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Of Travel Plans and TB Tests: Studying Abroad in the Fall

in Campus Journal by

Here’s a fun math problem: what do you get from five rescheduled meetings, plus a dozen e-mails begging department heads to see you, multiplied by three months of impatience and malfunctioning links, plus vaccinations and a TB test?

 

Answer: one student (me), ready to study abroad in fall 2018. My program, I.E.S. Rabat, is not officially recognized by Swarthmore, so I had the dubious honor of being one of the first students to file a petition through the new Off Campus Study online application. Repeatedly, I’ve been told my petition may be used as a model for future students. If I were cynical I might think I was being used as a guinea pig. As it is, I’m just glad I can go.

 

My focus is postcolonial Maghrebi literature written in French; going to Morocco, which still has a large Francophone population, seemed more logical than continental France, which has limited resources devoted to postcolonial literature and, worst of all, my grandparents would be able to keep an eye on me. And, since three-quarter of programs in the Middle East seemed focused on either peace and conflict studies or were weirdly orientalist (my favorite is the student review which described snake charmers and camels in downtown Rabat), the one program I found that allowed me to take courses in French at a Moroccan university was not officially recognized by Swarthmore. So I petitioned.

 

Petitioning adds an extra level of stress to the study abroad application process. “Petitioning” in study abroad language means desperately trying to prove that your program of choice is worthy of Swarthmore’s rigid academic standards. It means printing syllabi for your program courses, which will inevitably be outdated; e-mailing them to department heads, begging for credit; uploading screenshots and documents at 2 a.m. to make sure your petition is ready in time. And yet, every semester, a few students decide to go through the process.

 

To be fair, not all petitions are nerve-wracking. Lilly Price ’20 petitioned to go to Thailand with the International Sustainable Development Studies; after five weeks of a homestay, during which she will learn Thai, she and about 30 other students from schools across the U.S. will backpack and trek across the country. In small villages, they will meet local community leaders, and learn about sustainable development and agricultural practices. .

 

“I’m the first student from Swat doing this program,” explains Price. “I was looking for a program with a lot of field studies, and the office [Off-Campus Study] recommended this. I actually got a lot of support, even as a petitioner, even though there were a few bumps. It can be hard to wrangle all the department heads to sign off on the courses.”

 

Price’s program, which centers on sustainable development as well as Thai society, is perfectly suited to her environmental studies and anthropology special major. Other students use study abroad as an opportunity to get as far away from their major courses as possible. Jack Rubien ’20, a biophysics major and math minor, will be going to India as part of a Buddhist studies program based in Bodh Gaya, a historic pilgrimage site where Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment. He will learn Hindi, study meditation, learn about the different sects and tenets of Buddhism, and conduct a three-week independent study before returning to the U.S.

 

“I was able to pace things out so that I don’t have to take S.T.E.M. courses for a full semester, so this is my chance to do something completely different. I took a class, Patterns of Asian Religions, that got me really interested in Buddhism in Asia, so the professor [Steven Hopkins] recommended this program. I was really not proactive and did everything last minute, so O.C.S. was swamped by then and didn’t have that much time for me. You should try to schedule meetings earlier on when they can give you more attention.”

 

While all three of us are excited to be leaving soon and miss out on the beginning of Swat Plague and campus claustrophobia, we all have our share of apprehensions. I am eager to learn Arabic, both the colloquial Darija spoken in Morocco and the more formal Modern Standard Arabic, but worried about how hard it will be. I occasionally worry I’ll go home having only spoken French, Parisian-tourist style, and therefore have missed out on much of Moroccan life. I will also go a year without seeing my friends, as most students choose to study abroad in the spring. Rubien mentions the difficulty of leaving behind his friends, as well as staying in touch. His program encourages students to use technology as little as possible, according to Buddhist tradition. As for Price, she mentions a frequent worry of many students going abroad:

 

“I’ll be one of about 30 students, we’ll all be travelling together and spending a lot of time in close contact, so if things are awkward or we don’t get along, it could get weird or tense.”

 

Then again, practices like the Swat Swivel and avoiding past hookups in Sharples should have prepared us for small awkward groups. Having survived Swarthmore, its geeks and academic stress and coffee talks, we are ready to survive a semester surrounded by wholesome  American college kids and pretending we’re able to learn a new language. I even have some Very Wise Rules for anyone planning to go abroad. If things go terribly and you want to call home and bitch your heart out, do remember someone nearby may speak English, and you don’t want be the rude American tourist. To my fellow students headed for North Africa, please don’t mention belly dancers or snake charmers in your online reviews – it’s embarrassing. Not that I don’t expect to commit severals screwups.

