Un verano valenciano | A Valencian Summer

“Torres de Serranos”, the ancient Roman towers that were the gate to the city of Valentia

“University of Valencia, Faculty of Philology, Translation, and Communication”

On the east coast of the Iberian Peninsula in 138 B.C., a group of Roman soldiers founded a city. They named it Valentia, a word in their language of Latin that meant “strength”. Today, a few thousands of years later in a country now called Spain with a language now called Spanish, Valencia still stands. This summer, I hopped on a plane and set off to learn Spanish more profoundly and see a new piece of the world, but I came back with much more. I believe that in my time in Valencia, a little bit of that strength that the Romans spoke of rubbed off on me.

I studied at  Universitat de València where I had the opportunity to learn about the literature and culture of Spain. Outside of the classroom, I lived with a Spanish-speaking family, spoke the language, traveled the country, ate the food, and truly lived as a Spaniard.


Cuitat de les Artes i les Ciènces | Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias | City of Arts and Sciences

Language has been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember, and I have filled my time here at The Ohio State University to the brim with classes of different foreign languages and linguistics. I have always loved to travel, try food from different cultures, and meet people from all walks of life. Throughout this study abroad, these qualities were not changed, but rather strengthened. I would say that I changed the most in an internal way— how I view myself more than how I view the world. If I had to narrow down all of my experiences to the most significant changes, it would be my command of the Spanish language and language learning ( I even picked up some Valenciano, the local language), my willingness to let go and embrace the spontaneous, and my confidence in myself.

“The best part of walking to class” were the purple, blossoming trees around the university

One of the most significant experiences of this trip was my time with my host family. I stayed with a couple, Marina and Miguel, who moved from Uruguay to Spain with their sons twenty years prior. The relationship that I developed with them truly enhanced my entire experience. From helping me with the bus on the first day of classes, showing me around the city, and laughing over our delicious dinners, they were what really made Valencia feel like home. They did not speak any English, so it was a opportunity for me to really work through the Spanish that I knew. There were times that I had to dig deep into my memory to find a word or gesture wildly like we were playing charades, but they always helped with a smile. I am now a more confident language learner and speaker of Spanish. Moving forward, the language skills that I learned will carry on as I continue to learn Spanish and even into the other languages that I learn.

Pollença, Mallorca (post-cliff-jumping)

Another experience that really influenced my time in Spain was my weekend trip to Mallorca. Through the program, I was able to travel to Madrid, Toledo, Barcelona, Gandia, Albufera, Sagunto, and all around Valencia. I went to so many museums, ate food from all different regions, and absorbed the culture of each place. They all left lasting memories, yet my trip to Mallorca stood apart from the rest because I and a group of friends planned it all ourselves. Every other trip was led by ISA, and although they were just as influential, the experience of planning and grabbing a quick flight at the last minute to an island is something that I never thought I would have the chance to do. I am not the most… spontaneous person.  It instilled a confidence in myself and my independence. We were able to navigate and experience everything that Mallorca had to offer. Further, I never imagined that I would be kayaking in the ocean or jumping off the cliffs, but I experienced “adventure” in a whole new way. This was an exercise in just saying “yes”. I let go of the belief that everything needs to be perfectly planned out beforehand.

Pont de Fleurs | Fuente de Flores | The Bridge of Flowers

Lastly, there isn’t one experience that I can point to that I think “gave me confidence” or really changed who I was, but I could feel it growing the whole time. When I would think of my future, I imagined myself involved in linguistic research on an international level, traveling and seeing the world. However, before this opportunity, there was always something that held me back. There was always a part of me that thought it was not going to be possible. This trip made me realize no matter how well you plan, research, prepare, and question, what you really need is the confidence in yourself to make it happen. One weekend in Valencia, I had some free time. I took a walk down “El Rio”, a park that winds through the city where the Turia River once was. It was the first pause and deep breath I had taken since being in Spain, and I had some time to reflect. As I strolled along the Bridge of Roses, I came to this realization. I felt happy, comfortable, and confident. Valencia really felt like home.

