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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.

 

From Hanoi to Crum Creek

in Columns/Op-Eds/Opinions/Swat Global by

Squatting on a little wooden stool on the sidewalk, I am captivated by the story of a small-framed 60-year-old woman who has lived in the Dong Da District of Hanoi for over 50 years. She sits across from me on the other side of a small wooden coffee table, also known as the entirety of her family’s small business. While hopefully awaiting her next customer, she tells me the tale of the Tu Loc River and how a natural feature that was once an amenity has become her greatest source of suffering.

The woman speaks slowly but deliberately and with obvious pain in her eyes. She begins her story by describing the beauty of the river 20 years ago, when the water was blue and people took for granted their ability to swim and fish. She then guides me to the critical point, when too many residents and community members began dumping their trash in the river, thinking nothing of the plastic wrappers, oil, and household cleaners carried away by the river and into the great unknown. As years passed, human waste built up in the river, swimming became unsafe, and fish started to disappear.

As she reached the climax, it was clear this story had no happy ending. Despite government initiatives to clean the river, they couldn’t keep up with the amount of waste people had added to the water. Now, 20 years later, the river is an ominous pool of toxins smelling of sewage, or “rotten eggs” as the woman described it. The woman walked me across the street to the river, showing me the translucent film covering the water supposedly treated by the government. It was clear that swimming, fishing, or even admiring the beauty of the river was no longer a realistic activity for the residents of the community.

In the United States, and particularly in our Swat bubble, we Swarthmore students like to believe such a scene could never happen to us. Surely, the idea of needing to both boil and filter water before we can safely drink it, is one of a third world country. The United States takes better care of its water system. Especially locally at Swarthmore, we would never pollute the Crum Creek in the same way as the residents of Hanoi.

Except our optimism bias couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, Swarthmore students and community members are already severely polluting Crum Creek. Last year at the Little Crum Creek Clean Up, 40 Scott Arboretum volunteers removed tires and plastic bags from the creek only to find more bags of trash floating in the river the next day. After 19 clean-ups last year to protect the Ridley Crum Watershed, 620,000 pounds of trash was removed from the river. Still, students and community members are tossing beer cans or snack wrappers into the creek to be carried onto the great unknown.

Yet, particularly with Crum Creek, the final location of our pollutants aren’t so unknown, and the pollutants are already negatively impacting people’s lives. The Crum Creek is part of a watershed that flows into Springton Lake Reservoir and the Delaware River, providing at least 19 million gallons of water per day for over 200,000 Delaware County residents. According to the Chester Ridley Crum Watershed Association, the Crum Creek is a special protection stream, home to the largest cold water fishery and native trout population in the area. Yet, fish populations and other wildlife have been substantially decreasing. Breeding populations of native brook trout and American Shad have disappeared from the creek altogether, indicating a decline in water quality and serving as a warning that the water source many of us depend on is facing the threat of an ending not much different from the Tu Loc River in Hanoi.

The good news is that for the outside community and us Swatties,  actions can be taken to protect our water source for recreational and necessary uses before the fish completely disappear or Swarthmore begins to smell as rancid as the Tu Loc River. While environmental issues like climate change or the fossil fuel industry can seem daunting, there is a simple yet powerful solution to protect our water source. Our smallest responsibility as Swatties can be to not leave trash in the Crum Woods and to bring a trash bag to remove other garbage from the creek and woods. While it may be another person’s trash, it will affect the whole population. As Swatties, perhaps we can even expand our responsibility to join with the outside community and attend Crum Creek Clean Up days because, while their efforts may seem small, any less trash in the river can make a huge difference.

After concluding my interview with the woman, she locked eyes with me and pleaded, “I just need someone to clean up the Tu Loc River because I don’t want to suffer anymore.” Other residents have begun to give up on the river, stating they’d rather build a road over the water since the water serves “no purpose and causes only harm.”

While I cannot yet create a solution to solve the issues of the Tu Loc River in Hanoi, we Swatties can learn from the experiences of these residents and play an active role in protecting our own water source before future generations are forced to suffer from our mistakes. In Hanoi, the residents 20 years ago did not realize the beauty of their river and all the joy it brought to the community through giving them a place to swim, fish, and drink water. At Swarthmore, it is our duty to recognize these amenities and privileges now, and play a small yet active role in protecting one of nature’s gifts and necessities.

