Memories from Fall Break

It’s hard for me to believe, but it has been a month since my fall semester break! I guess time really does fly when you are having a blast… I’d like to take a minute to share some memories from my trip up the east coast of Australia.

For my week-long uni break in April, I booked a 10-day guided tour with a company called G Adventures. (G is an abbreviation of GAP, which stands for Great Adventure People… so the whole name is really Great Adventure People Adventures – confusing, I know.) G Adventures specializes in small group adventure travel, and there were only about twenty young people travelling on my east coast trip, including our fearless group leader, Josh.

I met up with the group in Brisbane, which is a city about 1,000 kilometers north of Sydney, and from there, we made our way up the coast to the city of Cairns by bus, train, and yacht. Over the next ten days, we saw some of the most beautiful places in the world, including Fraser Island – the world’s largest sand island, Whitehaven beach in the Whitsunday Islands, and the Great Barrier Reef.

What really made this trip the most incredible week of my life, though, was getting to experience these places with my group-mates. We were complete strangers on day one; most of us were traveling alone, and we came from all over the world – England, Scotland, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Canada, and the United States. But after spending ten days together, we became a little family of sorts, and I’m so glad that I got to spend my break with my G Adventures family.

My favorite moment of the whole trip happened on the third night. We had spent the day sailing in the Whitsunday Islands, and we were anchored for the night in a small channel. I was lying on the top deck of our maxi yacht, surrounded by my new friends, and we had just enjoyed a blazing orange sunset over the tropical waters. The light was fading, and we were settling in to start stargazing.

Because there was little light pollution out in the islands, the stars were brilliantly bright, and the Milky Way lit up the night sky. I had just been talking and laughing with my English friend – listening to stories about the stupid things he had done in his life and sharing some of my own, but for a few minutes, we fell silent. The other people around us were quiet too. No one needed to say anything. We all simply gazed up at the sky in wonder, taking in the moment together.

Laying on that yacht under the stars in the company of my friends, I felt incredible. Seeing the stars and the Milky Way helped me to appreciate how small we all are in comparison to the universe, but at the same time, being with my group-mates helped me to realise that our small lives can be filled with great meaning. They each had different experiences and perspectives to share, and I loved hearing about all the places that they had visited around the world and the things they had already accomplished with their lives. They helped me to realize that there is so much that we can see and do in life.

My group-mates came from very different backgrounds, but one thing that they all had in common was their positive energy. It seemed like nothing could get them down on the trip – even when we had to get up at 4am the morning after a night out in order to catch a train, we all managed to have a good laugh as we collapsed onto the platform. As one of our drivers from Fraser Island put it, the group had a “passion for living”. And this passion was contagious.

I feel so lucky to have been able to spend my fall break with such amazing people. At the beginning of the trip, I wasn’t expecting that they would have a significant impact on my life in any way, but they helped me appreciate how beautiful life can be if you approach it with the right attitude. And that isn’t a lesson that you can learn inside a classroom. (So yes, mom, my fall break was educational.)

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How much would you pay for the environment? What would it cost you not to?

What would you pay to protect the Great Barrier Reef? …the rainforests of the Amazon? … the glaciers of New Zealand?

The environment offers us aesthetic beauty, scientific knowledge, natural resources, and ecosystem services. Living in Australia has motivated me to question how we truly value the environment. It is helpful to quantify its value in terms of dollars, although this is not a simple task.

In Australia, many people are dedicated to decreasing their ecological footprint. It is not common for households to use clothing dryers. In addition, air conditioning, even in the summer, is not excessively used. In the United States, air conditioning is expected, demanded, and definitely used in excess. Could an increase in the price of electricity drive more Americans to reconsider when to turn on the air conditioning?

The ecotourism industry can help us form an idea about what we are willing to pay to access the beauty of the environment. This would be interesting to compare to what we currently pay for the comfort of our air-conditioned homes, for example.

According to the Australian Minister for the Environment, about 2 million people visit the Great Barrier Reef every year, which offers $5.6 billion to the economy in Australia with nearly 70,000 jobs. These numbers seem to justify the preservation of the reef for very practical reasons. They are also an underestimate of the actual value because they do not include the monetary value of the reef in relation to scientific research and ecosystem services.