Top of Castillo de Sagunto, a Roman fortress in Sagunto


These changes are significant because they have truly set the tone for my senior year and what lies beyond. I feel that this experience was a culmination of all my hours of studying and planning, and it was realization of a lifelong dream of studying abroad. As I look towards my final year at Ohio State, I will carry the lessons that I learned from Valencia and all the people that I met there in order to be a better student, language learner, and citizen of the world. In the future, I hope to pursue linguistics at a higher level of academia, and I know that the international experience that I have gained from this trip will be just the beginning of my adventures.


Engineering and Culture in India

Annie Graff

STEP Reflection

1. Thanks to the generosity of STEP, I was able to complete the ‘Engineering and Culture of India’ study abroad program this past spring. Throughout the semester we had weekly class to learn about the history and society of various places in India, and then traveled to the country during spring break. We visited many sites of cultural significance and were lucky enough to tour Barefoot College, an organization that works to harness the skills of the rural poor in India and turn them into something that can change the lives of their entire community.

2. All throughout my education experience I have loved learning history. I’ve oohed and awed over the Italian art from the Renaissance, engineering feats of English cathedral building, and the persistence and bravery of soldiers during the Revolutionary War. However, none of my classes ever focused on the incredible discoveries and creations going on simultaneously, and long beforehand, in India. My courses focused more on the Western world, and I had never really heard of the works of art in Jaipur that could rival Michelangelo or the heating/cooling systems in the Amber fort that were nonexistent in other parts of the world at the time. My STEP Signature Project opened my eyes to an entirely new part of history, a history whose stories remain untold to many students but whose actions largely influenced the world as we know it today. I now have a true appreciation for the parts of the path that India paved to have the technologies that we have now, and I want to learn more about the roles that other countries have played.

My assumptions of what poverty is also changed as result of undergoing my STEP signature project. While I have witnessed the heartbreaking hardships that people in Ohio and the rest of US face, seeing the lifestyle that so many Indians are forced to struggle with felt like a punch in the gut. The sheer number of people facing starvation, homelessness, and disease was something that I don’t think most people can truly be prepared for. This experience showed me the different levels of poverty that can be present in different parts of the world and how important it is for us to be working to sustainable solutions to help.

3. I can now testify that there is a reason that the Taj Mahal is one of the Wonders of the World. Walking through the gate and seeing the Taj for the first time truly takes your breath away. I am still amazed when I look through my pictures of it. I guess there’s just something about a 240 ft. tall white marble mausoleum that makes you feel small; and when you think about the fact that it was built in the 1600’s, it is truly mind-blowing. It made me really appreciate how far engineering has come and how much of that progress we owe to the people who were able to make something as incredible as the Taj Mahal a reality. I also loved learning the story behind the Taj Mahal, as I never knew that it was for Shah Jahan’s wife who died in child birth. The Agra Red Fort, which is nearby, also has an interesting history tied in with the Taj Mahal. The emperor was actually overthrown by his son and imprisoned in the Fort. He was held in a room where he spent his days helplessly looking out the window at his beloved Taj until he died. I am so thankful for my Signature Project for exposing me to a class where I not only learned this part of history, but actually got to experience the places where the stories took place.

The Taj Mahal is located in the city of Agra. The contrast between the beauty of the Taj and the rest of the city was shocking. I’m not sure exactly what I expected of the city surrounding one of the 7 Wonders of the World, but it definitely wasn’t the trash lined roads, wandering cows, or famished people. Driving through the town was eye opening and heart breaking in many ways. While I think that many people in India are perfectly with simpler things in life (a concept I know I need to work on myself), every person deserves access to clean drinking and bathing water and full meals. I would love to do more research into ongoing clean water projects in the area and contribute in any way possible.