 

Have a nice summer and fall semester, everyone! I’ll be back in January, doubtlessly writing something mean-spirited about Annoying Americans Abroad or how much I hate being back on campus in winter.

To Eacham Their Own; How People are Changing the Lifestyle of Brush Turkeys

in Campus Journal by

 

If you were to walk around the forests of eastern Australia for a day, you would most likely find a brush turkey in your path. Like a raccoon, you might even see them scavenging through a trash can. Brush turkeys are medium-sized, ground-dwelling birds. They scavenge through leaves to find bugs for food and use dead leaf litter to build mounds. Brush turkeys are considered to be pests by the local Australian communities due to their begging behavior and the damage they do to gardens.

Many locals are upset with their increasing numbers in the suburbs around Queensland, Australia.  I’m currently studying abroad with SIT Australia: Rainforest, Reef, and Cultural Ecology along with 17 other students, who, like me, are all interested in biology and ecology. As a group, we decided to observe the abundance and concentration of brush turkeys between Lake Eacham and Lake Barrine to see if there were any differences between them. Lake Eacham and Lake Barrine are two fragmented pieces of Crater Lakes National Park, located near Malanda, Queensland. The crystalline blue lakes were both formed from magmatic explosions and now serve as popular tourist destinations. Both lakes are surrounded by thick rainforest vegetation and an abundance of wildlife, including brush turkeys. Lake Eacham’s park includes a picnic area, while Lake Barrine has a large parking area with a restaurant on the property.

In six groups of three, I went out with my fellow SIT Study Abroad students to survey the area in and around the lakes. We standardized our methods as much as possible by walking at similar paces, staying quiet, and surveying the same amount of area. In total, we collected around 36 hours of data, with each group surveying 26 km areas. This distance included the path around the lake, some picnic and parking areas, and streets 1 to 2 km from the lake entrances.

It is important to note that our surveys occurred in the mid-morning and the late afternoon, so we never captured the brush turkey population around lunch. It’s possible that more of them would have appeared in picnic areas as more people brought out food around noon. Also, some of our survey area occurred in dense forest cover, so it’s possible that some of the turkeys may have been hiding behind trees and foliage.

After trekking along each of our paths, we found an average of two turkeys per kilometer at Lake Eacham and an average of one turkey per kilometer at Lake Barrine. At Lake Eacham, the majority of brush turkeys were concentrated near the picnic area; each group saw between five and ten brush turkeys in the picnic area. At Lake Barrine, we saw between zero  and two brush turkeys in their park area.

 

Lake Eacham is a popular place to hang out for locals and tourists alike. During our free time there, we’ve seen many people lying on the banks and picnicking with friends and family. One instance we were there, we noticed a brush turkey picking scraps out of people’s open cooler bag.  The brush turkeys seem to be getting fed, whether or not the visitors are even meaning to feed them. There is a good chance that all of this food in the open could be attracting the brush turkeys near the site. Human feeding could explain why brush turkeys populations are concentrated near the picnic area of Lake Eacham. While Lake Barrine also had a place for people to relax and enjoy a meal, we didn’t see as many brush turkeys in this area.  This is most likely due to the fact that there is an actual restaurant establishment at Lake Barrine and they may take action to keep the brush turkeys away. This would allow their customers to be more at ease and keep the site clean. People also don’t need to bring their own food to Lake Barrine. There is no one constantly at Lake Eacham enforcing any rules against feeding brush turkeys. The picnic area at Lake Eacham has created a habitat where brush turkeys are readily interacting with humans while Lake Barrine does not have the same connection between humans and brush turkeys. This difference is what allowed us to see an influx of brush turkeys at Lake Eacham and not at Lake Barrine.

For both lakes, we saw most of the brush turkeys in the forest adjacent the lake, and very few brush turkeys on the neighboring roads. This might to be due to the dramatic change in biodiversity right next to the lake and roads two km from the lake.  There is more dense forest near the lakes than in their surrounding suburbs. Dense canopies are often associated with an abundance of insects, which are essential to the diet of brush turkeys. In addition, brush turkeys need an abundance of leaf litter to build mounds in which they incubate their eggs. The streets have fewer habitat areas for wildlife and greater fragmentation. This would explain the high concentrations of brush turkeys only on the path near the lakes.