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View of the Great Barrier Reef from the top deck of the boat

The diversity of the Great Barrier Reef is impressive. During my dive, I was able to swim with schools of bright yellow fish, encounter a few sharks, and look into the eyes of a couple sea turtles. How much did I pay for that opportunity? Well certainly, several hundred dollars when you consider the flight up to Cairns and the price of the dive itself. The cost was worth it to me, and to save the reef for my children would be worth much more.

The Great Barrier Reef is currently a World Heritage sight, but its health is rapidly declining. It could soon find itself on the List of World Heritage in Danger. Tourism will suffer as nobody wants to travel thousands of miles to swim in polluted waters through bleached coral. Already, backpackers have told me that I should have skipped my dive there, in favor of the less polluted reef sites off the coast of Malaysia.

Climate change is one of the most prominent causes for the decline in health. Coral bleaching was the most visible effect I saw during my dive. Overfishing, seabed dredging, deforestation, and agricultural nutrient pollution all contribute to the degradation of the reef. The purpose of seabed dredging is for coal ports, which will further exacerbate the problem by accelerating climate change with the additional release of greenhouse gases.

While many Australians value the environment, evidently some Australians value coal more. Coal burning may provide an immediate economic benefit, but the long-term harm caused to the reef will certainly outweigh this benefit.

It is not possible to convince all people to protect the environment for altruistic reasons. This is even true in the case of a country that I admire for its progressive and active work to protect the environment. Ultimately, the economic argument will always win. If we can calculate the economic value, then perhaps there is still a chance for the Great Barrier Reef.

 

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Rural Visit

This month, my program organized a weeklong rural visit, sending students out into the bush to stay with host families and PeaceCorps volunteers. During my rural tour, I visited Toune, a small village near Kaffrine in central Senegal. I stayed with a volunteer from the Peace Corps who worked on health education. The Peace Corps is something that I have always considered as a possible choice for my life after college. Since my childhood, and even now, my future was always open. I do not know what I want to do as a career but I know I’m going to travel, and as soon as I learned about the Peace Corps, I kept it in my mind as an option. More recently, I’ve decided I want to live in developing countries and help people there in any way I can, and the Peace Corps is exactly that. This week was the perfect opportunity for me to see how the PeaceCorps really works. More than just talk with a volunteer about his or her experience, I had the chance to experience it myself. I am pleased to say that the week has not changed my plans and the Peace Corps remains in my possible plans for after college.

Although the days passed slowly, I could not believe it when the week ended. Each day developed a routine, which made the week kind of a blur, as hours passed seamlessly into days. I woke up to the sounds of the village – first, the muezzin at 5am, closer and longer than the muezzin in Dakar. If I could catch a few more hours of sleep, I would wake up again to the calls of donkeys and the responses of goats around 7am. Finally, the sun and birds would infiltrate my ears and eyes at 8am. When I could no longer snooze the alarm clock of nature, I would get up and start the day with coffee and a breakfast sandwich.

The second day we decided to start a mural at the school, but when we finished breakfast, it was too hot to do anything. We spent all day reading and resting in the hut or under the shade of a big tree just outside the camp. We began a voluntary program of ten ‘waxtaans’ or ‘chats’ for village mothers about health, with topics such as nutrition and malaria. The second day, after the afternoon muezzin, we went to the health center for the second ‘waxtaan’. Unfortunately, only one mother came, so we did not do the ‘waxtaan.’ It was difficult for the volunteer because she had prepared and worked to help these mothers, but they were not grateful and didn’t even show up.

The third and fourth days followed the same pattern, but with more success. We ate breakfast in the same hut. We had the same conversation about our foreign coffee (Starbucks, a gift from the volunteer’s parents). The Senegalese woman who made sandwiches thought it was ‘neexul dara’ (not good at all) compared to her Senegal coffee which was ‘neexna torop’, ‘very good’. But for us, even though I like Senegal’s coffee, the Starbucks coffee was a luxury, a memory of the United States. After breakfast, we went to school to work on murals for an hour or two.

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To avoid the heat and exhaustion, we would return to the compound to rest. Every afternoon I needed to choose between sleep, read, write, or think as ways to pass the time. It was so relaxing. I noted the slow pace of rural life, and decided that I loved it for a week but I would be too bored after a long time. But I also saw patterns of life in Dakar, when every time I talked with friends there, they were also doing the same things. Yes, I was always in the middle of reading, but one friend was always playing football and the other was always drinking attaya. I realized that it’s not just rural life works like that, and if I’m not careful, I can fall into a boring routine anywhere.

