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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.

 

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.

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