The wonderful people in my program made this experience so much more meaningful for me. I was a little nervous about signing up for a trip to India without knowing anyone else, but it could not have possibly turned out better. Our class was 11 students – the perfect number. We didn’t talk too much leading up to the trip, but once we got to the airport, I feel like everyone’s nervousness and excitement bubbled over and we all started to get to know each other really well. Once in country, we were able to have very insightful conversations about the new world surrounding us, conversations I wouldn’t have expected near-strangers to have. Through these discussions, we not only marveled over the incredible pieces of history we discovered, but were challenged to think about differences in development India and the US and how their roles and actions were intertwined. My fellow students truly forced me to think outside my typical mindset about my views of the world and what I wanted my legacy in it to be.

4. I’m not sure I can even put into words how valuable the ‘Engineering and Culture in India’ trip was for me. I was able to travel to a place I never thought I would go to, and meet amazing people and try crazy new food along the way. This trip reminded me to never be afraid to do something scary (and to sign up for it alone) because, in the end, it will always be worth it. I do not think that we can become the full people we were meant to be unless we do things that terrify us. This trip also showed me to never count places out. I never thought I would be able go to India, so who knows what other incredible, unexpected places I’ll end up! I just know that I never have to stop trying to see the world. My STEP project reminded me why I wanted to go into engineering in the first place – to help people. The capability of technology today is there; now more people just need to harness that potential into applications that can increase the standard of living for more of the world’s population. I will continue to take steps to ensure that I am one of those people.

Qutb Minar, New Delhi

Taj Mahal, Agra


Holi Festival, Agra


Amer Fort, Amer (near Jaipur)

Barefoot College, Tiloniya

Cuba: A Messy, Complicated, Beautiful Island

  1. Please provide a brief description of your STEP Signature Project.

For my STEP Signature Project, I participated in a 10 day study abroad over Spring Break to Cuba with 2 professors and several other students from the school of architecture, entitled Cuba: Architecture, Landscape, Urbanism. We visited Havana as well as a few other towns and cities throughout Cuba, focusing on the history of their built environment and the relationship their society has to their architecture and landscape. Along the way, we stopped for several cultural experiences, tried local foods, stayed at resorts and airbnbs, and tried our best to figure out what to make of this complicated country and its wonderful people.

  1.  What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project?

My original reason for choosing this study abroad as my STEP project was my interest in comparing and contrasting how a relatively isolated country like Cuba approached urban design and landscape architecture. And that process was unquestionably interesting. The vast majority of Cuban structures post-revolution display a large amount of Soviet influence. As a group, we discussed the differences between Soviet/socialist modernism and American/western modernism. Cubans do some things similar to us, and others in different ways. For example, they use very little steel as a building material, since they don’t have extensive metal mining. This lead to the majority of their structures being built out of brick, wood, or concrete. The trip’s sketching requirements definitely helped me to understand this, as well as our group discussions. These discussions would have been incomplete without talking about the political environment that birthed these styles and methods, which leads me to my next point.

Pretty much as soon as we exited the plain, that interest widened to include Cuban politics, social norms, culture, music, and everything else. Prior to this trip I had never visited any other country, much less what is considered in many ways a third-world country, so it was very eye-opening. In America we tend to think that our way of doing things is the best way, if not the only way. In Cuba, many think the same of their own country. Our tour guide, who admittedly presented everything in an extremely biased way, proudly told us about their system of universal health care, free education systems, and food rations. We also learned from some locals that things may not be as grand as they seem, and that many people are hungry. The actions of the United States in isolating Cuba have directly impacted its people.

  1.  What events, interactions, relationships, or activities during your STEP Signature Project led to the change/transformation that you discussed in #2, and how did those affect you?

On the trip we visited many gardens, fortresses, cathedrals, parks, restaurants, city plazas, and other historic buildings. We sketched them, and studied their successes and failures, and how these lessons could or couldn’t be applied when designing in the U.S. However, there were other more personal moments that I remember that have made possibly more of an impact on me.