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At the beginning of the week, my volunteer said she likes to go to Dakar sometimes because she can pretend she’s not in Senegal. When she said that, I did not agree. I really feel that I’m in Senegal in Dakar, with all the differences and difficulties that come with it. But when I came back after the week there, I saw what she means. In Kaolack, I went to a small market to buy a snack for the long ride back to Dakar. The market was not special or great, but I was overwhelmed by all the choices I had. When I talked with my Dakaroise friends, I complained that I ate ‘ceebu jeen’ (the national plate of rice and fish) and sometimes only rice for each meal. They responded that life in Dakar is better because you can eat anything you want. That is something I would never say before going to the village, because there are many times when the Senegalese cuisine needs more variety and I have many times when I miss American or Asian cuisine. But now I agree. Maybe it’s not the same as in the US, but if you want it enough, it is possible to find almost everything or do almost everything in Dakar. In this way, we can pretend we’re somewhere besides Senegal. Through my visit to the village, I gained a new perspective and appreciation of Senegal as a whole but also the city  where I lived for two months. It was an experience that opened my eyes.

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Scottish Folklore

It is a Saturday morning, and I am sitting in the back of a wee red tour bus on the Isle of Skye. Our guide, an engaging and hilarious man named Danny, is telling us about the incredible geology and natural beauty of the island. In the distance, almost obscured by the pervasive mist covering the Scottish highlands, is the Old Man of Storr, a freestanding pillar of stone atop a cliff. In a few minutes, we will all climb out of the bus and attempt to get a picture amidst the blustery winds and freezing rain, but for now we are content to avoid the gales and listen to Danny. He introduces the rock, and continues with his two most common phrases. The first is, of course, “I wish the weather was better for photos.” And the second: “There’s a story about this.”

You can see The Old Man of Storr in the distance.

You can see The Old Man of Storr in the distance.

These words began almost every stop on our tour through the Scottish Highlands and the Isle of Skye. There is a stereotype of the Scots as exceptional storytellers and it is no wonder why; there are so many stories to tell! Many of these tales simply retell the dramatic history of Scotland, but just as many involve fantastical creatures in wondrous environments. The latter comprise the varied folklore of the Highlands, and it was these legends that Danny often told us.

So, what is the story of the Old Man of Storr? It is rather long, and I certainly cannot do Danny’s telling of it justice, but I want to share it with you, to give you an idea of the types of tales I heard throughout the trip.

A crofter named O’Sheen once owned the land surrounding the Old Man of Storr. One day, he heard a noise from a collapsed rock and, thinking one of his sheep was trapped, he went to investigate. Upon removing the rocks, he found a tiny brownie (pronounced brew-knees), a small creature somewhat similar to a leprechaun, which can live for a few thousand years. The brownie was so grateful to O’Sheen for freeing him, he promised to use his magic to grant the crofter anything he desired. However, O’Sheen was a very happy man, and he could not think of anything to ask the brownie. The brownie thus told O’Sheen that he would work with him on his land, and maybe discover something O’Sheen needed. O’Sheen agreed, but reminded the brownie that he must do everything without magic, so he could understand how humans did it.

The brownie spent many years working with O’Sheen. He was a hard-worker, but because he was so small, he was not particularly good at catching and shearing the sheep. However, he never used magic, just like he had promised O’Sheen. Eventually, O’Sheen married a bonnie lass and had an incredible wedding party, in which the little brownie and his friends played music and danced through the night. But after the wedding, the brownie told O’Sheen that he must leave for many years, to take care of some things in the brownie world. Although sad to see his friend go, O’Sheen bid him farewell.

After those years had passed, the brownie returned to O’Sheen’s lands, only to find them unkempt and O’Sheen gone. The brownie asked another landowner where the crofter was, and was devastated to learn that O’Sheen and his wife had died while he was away. The brownie wanted to do something to commemorate his friend, but he was too small to restore the land to its former glory without the crofter’s help. So he climbed the tallest cliff in the area and decided to carve it away and build a monument to his friend. He could have simply cast a spell over the land and the rock and created anything he desired, but he remembered O’Sheen’s words about doing everything without magic. Thus, he gathered his tiny brownie tools, and dedicated the rest of his life to chiseling away the rock in the shape of O’Sheen looking out over the land, with his wife sitting behind him. The present Old Man of Storr is as far as he got.

