate and knew that too many expectations sets one up for disappointment. Surely enough, by day one, I knew I would not be let down. The culture here is so peculiar to someone who is so accustomed to the Seattle freeze*. The people are immensely more social in ways that can be interpreted as both good and bad. It’s the small things I notice most. People walking tight corridors, pushing past each other rather than waiting, street vendors both in the form of stands and standing salesman walking person to person requesting purchase. In the taxi from the airport, I noticed an interesting phenomenon I dubbed reverse window shopping. At a red light, vendors carrying boxes of goods would walk window to window between cars for potential customers. I should also note that it was barely 7:00 AM! Greetings are much more active with all the face kissing, hugging and ‘buenos dias’es you could hope for. Meal times shift from 8:00 am, noon, and 6:00 pm for breakfast through dinner respectively to 8:00 am (no problem) 3:00 pm (okay a little late now) and 10:00 pm (I’m starving).

Yet almost none of this registered as a cultural shock as it was defined in all my orientations and pre departure meetings. Besides the meal times, I enjoy many of these changes. I’m already thinking about how I can bring back the lessons I’ve learned in activism and population health. One of the most impactful projects I learned about were the Las Patronas. This was a group who lived near a train network often used by migrants known as ‘The Beast.’ When these railway adjacent residents found migrants who hadn’t eaten in four days, they jumped at the opportunity to provide them sustenance. Since then, they’ve formed a group that constantly makes food for the passing travellers.

What astounds me with these people’s work is their dedication to charity without return. In the United States, we always have such a focus on some return as if charity is an investment. The return comes in many forms, both physical and psychological. It can be a T-shirt, keychain, virtual adoption of an animal, etc.  It can even be as simple as getting an update letter on how your money was used. Yet these people would give up large portions of their wealth and time to feed these people for the simple reason of it being the right thing to do. They never found out if these migrants made it to their destination or what they thought of the food’s quality. Yet Las Patronas will go as far as to say they’ll be doing this work the rest of their lives.


My class discussing reflection exercises at Casa de Los Amigos, the hostel we are staying in

It’s so inspiring as to make me wonder about the nature of the exchange in our country, the hyper emphasis on “the art of the deal,” so to speak. How selfish must we be to expect a return on charity? It has left me wondering…

How do I integrate these practices in my own life?

How can I bring these lessons back home?

How much more knowledge can I absorb during this month when this is just a small inkling of my many experiences over the past five days?

More to come in further writings.


*Seattle Freeze is a term used to describe the antisocial and often introverted nature of many residents in the city.

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A Semester of Wonder

“I am not the same, having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.”

-Mary Anne Radmacher

It has been a week since I returned to the States and felt my feet settle on solid ground. It has been a week of me readjusting to America and my home university. During this week I’ve felt a flurry of emotions- sadness from missing the friends I made abroad, eagerness to see my old friends again, thankfulness for the experience I was able to have- which all mix together to a strange mix-mosh of feelings inside of me. I didn’t know how to react to being back in the States. After my semester in Belgium, I made a short trip to Vietnam to see family I haven’t seen in 12 years, and then flew back home where I had 4 days to adjust and move back to my college campus. When I returned home, it felt like everything stayed constant, but changed at the same time. I was struggling with how to adjust back to my old life in America and then I realized I’m not the same person I was when I left for Belgium. I’m coming back to the States more assured of who I am, more aware of the world, and eager to experience more of it. I’m eager to implement and utilize everything I’ve learned and move forward as a more aware citizen.

America is in a time of immense change and I’m at a place where I am trying to figure out what I can do to enact positive change in a country that desperately needs it. I felt so far removed from American politics when I was abroad, even if it was a hot topic of discussion. I guess this is a part of the culture shock of being back in America. While in Belgium, as political events unraveled I was able to keep a certain distance from it all. But here, I returned just as the inauguration was happening. I returned as America was on the precipice of making history and I’m trying to figure out how to help fight against repeating some not so nice parts of that American history.