 

Cherishing our Crum Woods

in Columns/Opinions by

Following my morning routine abroad in Hanoi, Vietnam, I am riding the bus from my host family’s house to my classes at Hanoi Medical University. I am mesmerized by the thousands of motorbikes on the road. At least half of the riders are wearing facemasks to protect themselves from pollution. As I exit the bus, I can’t help but notice how difficult it is to breathe as my lungs feel caked in dust and particulate matter.

While I am smiling as I am transfixed by the motorbikes honking at me to move despite walking on the sidewalk, the traffic and horns are a sharp contrast to the peaceful environment I have come to appreciate in the Crum Woods and on Swarthmore’s campus. At Swarthmore, the smell of Japanese honeysuckle and fresh rain accompany me to class each morning, but in Hanoi, the odors of smoke from street vendors, gasoline from motorbikes, and trash from garbage left on the side of the road overwhelm my senses. Back at Swarthmore, when in need of clearing my head, I can stroll through the Crum and get lost in listening to the rushing water of the creek and the chirping of the birds. Here in Hanoi, I am always aware of the motorbike sneaking up behind me and the street vendors yelling, asking me in Vietnamese to purchase something from their stand. I cannot lose myself completely in my thoughts, or else I will not be able to keep up with the quick pace of this city that is unlike any I have ever experienced.

The outdoor space on Swarthmore’s campus, both inside and outside of the Crum Woods, is a precious resource that has become especially dear to my heart these last two years, and even more so now that I must try and seek solace in an area with little to no actual green space. The Crum Woods provides space for students and community members to meditate, reflect, and get lost in their own thoughts. It provides space for students to become the responsible, ethical, and balanced citizens that Swarthmore’s mission demands its students become. In a study conducted last year through the President’s Sustainability Research fellowship, the three most common words students used to describe the Crum were “beautiful,” “diverse,” and “peaceful.” Students discussed enjoying the Crum Woods because they use it for exercise and retreat from the college’s grueling academic atmosphere. Overall, they offered it relieves some of Swarthmore’s pressure that can sometimes become overwhelming. The Visioning Process Final Report the college published last year also found that better use of outdoor space was one of the top desires of students on campus.

Still, students are not taking advantage of the natural spaces that exist on campus because they are “too busy.” However, what if making time to enjoy the natural resources that we have on campus became a priority? After all, studies show that time spent outdoors can actually make students more productive. According to the Huffington Post, two researchers from Stanford University found that walking outdoors boosts creativity, and researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found outdoor activity is likely to improve concentration. Lee and Ingold, in their article “Fieldwork on Foot,” describe the value of the outdoors best when they state, “the rhythms of movement are very different and people draw attention to the specific qualities of the outdoors,” compared to the almost static movements of the indoors.

I challenge you, Swatties, to make embracing the Crum Woods and the arboretum, in which you are all lucky enough to live and immerse yourselves, a goal this semester. Make time to take a walk in the woods, to listen to the sounds around you, and to notice how the natural environment actually improves your wellbeing, and perhaps even motivates you to finish your studies. While you’re at it, use events like the Scott Arboretum Tree Planting and Crum Woods Tours to motivate yourself to enjoy and conserve our woods. I challenge you to let the Crum Woods change you the way that the woods have changed me.

It is because of the Crum Woods that I have come to understand the serenity that exists in the world although our fast-paced and routine-oriented lives attempt to tell us otherwise. I’ll never forget the comfort of the woods last semester when I was practically in tears after failing a paper. I was completely overwhelmed when I realized that I had to quickly recover from that paper because I had a biology exam and other readings to complete. I found myself storming into the woods to walk out my frustration. After a few minutes in the woods, my heart began to slow and my eyes began to dry. Hearing a Carolina wren in the distance and watching a squirrel happily scurry up a tree, a small smile spread across my lips. Though academics are important, there is so much more to the world than one paper. The woods are a constant reminder that there is so much more to explore and so much more life beyond stress. It is because of this peace from the Crum Woods that I have been able to reaffirm my own values and discover where I belong in society.  