The brownie is just one of the mythical creatures I was introduced to on my trip. Now I can also tell you about the kelpies (nasty water-dwelling creatures who often venture up to land as white stallions), fairies (wee people who live in the hills and crevices of the fairy glens), and selkies (mermaid-like creatures without a fishy tail, who are beautiful on the outside and inside). While I knew that Scottish folklore existed, I had not expected how rich and prevalent it was. We may dismiss these creatures as ridiculous, but many people do believe in them. And the stories they tell are not just entertaining; they connect you to the land and people in an almost spiritual way. My trip to the Isle of Skye would have been amazing if I had just admired the land, but it was the folklore that endowed the land with a special charm, and made it absolutely incredible.

Fairy Glen: home of the fairies. The Fairy King's (or Queen's) Castle is on the right, and the spiral rock shape underneath it is the entrance to the fairy world.

Fairy Glen: home of the fairies. The Fairy King’s (or Queen’s) Castle is on the right, and the spiral rock shape underneath it is the entrance to the fairy world.

Kilt Rock: home of the selkies. You can actually hear a low drone that is supposedly the selkie's singing.

Kilt Rock: home of the selkies. You can actually hear a low drone that is supposedly the selkie’s singing.

The Quiraing. According to Danny (and a local friend of his) this place needs no story to be amazing.

The Quiraing. According to Danny (and a local friend of his) this place needs no story, it’s simply amazing.

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University College London vs Georgetown in Qatar: Differences in Course Structure and Class Spirit

I am spending the Spring 2015 semester studying at University College London (UCL), presumably one of the most prestigious universities in the UK. Majoring in International Politics, I chose to pick all my courses from the course list offered by UCL’s Political Science department. Strangely but interestingly, UCL does not offer a “Political Science” Bachelor’s degree per se. The closest the Bachelor’s degree programs can get to Political Science is through a degree offered by the European Social and Political Science (ESPS), a degree that, according to my fellow ESPS colleagues, you can obtain without ever enrolling in a Political Science course (let alone a Europe-oriented Political Science course), as long as you study a European language and take a random assortment of humanities courses.

If the Political Science department doesn’t exist to serve ESPS students, then why is it there? To serve affiliate students—that is, study-abroad students—, the head of the department said during Orientation Week. As if to emphasize the apolitical nature of the undergraduate program, he continued on stating that all UCL Political Science professors are used to teaching graduate courses, and so we, study-abroad students, should expect the difficulty of their courses is higher than the UCL average. I will touch on the implications of the lack of compulsory Political Science courses on the intellectual development of UCL students in the second part of the blog post. For now, let me explain the structural and content difference between UCL courses and those of my home university, Georgetown in Qatar.

The first noticeable difference between UCL and Georgetown in Qatar is the structure of lectures. At Georgetown, with the exception of seminar courses, class meets twice a week. And except for Economics courses, there is no requirement to attend an extra “recitation” or “practical” session. In all courses, participation is a must—and you’ll find it almost impossible to earn a grade above B if you don’t ask interesting questions, discuss your fellow colleague’s questions, or voice an (enlightened) opinion every now and then. At UCL—at least in my courses—it’s quite different. All classes meet once a week for a lecture, all courses have complementary practical sessions where the class is divided into groups to discuss lecture topics with “light” supervision from the professor, and, finally, participation does not count towards the final grade. Although practical sessions provide students with some discussion spaces, the quality of discussion they produce is not as good as one would wish. This is most probably due to the lack of the grade incentive and the absence of the continuous watchful eye of a professor I am used to at Georgetown in UCL seminars.

What I mean above by “quality” of discussion is based on a twofold (completely subjective) measurement. The first is the depth of analysis and degree of knowledge of the subject that students demonstrate. Performance is usually low in this regard due to, in all likelihood, the students’ awareness that they will be neither penalized for lack of participation, nor rewarded for meaningful engagement.