A few times on the trip, we ventured out into the nightlife and went to bars or clubs. Every time we went out we met Cubans who were always incredibly friendly (some seemed to be hoping to get some of your tourist money, but others were more genuine). The music and dancing, both traditional and contemporary, is lovely in Cuba. I enjoyed their nightlife quite possibly more than ours! It also gave me a new appreciation for Latin dance music.

The language barrier was something completely alien to me, but it was a welcome challenge. I know essentially no Spanish and so had a difficult time communicating sometimes, but a lot of Cubans know basic English and it wasn’t usually a problem. There were a few moments that neither of us could understand the other, and we had to do our best to get by, which was frustrating but also rewarding.

We visited an elementary level art school and got to see some musical performances and art by talented young Cubans. Even at their young age, they’re art was already pretty top notch. As a musician and saxophone player, I was especially touched by an alto sax solo given by a young boy who looked to be about 13. It reminded me how powerful music is and how it can transcend language, culture, and experience.

Another notable event happened towards the end of the trip. We stopped in Matanzas, a city on the northern coast of the island, to have a quick look around at a few different buildings and a famous public square. While I was sitting in the square with a couple other students, and old man approached. He had pretty bad teeth and looked pretty rough. He asked where we were from, and when he told him America, he was a bit surprised and happy and interlocked his fingers, saying that America and Cuba need to be allies again. The man remembered being a child before the revolution, that life was better then, despite being under a dictator. He seemed like someone who probably supported the socialist revolution in the beginning, and later on saw its flaws. We saw a similar sentiment throughout the trip; to the young generation of Cubans, it is considered stylish and cool to wear clothing with American flags on them. They want to participate in the global capitalist economy and raise their country out of poverty. I wonder if their Caribbean socialist utopia could have been more successful had the United States supported revolutionary government, or if the revolutionary leaders didn’t turn out to be even more oppressive dictators than the regime they replaced.

  1. Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life?

The biggest takeaway for me from the trip was thinking about how Americans impact the world at large, both through government and tourism. For the last couple days of the trip we met up with a very intelligent Cuban architect and historian who had become friends with our professors previously. He talked about how, despite modernizing agricultural methods, their food shortage is becoming worse. This is due to the increase in tourism the country has seen. Pretty much every hotel we stayed at had lavish buffets for meals. Because tourists can pay much more than locals for meals, it is more profitable to sell to them. Likewise the Cubans working in tourism seemed to be much better off than many of the other Cubans we passed on the street. This problem is certainly true in many other tourism heavy countries throughout the Caribbean, but is becoming more of a problem in Cuba now that it has begun opening up and allowing more capitalist businesses to open. This realization got me thinking about whether or not tourism helps or hurts economies of other countries.

On the plane back, I decided it was definitely a valuable trip and I’m very glad I went. There is so many more experiences I didn’t write about here, but will be memories I have forever. I hope to find inspiration in my future professional landscape architecture work from the sketches and photographs I took on the trip. We got to see some of Cuba at its best, and also peel back the government propaganda of the tour guide to understand its worst. But it really is a beautiful country with lovely people, and I hope one day I’m able and allowed by our own lovely federal government to go back and see how it has changed.




Genocide and its Aftermath: Three weeks abroad in Rwanda

This study abroad trip to Rwanda explored the 1994 genocide and its aftermath through active learning experiences in the country. We studied the origins of the genocide with an emphasis on why it occurred and what causes genocide on a global level. The program then focused on the violence itself, including the forms of violence, who participated in the violence, and who was victimized.

I have always had a strong desire to travel the world and experience different cultures, languages, and traditions. I believe that my time spent in central Africa, studying the genocide and its aftermath in Rwanda, has provided me with a deeper understanding of human rights and their violations around the world and provided me with the insight and understanding of my personal responsibilities when witnessing suffering or violence even on a much smaller scale. By immersing myself into the Rwandan culture I feel as though my future career as a doctor will be greatly influenced by my time spent this summer in Rwanda. Although I may not know the exact direction or location my path in medicine will take me, I do know that this experience has helped me understand the complex social aspects of human beings and will help me to serve my patients on a much deeper level.