As America is on the forefront of the fight for human rights, I’m also struggling on how to slide back into my old life. I feel myself missing and yearning for my life in Leuven. I miss the little quirks of Belgian life, and more than anything I miss the friends I made abroad. My hall-mates and I still talk on a daily basis, all of us finding it hard to get used to life without each other. But this leads to promises of future meet-ups, which I’m excited to see follow through! But this doesn’t mean I’m not excited to be back in America and on my home campus. It’s nice to be back and be surrounded by what I’m familiar with. It’s nice to go back to all my favorite coffee shops and go the library that was my dorm away from dorm.



A friend from my college visited me in Leuven and we took a trip to Bruges to visit the Christmas Markets!


The first thing I felt when I returned to America was a mix of familiarity and newness. Everything felt the same, the ground was still the same solid concrete I was used to, my small college felt comfortable, and I reunited with my friends in a seamless fashion which felt like I never left. But something was different. The concrete was different than the brick road I grew accustomed to, it feels weird to not walk 30 minutes to get to class, and I miss the mix of languages that occurred over dinner in Belgium. It was definitely reverse culture shock and after a week of being home, I feel myself getting over that shock. I’m enjoying being back home and also having the time to reflect on the amazing three months I had in Belgium.

Before studying abroad, I definitely was a lot more wary of traveling and going to new places. But now I can’t imagine being stagnant for too long. I’m now yearning to see more of the world, even if it is just going to a different state in the U.S. I’m determined to see and experience more, which means I’ll be able to visit some of my American hall-mates! I feel significantly more comfortable and confident being in unknown places and adjusting to the unfamiliar. Being in Leuven gave me the chance to fully embrace life and get everything I can out of it. I credit this to my hall-mates. Living with a hall of international students has taught me so much. I’ve been able to learn about different cultures, but more importantly I’ve been able to experience how each of them see the world. A friend wrote me a letter and a line of it said, “Nhi, the world is a beautiful place, take a chance to see it.” That’s something I will remember for the rest of my days and I really credit my hall-mates for my newly found desire to take the world on.



Last picture of the hall! (Had to edit the boys in since they never wanted to take a picture with us!)


Studying abroad also made me become strong in my beliefs, while simultaneously making me more open to exchange and conversations between differing ideals. I’ve learned to learn from the differences between people and how engaging in thoughtful conversations can really make me develop and strengthen my own thoughts and ideas. I thought I had a strong handle on these types of conversations, but I definitely learned and grew so much as I was abroad.

The past three months were the most transformative of my life and are memories that will never fade from my memory. I’ve made unbreakable friendships, created unforgettable moments, and have grown tremendously as a person. I’ll always be thankful for the opportunity to study abroad, especially to Gilman for helping fund my experience. I will take what I experienced and learned, and use it as I continue with my educational pursuits and as I grow and live.

Leuven gave me a taste of the world and for that I will always be grateful and have a special place in my heart for the small Belgian town that welcomed me and gave me so much more than what I bargained for.



Ostende, a Belgiun coastal city.

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Filed under Nhi in Belgium, Western Europe

I Feel Ready

Ready to take on the world after my study abroad journey. I feel more prepared to look a potential employer square in the face and tell them I am a globally-minded individual that can work with an assortment of personalities. I have had the opportunity to take a long, honest look at what I believe and how I think and actually question my beliefs. I believe that this is something everyone should do a few times throughout their lifetime in order to be open to new ideas and possibilities.



Learned so much about Spanish and European architecture here in Salamanca!


I also feel prepared to raise children that are more globally-minded and can think beyond the “us and no more” mentality and begin to feel compassion for their world and beyond. Before I could only give them vague guidance on how they should approach interacting with new cultures and personalities, but now I can give them advice based on solid experience. My experiences. How cool is that?



This is the most magical food in all the world: paella.


Working with the people of Spain in their homes, in their schools, in the grocery stores and beyond has given me insight into how other people think about things like managing a home, teaching, and customer service. I have learned to be a bit more patient. Not only for other people and learning to allow others’ ideas to come up against my own, but patience for myself to allow some of these ideas to take root and change me.