Of course, as I am away from the Crum Woods this semester, I still wouldn’t trade exploring for Hanoi for anything. There are aspects of Hanoi that I love and that I could never find at Swarthmore. I can’t even begin to describe how astonished I am by the simplicity of life many people follow, eating pho for lunch on a little blue stool resembling that of a four-legged children’s seat from my childhood. I love the vendors who opt for pedalling around a bike to transport their fruit and goods in baskets, content with wearing a rice hat to cover themselves from the beaming sun. At Swarthmore, we complain about having to sit in our dorm rooms without air conditioning, never mind pedalling a bike in the 100-degree hot, humid weather, but that argument is for another article.

Even so, there’s something to be said about valuing a luxury that many of us students don’t fully realize we have on campus. My experience in Hanoi has showed me how lucky we all are to not have to walk around campus with facemasks or smell garbage and toxins every time we leave the indoors. This privilege must motivate us to cherish and protect our woods even more, and we should make a conscious effort to appreciate and care for our natural environment the way it cares for us every day.

Students examine Cuba in Black Studies

in Around Campus/Around Higher Education/News by

On Monday, March 13th, Social Sciences Associate Professor and Department Chair at the State University of New York Empire State College Nadine Fernandez spoke in McCabe Library to community members about race in Cuba. Her speech focused on the history of race among Cuban populations in relation to the family unit and relationships. In the audience were students taking Professor Nina Johnson’s Blacks in Diaspora, the directed reading course of the Black studies department this spring semester. This course also participates in the college’s Experiential Learning Program this semester as it culminates with a trip to the island. The course explores Black identity in Cuba in relation to the migration of Black people and their social movements.

Fernandez’s talk framed the construction of race in Cuban circles through the island’s history. She began with describing the island’s colonial plantation economy that imported enslaved people from Africa, led the audience through the Cuban Revolution, and concluded with commentary on the present day. The talk traced how “the sexual economy of race” in Cuba — explained in Cuba’s Racial Crucible by University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Karen Morrison as how different sexual actors; their relationships; their children, if they are present; and their histories are defined by race — influenced perceptions of race on the island. Further, it defined how race mixing, or people of different races coming together in sexual relationships and in interracial relationships, helped to form the island’s layered organization of race.

Blacks in Diaspora dissects the African experience in different societies that are historically related to the African diaspora, defined by late Nigerian historian J. F. Ade Ajayi in his Africa in the Nineteenth Century Until the 1880s as “the migration of Africans to the outside world under the auspices of the trans-Atlantic and other forms of slave trade.” This semester, the course considers Cuba as a society with a stratified construction and classification of Black, brown, and white people. Coleman Powell ’20 detailed how the talk helped to parse the racial system we work within in the U.S. versus that of Cuba.

“The concepts of one Cuban race clash bitterly with my own understanding of a country [the U.S.] still reeling from the legacy of chattel slavery, Jim Crow, and other institutionalized forms of racism,” Powell said. “Cuba has a history of mixing between races and this is helpful when one is trying to understand the stratification of Cuban society [such as] the racial categories of White, Black, Indigenous peoples, and Mulatto/Mestizo.”

Part of the experiential learning course is the participation in research on the particular aspects of the Cuban experience in relation to race. Prospective Black studies major Brandon Ekweonu ’20 outlined his research intentions.

“I am very interested in studying the different ways in which different Black people around the world understand their own identities,” Ekweonu said. “I want to … gather data as part of my research on the different ways in which people understand ‘race’ and its implications if they even believe that it has implications. Again, I am most interested in who might identify themselves as Black, Black Cuban, or Afro-Cuban and how their narratives may differ from those of white Cubans.”

Powell, who is studying Afro-Cuban social movements and whether there are connections between Afro-Cubans and other people throughout the African diaspora, stated that Fernandez’s talk provided perspective into how to better approach differing encounters with race.