While it is illegal to feed wildlife across Australia, brush turkeys are finding human food scraps at the Lake Eacham picnic area, as we’ve seen them dig through picnic bags and trash bins. It’s also possible that people are intentionally giving them pieces of food. At Lake Eacham, employees work two days a week to clean the bathrooms, while there are constant staff present at the Lake Barrine restaurant. To remedy the high concentration of turkeys at Lake Eacham, we recommend that Lake Eacham implement more efforts to control how people interact with the brush turkeys, especially in regards to feeding. Signage and more staff could be a good way to counter the scavenging turkeys. It is clear to us that brush turkeys are becoming greater pests and are more present in picnic areas, but it’s not too late to do something about it. Each person should take it on themselves to ensure that brush turkeys are not feeding off their food scraps.

 

SIT Australia has been a blast, as we often travel to a new place each day. This project has helped me to realize that even when I act as a tourist for a day at places like Lake Barrine and Lake Eacham, I can have a huge impact on the ecosystem there. When my group passed through the Lake Eacham picnic area and saw the brush turkeys scavenging, it reminded me of the way that pigeons rummage through the trash and streets of Philadelphia. Upon my return to Swarthmore, I am definitely going to be more aware of the way that I interact with the environment, paying more attention to where even my smallest scraps of food go. I encourage everybody at Swarthmore to think more about their impact on the environment through tourism and to make sure that they’re not giving handouts to local wildlife.

 

The power of low expectations

in Columns/Opinions/Swat Global by

When I arrived in Stockholm a month ago for study abroad I suddenly found myself with a lot more free time than I was used to. Even though I am still in four classes I didn’t have my extra-curricular activities and wasn’t constantly surrounded by the “If you aren’t studying, what are you doing?” attitude that plagues Swarthmore’s campus. It was possible for me to do well in my classes and not spend all of my time studying. I was confused, everyone had told me that study abroad is the chance of a lifetime. When else are you going to have the opportunity to the opportunity to spend four months living abroad? I began to feel like every second of my day had to be filled with life-changing experiences.

I imagine this feeling of “Why am I not having the time of my life?” is what many people feel when they first go off to college. In a way, starting college is similar to study abroad: college is often touted as the best four years of your life, so when people get to college and realize that it isn’t all fun they probably have similar issues.

But I arrived at Swarthmore with quite low expectations. Before I left for college one of my older cousins told me “everyone tells you college is the best four years of your life, but no one tells you it takes time to get to that point.” She was referencing the fact that it takes time to settle into college and find a routine that works for you; for whatever reason, this really stuck with me.

When I arrived on campus, I was prepared for low points. I knew that I would spend most of my time studying. and it would take time to be able to find the things on campus that really made me happy. It was probably these low expectations that helped make my first semester at Swarthmore bearable.

Unfortunately, I did not have the same expectations going into study abroad. I was determined that this was going to be my chance to have fun and be adventurous. I first realized this wasn’t true when I woke up on my first free Saturday morning after orientation and realized I had no plans for the daytime. I started panicking that I was wasting a whole day. What was I supposed to do with all this time? At Swarthmore I would sleep in until 11 a.m., eat Sharples brunch, and study before Saturday night, but all of those activities seemed like an utter waste of time. After all, I am only here for four months. I can’t spend all my time ~studying~.

After some forced self-reflection (i.e., talking to my mother) I realized that this mindset was not sustainable. My mother reminded me that I am here for four months, and if I am going to survive this experience, I need to pace myself. I need to sleep, relax, study, and do things that I enjoy at home or at school as well as abroad. I need to find a balance between taking advantage of opportunities here that I don’t have back home and making sure I am taking care of myself.

For the past two weeks or so, I have been reminding myself of this fact every time I worry that I am not doing enough. Yes, I am abroad and yes, this is a fantastic experience. But this isn’t an extended vacation. I am here to live and learn about another culture. It is important to realize that even the everyday things here are an opportunity for me to learn and immerse myself in the culture. Taking my headphones out while on my morning commute and listening to mumblings in Swedish or sitting in a coffee shop observing those around me may not be the kind of exciting study abroad stories I thought I was going to get, but that does not mean they are not valuable. Taking the time to slow down and experience all the new things around me will help me get the study abroad experience I want.

I know that everyone goes into study abroad with different goals, but I want to know what it is like to live in another country for four months. I want to know what my life would look like if I lived here. And I don’t need to have every minute of every day filled with life-changing events for me to achieve that.

For those of you who are worried about whether or not you are getting enough out of study abroad or even college in general, it is important to take a step back and think about what your goals are and what you need to do to reach them. Everyone’s goals will be a little bit different and therefore everyone’s experience should be different. You don’t need to try to mold your experience to match someone else’s or to look like what you think society says it should look like.