During the first week of this program, our focus was on how the history of the country led to the violent outbursts of genocide. The topics that were learned/experiences gained in this initial week included: colonialism and genocide, race, ethnicity, and class in Rwandan history, defining and understanding genocide, why genocide happens, exchange with local university students, visiting the Presidential Palace museum, visiting the Kigali Genocide Memorial,  and meeting with Rwandan political leaders.

During the second week of this program, our focus was on the actual genocide and its aftermath within the country. The topics that were learned/experiences gained in this week included: how genocide unfolds, perpetrators of mass violence, gender-based violence, media representations and atrocity, interventions in violence and global responses in Rwanda, a visit to the National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide, a visit to major genocide memorials and sites of massacres, attend a commemoration, and talk with local Rwandans about the violence.

During Week 3: Remaking Rwanda, this program’s focus was on how the country is rebuilding after the struggles with its past. The experiences gained during this week included: visits with the Rwandan Development Board, a visit with the Widows’ Association, a visit to the TIG (community service) camp, and a talk with judges from gacaca courts (courts implemented to rebuild the country’s strength and unity.)

After following a course schedule such as this, it’s hard to imagine not undergoing a spiritual and emotional transformation, such as the one explained previously. Although the course was personally challenging at times, in regards to immersing myself in a program emphasizing mentally and emotionally challenging topics for three weeks, I can say that it was an amazing experience that helped me when it comes to understanding my personal responsibilities when witnessing suffering or violence, even if on a much smaller scale.

Coming into this trip, I was expecting to immerse myself in a culture unlike my own as well as to study the country’s history, and in this instance, its past violence and genocide. While these expectations were met almost instantly, I was also able to take away so much more about humanity, forgiveness, and camaraderie. This trip has given me a whole new outlook on what it means to carry strength from within, to forgive even the worst of crimes, and to join your neighbors in rebuilding a country that was obliterated in a short span of 100 days. My experiences from my time abroad have also strengthened my desire to help individuals on local, national, and international levels, and to do so with hopefully even half the grace as those native to the country of Rwanda.

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Changed by the “pura vida” Mentality

Seeing the vastness of the world is essential to forming a mature perspective of the world.  My trip to Costa Rica was just nine days over spring break, yet I saw a different way of life that will change and improve the way I live here in the United States.

Our main activities included two days at E.A.R.T.H. University (la Escuela de Agricultura de la Región Tropical Húmeda) which is a hands-on agricultural university that prepares young people from Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia, to contribute to the sustainable development of their countries and construct a prosperous and fair society.  We toured the extensive 8,342-acre campus which includes compost and soil laboratories, various academic farms covering everything from livestock to cacao, a commercial banana plantation, and a forest reserve.  Practically, the EARTH University students taught us about the culture of sustainability, but they also showed us how to value what we have and share that freely with others.  We went further into the country and stayed with host families in the rural community of la Argentina to complete several service projects and experience home-life on a farm.  We visited a National Park and a volcano to sight-see and discover native animals like sloths, howler monkeys, lizards, and frogs.  The trip was the perfect balance of service, learning, and fun!


The biggest transformation I experienced was perspective, and I gained that the most at EARTH University and with my host family in the rural community of la Argentina.  My host family in la Argentina was an older couple who have transitioned their land and animals into a hobby farm to sustain their daily needs and provide for two of their four children who live next door. The owners of the farm, Don Alburo and Dona Adonay, taught us their perspective that it doesn’t matter how much you have as long as you work hard to maximize the gifts you are given. This mantra matches the type of farm they have because they produce a little bit of everything: a few banana trees, one coffee plant, mandarin trees, cas trees, guanabana trees, a few tilapia ponds, chickens, roosters, ducks, wild turkeys, and probably more that I missed. So, although they consider their farm to be small and unimpressive in comparison to some of the other farms in the area, they are still generous with all of the travelers they welcome into their home.