Climbing Monte Urgull in St. Sebastian.


Hasta luego.

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Recapping My Study Abroad Take Aways

This year I decided to study abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina to reconnect with my Argentine heritage and culture. As a first generation American, I never exactly knew where my family came from or why my parents decided to leave Argentina and I took it upon myself to learn about this unknown history.



My parents in the States sometime in the mid-1980s.


Studying abroad gave me the opportunity to develop direct relationships with my distant family and other people in Argentina. With my family, I was able to trace back my roots through stories of immigration stemming from Italy, Colombia, Spain, and even native ancestry. These newly found discoveries in my family tree caused me to deeply appreciate the multiculturalism that exists within our world.



My Colombian grandparents when they got married in 1944.


In addition, I saw this study abroad opportunity as way to improve my media skills. As an aspiring filmmaker, I volunteered and collaborated with talented individuals in Buenos Aires who represent Argentine culture and I created for them more media presence. Most of them were musicians, but others were actresses and restaurant owners. Without initially knowing it, I realized this was a powerful method to completely immerse myself in Argentine culture and disseminate it through social media outlets. With such newly found relationships, I was not only able to strengthen my language skills as I did in Spanish class, but I also deepened my Latin American identity and sensibilities both culturally and sociologically. Pretty soon I was being invited to what felt like every musical or theatrical event in Buenos Aires and that powerfully enriched my study abroad experience.



Acrobat Pia Ponce, who lives off her art in Buenos Aires.


I continued to expand on this search for cultural identity and fluidity while traveling through other regions in Argentina. In the north I encountered people of pure altruism and generosity. For example, I remember the day I met Ricardo, a man who was on his way to donate big packets of flour to local schools in Salta, Argentina. Here I took this unexpected opportunity to witness and register this altruistic act while meeting and conversing with children from towns that are completely off the grid.



Waiting for my ride from Angastaco to Seclantas (32 miles).


The various things I experienced through study abroad presented themselves in forms that were constantly mixing in a whirlwind of the familiar and the foreign. I converge with my experiences when I follow a direct path; but almost like a magnet, I am diverging from that path, thrown off course by other experiences happening around me so that when I return to my designated path I am no longer the same person.

Through study abroad, we become people who have a deeper understanding of the world that surrounds us and the people who make up not one but a myriad of world cultures.



My trip to Seclantas lead me to this school of children where I had the opportunity to eat lunch and spend quality time learning about Ricardo’s charity foundation.


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Filed under Robert in Argentina, south america

Reflecting on the Impact of Central America


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.


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


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.


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


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.


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).


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.


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


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


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.


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,



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).


Being happy in Costa Rica!

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Filed under Alexandria in Costa Rica, Central America

What I learned in Morocco


Sunset falling on the Atlas Mountains.

Sunset falling on the Atlas Mountains.

I sat in my kitchen table in two different occasions and waited– nothing. In my hand, a pen, in front of me, my journal with only the date, the time and a title, “What I learned in Morocco.”

The page remained blank. Both times.

I sat there and thought, what did I really learn in Morocco? I had to have learned something! But in front of me, the naked pages revealed nothing.

I didn’t worry though. I knew that what I had learned was still pouring through my consciousness, taking root deep inside my mind.

I knew…but my mind and pages were blank. What did Moroccans and Islam teach me in the last five months? Where were all my deep realizations? Where was my profound understanding of the self?

Perhaps, more than I can share with you right now. As I said, the lessons learned are still being processed and just because I left Morocco, doesn’t mean Morocco has left me.

And so without further delay, I will share with you just a few things I learned in Morocco.


Morocco is at a crossroads.

I learned that Morocco is a country that is not quite African, not yet European and not fully integrated with Middle East.

It is a country that has as much history as it has struggles. It is a country that is a hybrid of its past conflicts and recent conquests. Morocco has been so profoundly influenced by its past – its future is almost unreadable.