Why don’t I write anything down?

in Opinions/Swat Global by

When I first sat down to write my column I was so excited. During my three semesters of editing for the Phoenix I wasn’t able to write opinions pieces due to a rule in the Phoenix’s editorial policies. So after three semesters I was finally able to write an opinions piece. Finally I would be able to share all my wonderful ideas of how to improve the campus and the world. But when I started to think of topics on which I could write, I couldn’t think of any.  I tried to think back to everything that I had felt strongly about the last few years and couldn’t find anything substantial.

After a week of this, I thought I had come up with the most brilliant idea. I would write about how our opinions don’t matter. I would explain to this campus of activists that we are all nobodies and it is time we recognize it.

After about a week of feeling smug with myself for coming up with this brilliant idea, I realized how stupid it really was. 1) It is the most obviously hypocritical thing anyone could write.If we are all nobodies and nobody’s opinion matters, why should my opinion that nobody’s opinion matters matter? 2) I didn’t actually believe it. Sure, sometimes I may feel defeated and small and think that nothing anyone does will ever be good enough to change things, but most of the time I see the merits of having educated conversations and developing our opinions.

After dismissing and defeating my own idea I went back to trying to find another idea, but I was still stumped. I was confused. I feel like I’ve had lots of interesting conversations that are relevant to Swarthmore’s campus, so why couldn’t I think of a writing topic?

Then I realized that it was because I never wrote any of my ideas down and consequently most of my opinions aren’t very flushed out. Most come in the forms of internal rants I have as I walk back to my dorm at night or conversations I have at Sharples.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how important writing is. It is easy to spew a half-throught-out opinion in a conversation, but when you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) you are forced to think through it. You see the flaws in your own argument and begin to fill in the holes.

Whether you are scribbling down an outline for a paper or writing an informal journal, the process of writing forces one to go one step further. Maybe you will realize that you have no rational reason for hating that one person you just don’t like or come up with a brilliant idea for your next paper.  Writing is a slower process than speaking or thinking, and slowing down your thought process can help make your thoughts more complete and well-rounded.

I am abroad in Stockholm this semester, and if you have ever been abroad or talked to someone who has, you know that the number one advice you will get is to journal.  Everyone says how amazing of an experience study abroad is and how important it is to write it all down. For example, before orientation for my program, we read a few chapters of “Writing About Culture” that explored the relationship between journaling and culture shock. The book repeated the importance of journaling. In addition to the reading, I have also spent the last several months listening to my mother and my grandparents remind me about how important it is to keep a journal abroad. As much as I want to roll my eyes at this advice, I see where they are coming from.

I have been in Stockholm for about a month now and have actually taken the advice of keeping a journal. Every day (or at least when I remember to) I quickly write what I did and how I felt. Just in the past three weeks I have seen the advantages of keeping a journal. Writing about what I do on a day-to-day basis will mean that I can look back and see what I did and what I enjoyed. Writing about when I felt sad or homesick forced me to think about what made me feel better. Unsurprisingly, I have yet to master the journaling process. I still forget to do it a lot, and when I do remember to journal, I mostly focus on my own personal experiences and not what is happening around me. I hope to expand my journaling to write about things that I am passionate about. Maybe I could take one of those late night internal rants and turn it into a journal entry. I want to push myself to go beyond my initial impressions or feelings and think hard about why I feel the way I do. This goal can be applied to more personal things such as why I had a good or bad day or bigger things like why I think repealing the individual mandate is a terrible idea.

Journaling is something I have started mostly so I can remember my study abroad experience, but after only a few weeks of journaling I hope that this is a habit that can continue once I return home. Study abroad is a great time to start a journal, but writing things down, in whatever method you think is best, is something that anyone can do at any time to push yourself to be better.

Online system, travel agency among changes to off campus study

in News by

Recently, there have been changes made to the off-campus study program that have affected students’ experiences. Some of these changes include the use of a single travel agency to book tickets for travel and a new system to calculate credit from studying abroad, the latter of which has the most impact on students, especially those seeking credit for off campus study. Pat Martin, director of the Off-Campus Study Office, estimates that over 50 percent of students have study abroad experiences for credit.

According to an e-mail from Martin, other changes include a new domestic off-campus study program, Semester in Hawaii, at the University of Hawaii. In addition to the new domestic option, students studying abroad receive a budget that covers living costs during break periods if their programs or universities do not provide them accommodations during those times.