The second meaning I hold for “quality” is cultural sensitivity and the ability to engage in discussions with an unbiased attitude and an open mind. On average, UCL students in my courses rank lower than Georgetown students in that respect. Many Political Science students at UCL engage in what one could call unintentional Orientalism. In the context of class discussion, this involves the use of a discourse that stereotypes the “other,” usually a developing country or a section of its citizens, and explicitly or implicitly dehumanizes them, overemphasizes their differences or implies their “natural” inferiority.

This discourse could be adopted by both Western and non-Western student. It was clearly demonstrated during one of the seminar sessions I attended for a course entitled “International Development and Public Policy.” Reflecting on whether foreign aid should be given exclusively to “moral” governments in the developing world, an American student confidently stated “It doesn’t matter if the government’s “good” or not. What matters is that we give them the money to develop themselves” (emphasis mine). Coming from a country that is the second-largest recipient of US foreign aid, and fully aware of the “imperfect” allocation of financial resources that results from it, I can find a thousand reasons to poke holes in this argument. However, what struck me the most was the implicitly derogatory way in which my fellow colleague employed the pronouns “us” and “them,” which I found to be quite Orientalist. Not only does it personify an issue that should be approached in non-personal, objective terms, but it also gives the impression that the two countries—donor and recipient—exist in as part of some “natural” hierarchy, whether the latter cannot “develop” (whatever that means) unless the former “gives” it help. These messages are not visible immediately, but they do exert psychological pressure on students from Third World countries in class, whose voices and opinions—which may differ from those of this particular American colleague—could be potentially silenced by her Orientalist discourse. In fact, I have witnessed another colleague from a Middle Eastern country, enrolled in the same course, internalizing this discourse and engaging in a discussion that dehumanizes people from her own country, in all likelihood in an attempt to “go with the flow”.

So why is this discourse more prevalent in UCL than Georgetown? My guess is that the apolitical character of UCL Bachelor degrees highly contributes to such attitudes. As mentioned earlier, ESPS students are not required to take Political Science courses, but only to study a European language and some humanities courses. The lack of politics-related courses in their course plans deprives many students of the opportunity to examine the complexity of political processes, and the contingent, shifting nature of cultures. Instead, it breeds ethnocentrism and encourages the essentialization of cultures, which can potentially lead to cultural insensitivity. This is further intensified by the highly Eurocentric nature and focus of the ESPS degree. Having had this experience, I began to appreciate the quality of discussions I am used to having at Georgetown. Although not immune to Orientalism, class discussions at Georgetown have a sort of self-regulatory mechanism, where signs of racism/Orientalism are automatically undone by the abundance flow of informed participation of a mostly culturally sensitive student body. Of course, this cultural sensitivity is not innate, but seems to have come from the diverse nature of courses offered there, and the inclusion of global and intercultural political issues in almost all course syllabi.

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Do you travel or vacation?

“You have to be brave… because that’s what travelling is all about.”- Claire

On our recent trip to Cairns, a town located up the east coast in Queensland, I came upon the realization that there is no “correct” way to live as I started to understand a phrase that my father always told me; “your way of doing something is simply a way, not the way”.

When we travel we often learn more from the people we meet; not necessarily the places we see. I would make a clear distinction between “vacationing” and “travelling”. If one were to stay in hotels and resorts every time they visited a new country the experience would be limited, to say the least.

Our trip to Cairns was the first time I had stayed in a hostel abroad. I learned more from that weekend experience than I could have learned in a few days of class. While the trip was not without its difficulties (a cyclone interrupted many of our plans); I soon realized that some of the best plans are the unexpected, spontaneous ones.

One backpacker in my hostel, Claire, had been travelling throughout Australia for a year, and she now must complete a few months of regional work to qualify for her second year visa. In the course of one day, her plan changed many times. In the morning before I left for my scuba diving adventure, she had planned to fly to Tasmania to work. When I came home, sunburnt and exhausted, she was considering an offer to pick chestnuts as her regional work. A few phone calls later she had booked a flight to Perth to work on a farm delivering hay! She tells me, “You have to be brave… because that’s what travelling is all about.”

That evening one of the girls, Alex, casually mentions that she has just booked a ticket to Bali.

In the United States there is strict expectation for many of us to follow a plan. It is expected that you will graduate high school, study at university for four years, and then move on to graduate school or find a job worthy of the career you have been working to obtain. It is unusual for a student to take time off to travel or simply work and save money.

With some exceptions, a “gap” year is highly discouraged. You would be a year behind in the plan! A young adult who chose to travel instead of study would be questioned. Many would simply not understand.