“The talk was helpful in helping me to think about race from the standpoint of Cubans rather than as an American,” Powell said. “I will have to be very meticulous with my word choice in interviews [for my research] because my perception of race related questions may be completely different than someone of Afro-Cuban descent.”

A key component to the course is the trip to Cuba following the Spring 2017 semester. The trip will allow students to continue research ingrained in the culture and environment they were studying. Ekweonu highlighted how the trip will provide new opportunities.

“For a while now, I’ve been particularly interested in the way race is constructed in Latin America,” Ekweonu said. “For me, [the trip] is going to be my first time ever being in Latin America, and therefore the first time I will ever have an opportunity to witness race within a Latin American context apart from experiences in Latinx communities in the United States. It is also a trip that I wouldn’t have been able to afford to make on my own.”

Powell did note that the trip, although exciting, is the product of a semester’s worth of exploration, study, and research. The trip will be contextualized by the work performed and produced by the students.

“The trip will be a culmination of this [semester’s] learning. There is a research component to this class, and before I even think about the itinerary of the trip, I must first have this research done.”

Powell then detailed his motivations for understanding the Cuban history of race.

“As a member of the African-Diaspora myself, I am deeply interested in the political implications of a group that is linked based on a shared cultural memory of slavery because the nature of our struggles for liberation have been inherently political,” he said.

Powell also made note of how the course had extensive connections to other social science fields, and he highlighted links to historical power structures in relation to the African diaspora.

“I entered the course with the expectation that I would find linkages between the diaspora and the field of international relations as well as sociology in general, and I have not been disappointed,” Powell said. “There is a clear link between imperialism, colonialism, and the scattering of the peoples of the diaspora. Imperialism and colonialism have to do with how empires were administered, and this represents some of the earliest manifestations of the field of international relations.”

In sum, Powell described his goals of connecting his academic motivations to understandings of history, contemporary politics, and intercultural relationships.

“The trip is important in fostering engaged scholarship across international borders. What I learn in the classroom will always be applicable in the real world, or at least that is my goal. The trip will also be helpful in fostering dialogue between people of the diaspora,” Powell said.

Ekweonu went on to say how the trip will provide important context in the study of Black experiences and demonstrates the importance of racial and ethnic study programs at Swarthmore and beyond.

“I’m someone who has, for a long time, been having trouble deciding whether or not I wanted to pursue Black studies because of the way it seems to be undervalued by a lot of the academic community. A trip like this reassures me, first of all, that there are professors that are extremely invested in Black studies work in the world and here on campus,” he said. “Second, it reminds and reassures me that so many of my fellow students see just as much value in Black studies as I do. This goes, just as well, for areas like the Latin American and Latino studies program … It reminds me that the work I and so many others want to do is valuable. So, I think this trip means a whole lot for every single person involved.”

Powell echoed this sentiment, explaining the multifaceted nature of the program.

“It is also important to note that this is Black Studies course! The importance of Black Studies as an interdisciplinary field cannot be ignored, especially when it is contributing new and dynamic research to academia,” he said. “Black studies provides a space for discussions on identity, culture, and politics that would not be had otherwise. These discussions and the opportunities, like trip, that discussions produce are necessary if progress towards a more socially conscious state is actually what anyone really wants.”

The Blacks in Diaspora course offers students an opportunity to explore race in Cuba through research and an immersive trip. Students largely see this trip as a way to understand race in another societal context and as reason to support racial and ethnic studies on campus.

Is study abroad really worth it?

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

My fantasy of studying abroad began on the college tour I took during my senior year of high school. Swarthmore College, a floral, east coast school with a tiny acceptance rate was promising to ship me off to Europe and change my life. I was sold and began preparing for my junior fall abroad on the first day of college in Introductory French.  

Throughout my first two years here, the excitement of going abroad lived up to the hype presented by admissions. The Study Abroad Office bombarded us with pictures of students smiling in front of castles and beautiful jungles, while Swatties who were fresh from abroad provided us with unwelcome anecdotes about how much they miss the Spanish way of life, or how the crêpes at ML breakfast are “just not the same as in France.” Yes, we know.