In that e-mail, Martin also noted that starting last semester, students with a “demonstrated high level of financial need” are able to apply to the Dean’s Office emergency fund if they have uncovered costs such as visas and immunizations but are subject to the emergency fund’s rules.

All of these changes are relevant to the entire off-campus study program, which includes all international student trips, Lang Center-sponsored activities, conferences, debates, athletic competitions, and externships. However, the new changes most prominently affect students who are studying abroad for credit. Students who receive off-campus credit typically do so through end-of-semester courses that have an international field component, summer courses, and a fall or spring semester abroad.

In terms of receiving credit for studying abroad, there is a new online credit evaluation system built by ITS. Students who will study abroad next semester will use this system.

Martin explained that the previous system required that students “go from department to department” to get signatures on a piece of paper in order for their study abroad program to be approved. The new system also replaces a similar “paper-based” system that applied to students who sought credit after returning to campus.

The benefits of the new system, Martin explained, are that it allows all parties involved in the process of transferring and approving credit to see where courses are in the approval process and that students are now able to utilize the system to ask for additional courses to be approved while abroad.

In spring of 2017, a new change was added that guarantees students four credits for “successful completion of coursework that was pre-estimated for at least four Swarthmore credits” during a semester abroad. Before this change, it was possible for students to receive fewer than four credits for that work because the credits were determined by departments.

Molly Murphy ’18 detailed her study abroad experience in the summer of 2016 in Beijing through a Harvard program. Because it was a language-intensive program, she exclusively interacted with the Chinese section at Swarthmore.

“Getting credit coming back was a bit of a process because first, I had to submit all of my study materials  — like my homework, tests, and papers and my textbook and my transcript — to the department office in Chinese. Then I figured they were just going to forward it to the registrar, but they didn’t, and it was getting towards the end of semester, and [the registrar’s office] didn’t receive my transcript … so I had to order a new transcript,” she explained.

She noted that when she studied abroad, the credits were approved by various departments, and the department heads chose what courses counted and for how many credits.

“I didn’t really utilize the study abroad office,” Murphy added. “I thought that [my study abroad program] wasn’t the kind that they deal with … but I was wrong about that, because they do follow up with students going abroad over the summer, especially if they’re intending to get credit, even if it’s not formally through [Swat].”

Professor Jeremy Lefkowitz, who is the faculty advisor for students who will study abroad, says that despite the new online system, students will still have to bring back every paper from their study abroad trip, like Murphy described.

“The important part is that students still have to keep everything that they get, all the work they do. … [It] should come back,” he said.

This requirement exists because students must upload their work to the new system when they return from abroad in order to determine how much credit they have earned.

Lefkowitz also explained the previous process for receiving credit abroad and how the new system from ITS is making that easier.

“Students would have to go around and get signatures from specific departments related to the coursework they plan to do abroad. They have to get signatures before they go, and they have to get signatures when they get back to show that all the work will get credit. And now all that can be done electronically.”

Lefkowitz also said that students abroad this semester are still using the old system. The new system is currently being implemented, so students returning to campus this fall or next spring are still using the old system. The effects of the new system will be clear in fall 2018, when the students abroad during this spring semester return.

Jamie Starr ’19, who is studying in Greece next semester, is using the new online system. She explained that she has uploaded a list of all of the classes she’s interested in taking abroad as well as the syllabi.

“The study abroad office has given me an estimate of how many credits I will likely get for each class,” Starr said.

She then added that once she returns, she will have to upload the work she’s done in order to get approval for the credits by each department.

Though the new system is paperless and intended to ameliorate the process of applying and receiving credits, there are potentially some unintended consequences.

Lefkowitz expressed concern that there might be some problems because there will be less opportunity for students and professors to speak face-to-face.

“[Getting forms signed] meant that, at the very least, there’s a moment of a student and professor talking about the experience. Now, I worry that the moment is threatened,” he said.

He said that though his worry does not outweigh the benefits of a paperless and more streamlined process, his concern of an “unfortunate side effect” still remains.

“I hope that it’s not going to lead to less personal interaction between faculty and students who study abroad,” he said. “It’s not meant to lead to less interaction. It’s meant to save paper and make the process smoother. … It’s not meant to take the place of mentoring.”

However, Valerie Blakeslee ’19, who is planning on studying abroad in Milan next semester, doesn’t think that the lack of interaction is an issue. She belieces that in person communication with the professor is not crucial unless it is important to a student’s particular circumstance, such as if the student is trying to ensure that they receive four credits from studying abroad. Four credits count as “full credit,” and all students who go abroad must get full credit.