Morocco is still developing. Violence and sexual harassment against women is a problem that the country has failed to address. The king of Morocco lives in abundance in any of his five palaces while thousands of homeless Moroccans endure the elements outside. Corruption, wealth accumulation and inequality are unaddressed issues that have slowly been gaining light.

But Morocco is a country rich in opportunities. Its affluence doesn’t come from its GDP or its natural resources; its wealth comes from the Moroccan people – the people who wake up hoping today will be better than yesterday. Its people that have joys and pains and dreams and defeats – just like we all do.

Islam means peace.

Labeling all Muslims as terrorists is as ignorant and dangerous as when Hitler blamed the entire Jewish population for being the cause of Germany’s problems.

There is no difference.

When people use religion to justify violence, for any reason, they are no longer following the principles of their own belief system. Since peace and justice are at the core of every religion that claims that God is their source of knowledge.

Traveling light is a gift.

During my last few days in Morocco, I was traveling with my brother with just our backpacks and duffel bags. By no means were we traveling light, since we each carried about fifty pounds.

I had given away my larger suitcase and most of my belongings to my roommate and friends. I needed to travel with what I considered the bare minimum – and it was still too much.

As we traveled through Morocco, I realized how comforting it is to not have any additional weight on my shoulders. How refreshing it is to not be tied down to anything. How liberating it can be to have nothing but the clothes on my back.

As we moved from city to city, we realized we should have left more behind. Very much like in life, the less baggage we carry, the more free we are to move around.


It is not where you are, it is who you are with.

Bus, taxi and train rides would had been much more uncomfortable had I not had a friend’s shoulder to sleep on.

Hungry nights on top of Mount Toubkal would had been lonely had my soul not been filled with laughter.

The stars wouldn’t have shone as brightly had I not had someone to share my dreams with.

My tagine or couscous wouldn’t have been finished had I eaten alone.

The cities I walked through would have been empty, had I not had someone to see them with.

In my time in Morocco, I learned that it doesn’t matter where you are, it matters who you are with. You can be sleeping in a train station in Meknes, or staying in a luxurious hostel in Barcelona, or rocking on a hammock at home, and none of it would matter.

The place, the location, the time – that is all arbitrary. The people we share it with is what makes the difference.


But never forget the people at home.

Sure, it is nice to travel to distant lands and explore new cultures, but having that little piece of home with you always makes the road seem less dangerous.

I guess what I am trying to say is this:

Leave home, but come back to see how much you have grown. Learn about yourself so that you can teach others about themselves. Keep your loved ones close to your heart, because when the world gets cold, that is the one place where your memories will always keep you warm.


I am still learning who I am.

Perhaps the most insightful reflection that I have acquired is this: I am still figuring out who I am, and honestly, I might never find out – and the best part – that is okay, I have an entire lifetime to do so.

Life is a journey. Our purpose? I will let the dead philosophers argue with each other over the answer.

There comes a turning point, I believe, in every person’s life where we must decide: continue living the life we are living, or take a leap of faith into the unknown, venture into the realm where nothing is certain and everything is a mystery.

In “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” by Joseph Campbell, he calls it, “the hero’s call to adventure.” This is the point where the protagonist, you and I and everyone else, is faced with a challenge, with a quest they must embark on in order to attain completeness.

It is a journey from childhood innocence to adulthood understanding; it is the quest from ignorant prince to enlightened Buddha; it is the merging of two worlds– the unknown and the known, the yin and yang, the light and the darkness– into one ecstatic whole.

Our hero is rewarded with a deeper, more mature and holistic view of their role in the universe.

Going to Morocco was my call to adventure, but as I learned in my time there, the call of duty rings more than once. At any point, life can decide to interfere and once again ask our hero if they would like to embark on a detour from the main narrative.

It is during these detours that I have learned the most about myself. It is during these detours that the deepest parts of ourselves are revealed.


The Journey continues.

I learned that the journey is never over.

I am also learning that just because I am back home, doesn’t mean that the same Kevin has returned.

And now I must wait: for Life, for Fate and Destiny to knock at my door with another quest. A new journey.

The universe knows that I will answer.

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Filed under Kevin in Morocco, middle east