I, however, do not plan to reiterate that narrative. I am not about to declare myself a global citizen who suddenly sees what he was missing all along. I learned many things while I was abroad and gained irreplaceable experiences, but I want to share what happens when you do not have the time of your life. I want to share what it’s like when going abroad is very, very difficult.

Before going to Strasbourg, France during my junior fall, I had never been out of the country. Well, I had been to Canada for an underwhelming 16 hours while touring McGill University, but that didn’t exactly douse me in multicultural knowledge. Traveling was never something my family did, and my parents didn’t have any advice for navigating a new country. Even Swarthmore’s gatekeepers Rosa Bernard and Pat Martin couldn’t predict what I was going to experience in parts unknown.

In France, I first learned a lesson of language. My main goal was to learn French, the language of Voltaire and Pepé le Pew. I had risen for 8:30a.m. classes for four semesters straight, and I felt it was time to collect my reward for all my hard, tiring work. I didn’t want to simply learn more French, I wanted to be fluent by the end of my semester. I wanted utterances about baguettes and the Eiffel tower to slip off my tongue without a second thought. I wanted to seem like I wasn’t American. For reasons I never really figured out, this seems to be a common goal of foreigners traveling abroad.

When I listened to others talk about their language immersion programs, I heard a lot of rhetoric about a “click” moment, during which one experiences what seemed like some sort of linguistic nirvana. The “click” advice promised that, after a few weeks of frustration, I could rest assured that I would start to “get it.” My vowels would sound more exact, the syntax of my sentences would align naturally, and native French would no longer sounds like gargling and random tongue flips.

Click.

This may have been the worst piece of advice I received. As I learned in Strasbourg, acquiring a new language is a never-ending battle. It’s the look of confusion and possibly insult on the waiter’s face when you try to order water and you’re not sure if you want “eau” or “de l’eau” or “d’eau.” It’s starting out your semester reading “L’étranger” by Camus, giving up after a week, and exchanging it with a translated version of Charlotte’s Web, which you still need a pocket dictionary to get through. It’s the daily struggle that I experienced in trying to understand my professors and internship director during my program.

The second half of my program was an internship in a linguistics lab. It mostly involved asking my director to repeat herself three times in a row and on the fourth time nodding my head and not answering the question that I didn’t know she had asked. I know that my French improved while I was there, but the linguistic barrier drove me crazy, if not made me feel lonely. It accentuated my status as an outsider and, for the first time, brought my identity as an American to the front and center of my attention.

Fall of 2016 was not an easy time for anyone to be an American. In my young memory, politics had never been more vicious. I watched with anxiety as the presidential race unfolded into a cock fight during September and October. I eagerly awaited the end of it until I woke up the morning of November 9th to the living nightmare that no one expected. It was not easy to feel like the only American on that day. There were other Americans in my program, but by that time, I had started working in a linguistics laboratory with only French people, who were, to my surprise, not feeling the same sense of tragedy that I was. The American election was of course covered by French media, but the French people around me were not offering me their shoulders to cry on. France may as well have been a different planet. They were French, and I was an American in France at a time when many in my country were questioning what it meant to be an American. In the moment when everyone I loved was in turmoil over an uncertain future and I was across an entire ocean, I could only think, “what am I doing here?”

I certainly experienced a plethora wonderful things in France. I miss the beautiful cities, food, and language—everything my textbook promised me. I grew accustomed to biking through the narrow streets and sipping little, bitter cups of coffee. At the end of my internship, I wrote a 31-page paper in French on regional French lexicon, something I was quite proud of. I had a touching goodbye with my internship director, too. When we parted ways, she even started to tear up. To be honest I thought it was a little weird, seeing that I never understood a word she said in the three months we knew each other and didn’t realize we had that kind of relationship. Touching, nonetheless.

Most people will say that everyone should go abroad during college. You might never get the opportunity again, or you should do it “while you’re young.” While there is no part of me that regrets going to France, I am happy to be home, and I don’t agree that everyone should go abroad. It is a challenge that, if one is not emotionally ready, can be a miserable experience. If I go back to France, I won’t be ashamed of acting like a tourist. I won’t be embarrassed for shaking a hand rather than kissing someone’s cheeks when greeting them. What I value from my journey was not the tutorial on how to live like the French—it was the lesson on how to love living like an American.    