“Just recently, [the off-campus study office] finally, officially switched to the electronic system but since I was petitioning for my program, I had to know if I would receive credit in advance. So I had to use the handwritten way of doing things by going to different heads of the departments and getting them to sign off on things,” she said.

She added that the process of going to individual professors was troublesome, mainly because of the schedule conflicts between the college and the program abroad. She noted that using an electronic system probably would have been easier.

“When I had to do the paper version, I had to e-mail all the heads of those departments and have a brief meeting with them, which is kind of a hassle. But with the online system, the heads of the departments are just notified by e-mail.”

Another change that has occurred is that students can now book their travel through Key Travel, a travel agency in Philadelphia. Prior to this semester, students were given an allowance in order to arrange their own flight but did not have a travel agent.

Starr said that students are required to contact someone from the agency once they are accepted into the study abroad program and have completed parts of the study abroad application. Students give information about the dates of the program to the travel agency, which then responds with options for travel and will book the flight with the student’s approval.

Starr also noted that Swarthmore pays for the flights as long as the cost doesn’t exceed the price of a flight from Philadelphia to the final destination.

According to Lefkowitz, it can be expensive if students wait to buy plane tickets, so having the booking centralized through a travel agency can minimize the cost.

“[Booking] was pretty easy for me because I looked at specific flights beforehand,” Starr said. “But I have a few friends who had some issues because they were put on some flights where the timing didn’t work for them.”

While explaining the role of the travel agent, Lefkowitz said, “It’s probably going to save money, but we don’t know yet. There’s kind of a hope that it streamlines things and makes things easier to manage. … Pat Martin put a lot of thought and time into this, and she’s been trying to get it to be something we can do for years.”

However, at this point in the implementation of both the online system from ITS and the travel agent, it is still unclear what the consequences will be in fall 2018 and beyond.

The beauty of an unintelligible world

in Columns/Opinions/Swat Global by

I’ll never forget my first experience abroad, which was this semester. Exiting the plane for the first time, as I stepped into Hanoi, Vietnam, it was as if I had been transported to a whole new universe. Looking around me, I was mesmerized by all the signs in Vietnamese. Continuing on to a restaurant for dinner after the flight, I couldn’t help but notice that, for the first time, English was not the dominant language flooding my ears. Instead, I was in a crowded buffet room with people yelling syllables to me that resembled an old voice-over cartoon. The letters of the signs surrounding me were strung together in indecipherable units, although they were supposed to be words. Clearly, these units did not add any clarity to the situation.

As my time in Vietnam continued, it became clear that communicating with others was not going to hold the same meaning as it did in the United States. The first few days, when I needed to know where to get off the bus, I had to rapidly point at an address I had written and hope that someone would know my destination and nod at me when to get off. During lunch, I could only yell “an chay” (vegetarian) at the street vendor, and wait for my food to arrive with no idea what dish would be placed in front of me.

At first, I was terrified in Vietnam. Since I didn’t know the language, I felt like disaster could happen so easily. All I had to do was take the bus stop one street too far and find myself completely lost. All I had to do was misunderstand a social cue and I would find myself offending someone. If disaster occurred, I would have no idea how to remedy the situation since I had always relied on my voice.

 

But as time continued, I learned to navigate the city and realized just how powerful social connections and interactions could become, even without a common language. There’s something beautiful about living in a place where words suddenly begin to fail and observation becomes the greatest tool for understanding one’s surroundings. It’s as if the pressure of continuously asking questions or searching for a social connection through voice suddenly ceases. Instead of talking and diverting attention away from the physical environment, one is forced to simply observe and take in all that is happening around them.

There is so much beauty that can be missed if one is not paying full attention. For example, watching people on the bus every day, I realized that it is custom for younger people to stand up and give their seats away to elders. Not only did I find this such a beautifully nuanced and important part of the culture, but I also found myself able to replicate this norm on the bus because I had watched others do the same. Through observation in Vietnam, I counterintuitively started to feel more like I belonged. I learned to walk on the side of the road since the sidewalk is needed for motorbike parking and to use chopsticks with my right hand even though I am left-handed, because in Vietnam, using the left hand is just strange.

But beyond creating a new way of belonging, the loss of common language created whole new types of relationships for me, which I had never before had the honor of experiencing. For example, I lived with my host family who could speak limited English. We could not speak deeply about family history, values, or beliefs. Yet my best memories in Vietnam are those with my host mom and sister. I looked forward to meals together every night as  my host mom would prepare an “an chay” dish she’d be excited for us to try, and we’d all enjoy each other’s company at the table, laughing over facial expressions or bonding over how much we truly appreciated the food.