A second important perspective I gained during the homestay: Costa Rica’s culture of rest. It’s pretty obvious that Americans have forgotten how to rest. It’s not bad that we value work ethic and productivity, but our society moves so fast that we miss out on the goodness of just living life. At the homestay, we were given lots of time to rest, to take in the beautiful nature around us, to practice our Spanish and honor our hosts by communicating with them in their language, and simply witness the everyday life of a Tico in the country. We were able to play soccer with their grandson one night before dinner and then sit down to a meal all together and talk about the news of the day just like a regular family would. They lived the Costa Rican way of “pura vida” (pure life)- which means choosing to see the good in life, even amidst the struggles. “Pura vida” says don’t take life too seriously, and that even when there is suffering, there can also still be joy. In preparation for this trip, I was expecting to leave exhausted and come back exhausted, but I actually got a lot of much needed rest thanks to the “pura vida” culture of Costa Rica.

The third perspective I gained was on service during one of the service projects we completed in the community.  We installed a biodigester in an older couple’s home, which is essentially a mechanical stomach where bacteria decompose organic material to produce methane that can be used for cooking.  We cut PBC pipe to make a release valve for the gas, laid out the plastic biodigester bag, and leveled the ground to make sure the water level would be even.  However, it wasn’t the service itself that impacted me, it was the mentality of sustainability that I’m not used to seeing in the US.  From the outside looking in, most Americans would see a biodigester built with old plastic buckets, bicycle tire rubber, old sacks, and PBC pipe and think the family was too poor to buy the necessary new supplies. However, that’s not it at all. They chose to reuse those items on purpose because they were readily available, they would work just as well, and would contribute to their culture of sustainability. The man who was instructing us kept reminding us of this perspective throughout the project, explaining why each material was appropriate for the intended use, because he could see the slight judgement in our eyes.  The biggest realization most students make, as I did, when they do service- not just abroad, but anywhere- is that the project changes and helps you more than you help the people you’re “serving.” I am now more aware of reusing items that I would have typically just thrown away.

Overall, new personal perspective always translates to transformation.  This trip transformed my definition of sustainability- what that means to us in the states versus what it means to the Ticos in Costa Rica. Agricultural trades are crucial in the lives of the EARTH University students and rural Costa Ricans. Many of them have the power to improve their quality of life if they attend school and learn their trade well, so it is vital that the learning be hands on and interactive.  Their education system is much more focused around teaching practical skills that will sustain their home life and improve the communities around them, whereas universities in the United States tend to focus on more knowledge-based professions.  The socioeconomic status of Costa Rica is interesting because their abundance of natural resources keep them the richest of the countries in Central America, but rich there is nothing like rich here in America.  We experienced the barriers that the locals face every day while staying with our host families in the rural community, and why sustainability is so crucial.  New perspectives abroad translate into vital global perspectives that will carry over into my future career.

I am so grateful for my experiences in Costa Rica that opened my eyes to a whole new world of sustainability and will be forever changed by the “pura vida” mentality.

Un més en Barcelona, España

For my STEP Signature Project, I traveled to Barcelona, Spain to study Spanish for one month. During my time abroad I took two Spanish classes: Spanish Art and Architecture and Spanish History. The city of Barcelona (and Spain in general) is overflowing with rich culture and history, which can be seen through buildings on the street, traditions of the country, art, and so much more. Throughout my time in Barcelona, I enjoyed taking the two classes mentioned above because they greatly expanded my knowledge of the Spanish history and culture. However, it was great to be able to learn on my own too, and to step outside into the city and see for myself what we were talking about in class. This trip was truly the experience of a lifetime, and I will never forget all the people I met, things I saw, and information I learned over the course of this month.