In sharp contrast to the US, many young people from other countries value travel as an experience essential to the growth and maturity of an individual. Some students in my classes are a few years older as they have taken time to have this experience. One friend I met is from Sweden, 24 years old, and yet just starting university.

While we may think that deviating from the US plan is simply unquestionable or wrong; there are so many benefits that I can see. If you spend your whole life moving from one schooling system to another, options to self discovery and knowledge of the world around you are simply inaccessible. You can only learn so much from a classroom.

Other backpackers have told me stories about their experiences travelling throughout Asia and their incredible, cultural home stays. So that weekend in Cairns, I decided to stay by myself for a few more days as my friend returned to Melbourne. And then I realized that in reality I was not by myself as I had met a few new friends who taught me a great deal about the value of travel.

In Cairns I swam in cyclonic weather, jumped into a water-filled volcano, explored the rainforest, and scuba dived with Nigel, the Maori Wrasse fish, in the Great Barrier Reef.  But what I will remember most is the meaning of travel from the people I met.

To be brave is to deviate from the plan or make an unexpected one. It is clear to me that after Georgetown I will travel. It will be a time to learn from experiences, not only from books.

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Nomadic Spring Break

 

For spring break, I planned to spend the week in the Gambia with all of the students in my program, but I learned quickly that life doesn’t follow plans and it’s best to just go with it.

 

I left Dakar with five other students, one of whom brought a Senegalese friend to help accompany us through our travels. This friend, Mame Cheikh, was super helpful and willing to answer all of the questions I had about his culture. He even invited me and my friend Georgia to a festival/pilgrimage in honor of my Senegalese namesake. We got to the Gambian border just before it closed, but got held up during the visa process because two of our friends come from African countries and needed extra papers. By the time we could think and decide what to do, we missed the last boat. We met up with Mame Cheikh’s Gambian friend and spent the night at a hotel at the border. The next morning we learned that we could get the extra papers the following day, but the two students didn’t want to wait an extra day at the border so, sadly, they returned to Dakar with Mame Cheikh and we continued on to our hotel with Samba, the Gambian friend.

 

He drove us in his open back safari truck, blasting reggae music and driving through typically ‘African’ looking scenery. We made it to the river just after the 11am ferry had left, so someone jokingly suggested that we visit an island Samba mentioned earlier. No one contested so we made the split decision to catch the 4pm ferry (giving ourselves enough time to make the 5 or 6pm at the rate things were going), turned around, and headed to Coconut Island. After lots of off-roading and a little pirogue ride, we were greeted at Coconut Island by hordes of children that wanted to hold our hands. We met Samba’s friends, then trekked to the remote beach and sat in the shade. The four of us girls put our toes in the water and it was so beautiful that we were all the way in just a few minutes later. The water was a refreshing contrast to the heat, and the beach was entirely empty and relaxing. After a while, we headed back and decided to take the pirogues, which meant that we were carried from the shore to the boats (no docks) on some Gambian men’s shoulders, bags and all.

 

From that point, we made it to the hotel without problems. The hotel was had great food, an ecopool, a bonfire, and lots of relaxation, so it came as a surprise to many when my friend Georgia and I decided to leave after two days. We left for the festival at Porokhane, the hometown of my Senegalese namesake, Mame Diarra Bousso, mother of the most revered marabout in Senegal and founder of the Mouride movement. We arrived after 1am, found our tent, and went straight to bed.

 

The next day we got up for breakfast and found the medical tent, where we would be working with Mame Cheikh and his doctor friend, distributing medicine for free after a consultation with the doctor. Most of the patients needed simple things like Vitamin C or painkillers, and it was a good chance to practice Wolof with them. My job was to ask their name (Nanga tudd?), their age (Nyata at nga am?) and then write down their symptoms and treatment after they talked to the doctor. Although we stayed in the medical tent all day, we were hot, starving, and exhausted by the time the line dwindled down to a couple people and we were able to eat lunch after 3pm. At night we took time to walk around the festival. There were markets and a mosque, but way too many people to thoroughly visit either. After dinner and chatting, it was impossible to stay awake through our exhaustion but impossible to sleep through the drumming and chanting that was happening just outside the tent. I spent the whole night in and out of sleep, venturing to watch the circle of dancing or sitting just inside the tent with the flap open to catch peeks of the people passing by, dressed in their crazy outfits, accessories, and dreads.