I’m just dirt in the wind, without a home

in Campus Journal by

Thinking about home is my greatest source of anxiety. I crossed the border when I was 3 years old and grew up in North Carolina, but I never quite felt like the US was my home. Despite the fact that I only had vague memories of Mexico, I always wanted to return. This summer was my first time returning and I was surprised by how quickly I slipped into the normalcy of living in Mexico. I had cried for weeks leading up to the trip because I feared that the place I had always considered home would not be what I expected, but it was exactly the part of me I had always felt was missing.

I came to feel at peace in Mexico, but I could not help but to think about what this meant for the piece of me still tied to the US. I left Mexico knowing that I will always be of that place, but feeling more conflicted than ever about my presence in the US. My presence here feels political, my NC ID says that I have “legal presence, no lawful status.” How can I feel at home in a place where my existence is so conditional?

Flash forward to now, in my study abroad program in Madrid where it has been easy to tell people I’m from Mexico when they ask where I am from, and I have started to deny my US identity perhaps more than I should. I was speaking with an advisor at the program about my conflict navigating my identity between two countries and she said to me, “consider that it is possible to have roots in many places because people aren’t like trees and we can do that with our roots.”

When she said this, I thought of my parents and how they have planted roots in the US both literally and metaphorically. My mom often talks about the many trees she planted in our house in Mexico and how she was sad to leave them when we migrated. She refused to plant trees in the US for a while. When we would go shopping for our garden, I would ask her to buy trees, but she would always say in Spanish, “We could plant those trees, but we would leave them when we leave the US or if we get deported.” 16 years later, we now have two peach trees in our yard. The first was an accident, a tree that grew after someone threw a peach seed on the ground. The second, my mom planted so that the first tree wouldn’t look so misplaced in our yard. I was joking when I asked my mom, “but what happens to the trees if we leave or get deported?”

“I’m not leaving unless they deport me. My kids have grown up here and I’ve been here so long, this is my home now,” my mom answered. My dad shares the same feelings. My parents have started to make their home here and while this is also my home, my roots have not fully planted themselves here. My parents have accepted that the US is home now in a way I can’t seem to accept. It has been a little over a month since I left Mexico…and I’m still making sense of it all.

 

I am confronting for the first time that the reason I have not allowed my roots to grow in US soil is because I have never felt welcomed here. Here, I have always been ‘illegal’ and it feels that I am not allowed to exist in a way that is my own. Even in my first years in the US, I knew something was not right. I can’t quite describe what it feels like, but it was something heavy in my stomach and I would have an overwhelming urge to run away and go back to a country I barely remembered. I wanted be with the family I only knew from pictures and quick conversations on the phone. It’s a feeling I did not have in Mexico because for the first time in my life, I felt sense of belonging and happiness I have not been able to feel in the US.

 

Leaving Mexico at the end of the summer was much different than the first time I left. This time I didn’t have to cross a border by foot, I got to comfortably fly back under my own terms and I knew I had family waiting for me when I landed. Unlike the first time that I entered the US, it felt like coming home (despite the hours I spent waiting for immigration to process me), but it still felt like I was leaving another home.

 

I guess what I’m trying conclude here is how much my definition of home has been influenced by politics and how maybe it would be different if I was documented, if I did not have to go through a long process trying to leave and reenter and if there was not a physical border separating me from my motherland. I’m trying to understand how much I want politics to influence me on this.
There’s actually no conclusion to what I’m saying because my feelings about this are not fully developed and I have a lot of progress to make. I’ll admit that I do feel bitter due to the treatment my people and I experience everyday in this country, so part of me wants to rebel and not accept this place until it accepts me, but I don’t believe this approach is making me happy. I want my roots to be okay planting themselves and growing in both places, but one is growing almost by accident because I happened to be born in Mexico and feel happy there, the other is growing because I’m choosing to plant it so that I can start to learn to live between two countries and be happy in both places. I’m trying to understand under what conditions I want to call the US home.

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