My trip to Barcelona was my first time to Europe, and just my second time out of the United States. That being said, in the weeks leading up to my departure for Spain, I was very nervous and anxious, but also incredibly excited. I had no idea what to expect; how the people would be, what the city would look like, if I would experience culture shock, if I would be able to communicate, etc. However, apart from these worries, I was so excited to experience a different part of the world with a new culture, and to practice a language that I have come to love over the years. I have been taking Spanish classes since grade school, and more recently with the Spanish classes I have taken at Ohio State, my love for the language has grown. I hope to one day be able to incorporate my Spanish speaking abilities into my chosen profession, speech-language pathology, and to become a speech therapist that will be able to work with both English and Spanish speaking patients. One of my main goals for this trip was to practice my Spanish as much as possible to better my speaking skills. I was not sure how much I would actually be able to speak when I arrived, as I have never been immersed into a Spanish speaking country before. Although I was nervous, I feel as if I really challenged myself in practicing the Spanish language with those around me and increased my confidence in my ability to speak the language.

During my time in Barcelona I stayed with a host family. The family consisted of a woman named Pepa and her two grandsons, Jon and Pau, who lived in an apartment across the street. Another host student from China, Alicia, also lived with Pepa, and two OSU students, Jeremy and Bennet, lived with Jon and Pau for the month. Pepa cooked meals for all of us, and at dinnertime (which was normally around 9:30 or 10 PM!), everyone came over to Pepa’s apartment to eat. There were easily seven people at dinner each night, which showed how important family and spending time together eating dinner altogether is so important to many people in the Spanish culture. At dinner, we would often practice Spanish by having conversations or commenting on the food in the language. Pepa didn’t speak any English, but Jon and Pau did. I was surprised at how encouraging and open they were to us Americans trying to practice our Spanish, which at times went horribly wrong. Pepa never treated me differently when I attempted speaking to her in Spanish, and she acted like I was just another one of her Spanish friends. I know that not everything I said to her was grammatically correct, or that I had the best accent when speaking, but she was always so encouraging of me speaking Spanish and corrected me when I said something wrong. I really appreciated this, as it made me more confident in being able to speak with someone in Spanish. Jon and Pau also helped us a lot, as we would ask them questions about Spanish, and in return they would ask us questions about English. Along with my host family, a lot of people I encountered in Spain, such as my teachers, the ISA staff, and restaurant or shop workers were very open to me starting up a conversation in Spanish, even though I obviously wasn’t a local. This was surprising to me, however it showed me how open the Spanish culture is and really how friendly they can be.

While I was busy practicing Spanish, it was surprising to find that a lot of people in Barcelona spoke both Spanish and English. Maybe it was because Barcelona is a very tourist-y city, but a good percentage of the people we encountered could answer our questions in both Spanish and English. This was very eye-opening, seeing how many people in Spain could speak English almost perfectly, while at times I struggled to say something simple in Spanish. It made me realize how many people in the United States know only English, but how many people in Europe know at least two languages, and sometimes even more. This discovery really re-affirmed my desire to continue studying a second language, and how learning a second language should really be incorporated into more schools and curriculums in the United States. Learning a second language can connect us to a different set of people across the world, as well as open the doors to a whole new culture and way of life. 

Pepa’s apartment was in the gothic neighborhood of Barcelona, which is the oldest part of the city. I could easily step outside of the apartment, walk a few minutes, and suddenly I would be standing in front of a massive gothic cathedral, old roman walls, or the ancient roman palace. My time in Barcelona really opened my eyes to the incredible history of Spain and Europe, which is a type of history that you just can’t find in the United States.  It was amazing to see the structures that the romans built thousands of years ago, and that they were so close to where a lot of people live in the city. While we learned all about the history of Spain in my Spanish history class, we also took a few class days to walk around the city and see parts of history for ourselves. We saw the old roman walls and aqueducts, palaces, churches, and refugees where Spaniards would stay during the bombings of the Spanish Civil War. I loved learning about the history of Spain, and I also learned how proud the Spaniards are of their history, and how much they know about it. Personally, I could not recite anything besides the basic facts about the early years of America. However, it was obvious that the people of Barcelona were very proud of their history and were willing to talk about it with anyone. One night we were studying for our Spanish history exam the next day and asked Jon, Pepa’s grandson, if he knew the answer to a certain question. He immediately answered the question and even elaborated further on many of the kings of Spain and wars that were were studying. It was surprising to me how much he knew, and it was very cool to experience the rich and proud history of the people of Spain. I will miss walking past the architecture and buildings of the gothic quarter everyday; they were not only beautiful, but also a great example of how far the city has come and how it came to be.