 

In the morning we packed up and left the festival, spending a few days seeing other cities in Senegal. Following Mame Cheikh’s plans, we spent a night in Touba and a night in Thies before returning to Dakar. Although spring break went way off track, it was better than any experience I could have planned.

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Academics at Yonsei University

I have been in Korea now for just over a month and classes are in full swing. Before coming to Yonsei, I had heard a variety of opinions on the classes here, ranging from very difficult to supremely easy. Over the past month I’ve realized all my classes have one thing in common – they are extremely interesting.

Yonsei is considered one of the top universities in Korea, and this is reflected in the caliber of their professors. I’m taking four classes- Korean language, Pre-modern Korean History, Free Trade Agreements, and International Relations in East Asia. All three of my academic class professors have advanced degrees and impressive work experience. My Free Trade Agreements professor was a senior advisor at the Albright Stonebridge group, a consulting firm founded by Georgetown’s very own Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. My IR professor served as the Korean Ambassador to Australia and President of the Korea Foundation. It is exciting to take classes from proven experts in their fields. Their knowledge is apparent in the way they can discuss current affairs and relate their knowledge to our class topics. It’s not uncommon for my IR professor to name drop foreign dignitaries and casually mention his close relationships with other political scholars.

My history and free trade agreements class both are courses exclusively for study abroad students. I had heard these classes were beyond easy, and while they are a little more relaxed than my international relations class that I take with actual Yonsei students, they are just as engaging and educational. My history professor has a very straightforward style of teaching which I appreciate, and the articles he assigns provides insight not only into the actual history of Korea, but also the methodology of historians in the region. A large part of our class is being able to analyze the perspectives of historians and appreciate the ideological influences of the author and era on the presentation of history. In my Free Trade Agreements class, I’ve learned more about current affairs than I ever could have through checking American news outlets. This class largely operates in acronyms; I now know what THAAD, AIIB, NAFTA, ASEAN, and RoO stand for and their significance on the global stage. Having never taken an economics course, I’m basically learning the basics through application to real world events.

In addition to my academic classes, my Korean class is awesome. My class is fairly small, with 12 students, and is split between 2 teachers. My teachers are awesome with an effective teaching style similar to the style of Georgetown’s Chinese classes. Classes are engaging, and my teachers effectively explain grammar and vocabulary, constantly checking to make sure everyone understands. In class we practice listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Yonsei’s textbooks are also great, with clear explanations of grammar and defined vocab lists; I wish I had been exposed to them earlier. My only complaint is that with the same schedule every week, classes can get sort of monotonous. Although we’ve only been in class for a month, everyone’s language abilities are noticeably improving. Yonsei knows how to teach Korean.

Overall, I’ve been very satisfied with academics at Yonsei. Is it weird I’m actually looking forward to writing my term papers?

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Adapting to Oz

Today marks the start of my fourth week of classes at the University of Sydney, and I can happily say that my transition into Australian life has been anything but difficult. In fact, it’s been quite healthy for me, and I believe that this is owed to the way in which Australians live and how they view the world.

To give a little bit of background, I have always taken my studies really seriously. Since high school, I thought I had my life planned out: I was going to go to college, work really hard, get good grades, go to medical school, and then live happily ever after as a successful doctor. Hooray. And so, during my first couple years at Georgetown, I prioritized academic achievement above all else. I felt stressed much of the time because there was always another exam, assignment, or event outside of classes that required my attention, but I kept pushing through because I was following my plan. I was going to live my dream. Unfortunately, I think that this attitude caused me to miss out on a lot during these years. In a way, I was seeing my “real life” as my life after graduation (perhaps even after medical school), which was a shame, because my real life is happening right now. It took me a long time to realize this, but I’m so glad that I finally did.

Being here in Australia helped me to gain a new perspective on my life. In general, Australians are very down-to-earth people. They’ll always be keen to grab a beer at the pub or relax on the beach after a hard day. They’re also flexible and outgoing – I can’t count the number of times complete strangers have helped me out when I was confused about directions, the metro, or even which sheets set to buy in KMart. If something doesn’t go exactly as planned, they say, “no worries.” And they really don’t worry. This way of life is contagious. Since I’ve been here, I’ve realized that I’ve been way too caught up in the details. Life isn’t about getting the perfect grades so that you can get the perfect job. Life is about appreciating the now. It’s about taking chances, making new friends, and going to that concert even if it means you’ll be up for ages afterward in order to finish your assignment. Since I’ve been in Australia, I’ve been appreciating the now so much more, and because of it, I’ve never felt happier.