Looking back, it is impossible to capture how strong of a relationship I formed with my host family and how much I learned from Vietnam because of—rather than in spite of— not knowing the language. It is as if a whole new perspective of the world is gained through less talking and more observing, listening, and embracing. And this lesson shapes my view of academics on campus as well.

At Swarthmore, it is easy to get lost in attempting to speak the most in seminars or talking over people who have a different perspective. Yet perhaps the beauty of not communicating verbally is entering what is typically deemed the “introvert” world. As Susan Cain discusses in her book “Quiet,” there is “zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.” While it can feel natural to want to speak the most or fill the empty spaces in class discussions, space must be made for embracing the silence, observing the dance of everyday life, and listening to the sounds beyond the words. As I have discovered through not having the ability to speak my thoughts, often more can be learned from watching and listening than from anything I could articulate myself.

Now in Buenos Aires for the final aspect of my adventure, I am in a country where I don’t quite understand all of the language, yet I am also not completely lost. While I am happy to be able to communicate with those around me, I think I’ll also continue to embrace the lost part of myself a little more. By listening and observing before speaking, individuals can gain more perspectives and learn new insights.

A hidden value

in Columns/Opinions/Swat Global by

I am currently residing in a hostel in Cape Town, South Africa, living what most people would consider the dream. Over the course of two months, I have lived in Washington D.C., Vietnam, and South Africa. In a week, I will be off to my last stint of my study abroad experience in Argentina. I have had the once in a lifetime opportunity to experience both rural and urban settings across the world. In the process, I have become a member of three different families, all of which are likely to be lifelong friendships. The experiences I have had this semester are more diverse than what some people may have in a lifetime, and I can not even begin to express how grateful I am for this incredible opportunity.

Yet, even as I am living the so-called dream, I find myself in moments like today, where I can’t help but feel a little lost and uneasy. Roaming the bustling markets of Greenmarket Square and walking along the pier at Waterfront this afternoon, everything seemed so distant, as if it wasn’t really happening to me. So many days on the program, I’ve felt the same disoriented feeling. I’ve gone to bed in the comfort of my Auntie’s (host mom’s) home, and been hesitant to close my eyes because reality already seems so far away, would sleep make it disappear altogether?

At first, I was at a loss for how I could possibly have so many moments of unhappiness despite having such a transformative and unique experience. I felt ashamed of myself because, while I can’t stop acknowledging how incredibly lucky and privileged I am to be abroad, I question whether I am fully appreciating the experience if I still think about the United States, Swarthmore, and home. If I still have moments of missing my life back home, am I truly living in the present to embrace where I am right now?

While these questions still continue to haunt me on days like today, when I feel especially disconnected, traveling to so many places and engaging in conversation with different people has actually taught me how fitting these feelings are.

Some of the deepest conversations I’ve had throughout this program have been with community members in rural villages and with my host families in urban areas about the importance of community. Throughout the areas I have visited, despite differing political or ethical beliefs, and regardless of country or setting, there has been one common thread between everyone, and it has been the love and devotion people feel for their families and communities.

In my neighborhood in Salt River Cape Town, the doorbell to Auntie’s house would constantly ring, and it would always be a different family member, picking up a snack, asking Auntie to watch their kids for 10 minutes, or just checking in to say hello. Auntie’s family all lived on the same street and when I asked her jokingly if she ever got tired of her family, she seemed surprised and responded “of course not!” She had always grown up near her family, they attend prayer meetings together, and life would be dull and purposeless without them.

 

While I was staying in a small fishing village in Arniston, South Africa, the importance of family and community resonated with me more than ever. Listening to a panel of youth who grew up in the village, someone asked the students if they would ever want to move out of Arniston. I was struck when one of the panelists, a 22 year old, responded, “No, of course not. I will never feel connected to any place like I do my mother’s home.” At the end of the week, I thanked the fishing activist who had organized our trip to the village. I’ll never forget the way she placed her hand on mine and shook her head. “No, thank you,” she answered, “thank you for listening to our story. I could never leave my family and home for as long as you all. Thank you for making the sacrifice to hear our story.”

These moments are only a snapshot of the times I have witnessed how deeply people value their families and communities, something that we in the United States often take for granted.

Sure, in the United States, our value of independence allows us to explore new places or to leave home for an elite, immersive education like Swarthmore. We see it normal to leave our friends, family, and home community to build broader social networks and gain a larger perspective of the world. Yet, especially as I am exercising my independence through traveling across the world but am still experiencing emptiness at times, I think it’s important to consider what we lose by choosing independence in favor of collectivist or community values.