So thanks, Aussies. Cheers to today.

 

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From Foreigner to (Semi) Local

Two months ago when I first arrived in Edinburgh, I created a personal blog to update my parents and friends on my study abroad experience. My first post was about the little differences that overwhelmed and preoccupied me, making my first few days here hectic and stressful. This included the bathroom faucets. I remember standing in the bathroom the first night I arrived – tired, hungry, annoyed – trying to work the faucets on my new shower. It was such a little thing, and totally innocuous in the grand scheme of things, but my failure to turn on the shower I so desperately wanted was the final straw. I was frustrated, angry, and sure I would never be able to adjust. All I wanted to do was get on the next flight back home!

Of course, it is entirely normal for every study abroad student to experience culture shock and homesickness. I was lucky enough to go to an English speaking country, so at least I did not have to adjust to a new language (although the heavy Scottish accent can take some effort to decipher), and the United Kingdom is quite similar to America in many regards. However, the things I took for granted, like my knowledge of shower faucets, were the things that made my first few weeks a struggle. Everything from the acronyms of the university to the pronunciation of street names was new, and my repeated errors embarrassed and frustrated me.

I quickly resigned myself to feeling like a foreigner for the duration of my stay in Edinburgh. My accent alone marked me, and often I would go out of my way to avoid revealing it. For example, I always tried to use the automatic checkout machines in the grocery store because I did not want to talk to the person at the register. Grocery shopping is something locals do, and I wanted to be identified as one of them, something my accent immediately ruined. I know that I was being silly, but it was important to me to fit in as much as I possibly could.

This past week, my cousin and friend have both visited me in Edinburgh. I have been their tour guide, showing them everything I think is worth seeing, and trying some new experiences that I have been planning on doing for awhile. The ease in which I have adopted the role of tour guide has startled me. A few months ago, I was the stranger here. Now, I am navigating the streets without consulting a map and repeating the history of famous landmarks with the pride of a Scot.

Once again, it is the little things that remind me how far I have come. The odd street names are no longer a mystery to me, but they can confuse my American visitors. Many streets in Edinburgh are called a ‘close.’ For example, I live on Robertson’s Close. In a text to my cousin, I told her that we were going to tour Mary King’s Close, and she was incredibly confused. She kept asking what we were actually doing, and if the attraction was closed. I could not understand what the problem was, but when I showed my friend the texts, she immediately understood where my cousin’s confusion was coming from. My cousin had automatically interpreted ‘close’ in the only way she understood – as a verb rather than a street name. But I could not see that distinction, because I was so used to using ‘close’ to describe a street here in Edinburgh.

Another problem for my American visitors has been the Scottish accents. While they love listening to the Scots, occasionally they cannot understand everything that is being said. My cousin and friend have complained about being unable to comprehend tour guides, and have often asked me what someone has just said. The accent was a small stumbling block for me at the beginning as well. Many times I would simply nod at a person and give an unconvincing laugh because I could not decipher what they were saying. To be fair, I do that often in America, but here it was another reminder of how foreign I was. Now, however, most accents are not a problem for me, and I can happily interpret the Scots to my visitors!

This past week has shown me how easy it was for me to adjust and fall in love with Edinburgh. Two months ago I was despairing, sure I would never be able to assimilate completely. Of course, I am nowhere near calling myself an official resident of Scotland (I would also have to get an actual visa, and that process does not appeal to me in any way), but I am also no longer lost and confused in a new city, or ashamed of being foreign. I am proud to live in Edinburgh as a semi-local, and I am proud to be an American in the United Kingdom.

Some days are still hectic and stressful, and some things are still confusing and astounding to me. (Scottish cuisine is one of the latter. Deep fried pizzas, black pudding, haggis – who thought these were good ideas?!) But overall, I have assimilated into the life and culture of Edinburgh. Now when I post in my personal blog, I can tell my readers about the wonders of this city, and hopefully never again regale them with tales of the bathroom faucet.

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