Of course, I’m not arguing that we should never leave our family and communities, but I do think it’s important to nourish the relationships we do have and to take the time to talk to family and friends. At Swarthmore, it’s easy to get caught up in studying or campus life, but it’s also okay and therapeutic to remain connected to our community back home. Finally, valuing relationships also applies to on campus. Especially during midterms or finals, we can easily forget about our Swat family, eating a wrap from Essie’s in the library to study instead of savoring a meal with a friend who we haven’t seen for two weeks. But, while studying and homework are constant stressors that can always be done, family and friends last a lifetime and are essential to wellbeing.

Continuing my study abroad experience, I am ecstatic to explore South Africa for one more week and to embrace life in Argentina. But, I will also continue to savor conversations with my family and friends back home, and am looking forward to enjoying the simple moments when I return. Independence offers so much freedom, but community fosters belongingness and support, which are irreplaceable and essential for wellbeing.

From the heart of a Las Vegas local

in Columns/Opinions/Swat Global by

I am studying abroad in Cape Town right now, but my heart is in Las Vegas. My mind can’t decide whether to cry or dissociate, pretending that one of the worst mass shootings in the history of the United States did not just happen in my hometown.  Maybe as a coping mechanism, but also out of necessity to feel closer to people back home, I can’t help but scroll through Facebook posts to ensure that my friends and family are okay and to read how people are responding to the tragedy. Yet, this only makes dissociation even more impossible and makes both tears and rage bubble up inside of me as I witness the way some non-Las Vegas locals are minimizing or misrepresenting the horrors that have occurred.

While I am scrolling through Facebook, searching for hope and reassurance, I can’t help but read posts discussing how this Las Vegas tragedy is “just another example” of the need for gun policy changes. People are posting how ashamed they are at how divided America has become and how the shooting is proof that the country “cannot be reunited.” Around me, I hear other college students discussing how shocking it was that the shooter was “anti-Trump.” When people ask me directly how I am responding to the events, they hardly listen to my response before quickly changing topic, comparing the shooting to the hurricane in Puerto Rico or to human rights issues in India. Instead of talking about the families who lost people they loved, people are talking about how all the bad events as a collective serve as proof that the world is coming to an end.

As a fellow student at a social justice-oriented liberal arts college, I feel it necessary to admit I completely understand why other Swatties and college friends are posting about and addressing the Las Vegas massacre in this way. It is part of a larger problem that is often too painful to acknowledge. When tragedies such as these occur, it is impossible to figure out how to react to an attack of such magnitude. Therefore, people respond through politically aggressive social media posts. Instead of conceptualizing the lives lost, it seems more productive to use the event as evidence that a political party is wrong or as an example that policies need to be changed.

This makes sense; the view that policy change should happen in light of an event that hurt so many is entirely practical. The problem, however, is when the tragedy itself becomes a political game where support and grief for the victims are lost in the equation.

No one means to discount the humanity behind trauma. Everyone posting about or discussing the Las Vegas shooting is doing so with good intentions. It is because everyone wants to help that I feel the need to point out the impact of taking the humanity out of a tragedy.

At least in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy, there are so many more productive and empathetic methods of helping a community than using their suffering for political gain. Instead of posting about your disappointment in society, share a Facebook post letting the families and friends affected know that you stand with them in solidarity. Restrain from comparing two disasters with one another because each community is affected by an event differently and has different methods of coping. Reach out to anyone you can from a community through donations or kind words. Practice active listening to show you truly care about how they are coping with an event and how you may be able to play an active role in supporting them. Only after a community begins a healing process should the political implications be more broadly discussed and acted upon to create a better functioning society. What good is a political policy in ensuring security if society can not first come together to practice the compassion and empathy needed to follow that policy in the first place?

As for my home in Las Vegas, I can say I have never been more proud to be a Las Vegas local. The community is resilient, looking out for one another and practicing empathy in ways often not discussed. The day after the shooting, people waited for hours to donate blood to the victims. When a charity requested 80 air mattresses for family members with friends in the hospital, the donation request was fulfilled within hours. A donation fund website was created almost immediately to support those affected and vigils have been held for the community to stand together in solidarity.

These acts give me faith that the world is not coming to an end and that society is not as divided as we are often made to believe. They remind me that compassion and community values are still a large component of societal ideals. However, a large part of this reassurance stems from remembering during events like these, that the first response must always be unification for healing before politicalization for change.

 

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