The Barcelona Gothic Cathedral that I would often walk by

Ultimately, my time in Barcelona was truly a transformational and unforgettable experience. I feel as if my understanding of myself transformed and I gained confidence in myself as I traveled to and lived in a foreign country by myself for a month. My confidence in my Spanish speaking abilities also increased, and now more than ever I feel determined to continue speaking the language and hopefully reach the point of fluency in the future. Along with transforming personally, my views of the world also changed as I experienced a new culture. It was fascinating to learn about the Spanish culture and discover how open the Spaniards are, how family is very special to them, and how daily life in Barcelona is. I also really enjoyed learning about Spanish art and architecture and Spanish history, as these classes opened my eyes to a whole new world of history and art in Europe that I was not aware of. It’s evident that Spain is full of amazing history, and I hope to return at some point in the future to discover other amazing history and art the country has to offer.

All of these new things I experienced and learned will greatly benefit me in the future. As I hope to incorporate the Spanish language in my profession of speech and language pathology, I feel that my time abroad gave me a lot of practice with the language and gave me the confidence I needed to continue to reach for the goal of becoming a bilingual speech-language pathologist. All of the Spanish culture I also experienced will also benefit me as I begin to work with Spanish speaking patients, as I can hopefully relate my experience abroad to their culture or lifestyles. Furthermore, this trip showed me how important and valuable it is to travel when you get the chance to and to take the time to learn about the history of other culture’s. After experiencing all I did in Barcelona, I have decided that I would like to travel more in the future and to learn all I can about other cultures outside of the United States.

Living abroad for a month was one of the best experiences I could have asked for, and I will never forget all of the friends I made, people I met, places I saw, and things that I learned. I feel as if a small part of me will always be in Spain, which just gives me more of a reason to go back one day. I am so thankful that Ohio State STEP helped in my completion of this Signature Project, and I will forever be grateful for this amazing opportunity!

– – Claire Schuster

Sporting Ohio State gear on top of Montserrat Mountain, Spain

O-H-I-O on top of Montserrat Mountain, Spain

Costa Rica-Nine Days to Forever Remember

When given the opportunity to choose a project that would lead to a life changing experience, I knew I wanted to study abroad. Having never travelled outside of the country, this was the perfect opportunity to take my first steps outside of the United States of America. I chose to study abroad in Costa Rica with the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences. On this service learning trip, we first toured EARTH University, an agricultural university in Costa Rica educating students from countries all over Latin America and some in Africa. The second part of our nine-day trip was spent with local Costa Rican families learning about their culture, spending time with them, and doing community service projects. The rest of our trip was spent travelling the country and seeing the different landscapes in Costa Rica.

I knew that travelling outside of the United States, particularly to a developing country would be a transformative experience, but it was transformative in a way I was not exactly expecting. Transformation does not come without challenge. One of the ways I was expecting to be challenged and thus ultimately changed, was through the language barrier of Costa Rica being a Spanish speaking country.  I took four years of high school Spanish so I would say I have an elementary skill level of Spanish. Knowing Spanish was not a requirement to go on this trip so I knew I would not be completely incapable of enjoying this trip and communicating with others with my low level of Spanish. I was excited to see how well my Spanish would hold up. Through the trip some of my strengths were reinforced while my pride was also revealed in a way I never knew.

At EARTH University, the students we interacted with were often not native Spanish speakers, many of them being from African countries did not know Spanish before coming to EARTH. However, they each learned Spanish and were also fluent in English, making all of them essentially trilingual. Interacting with these students showed how crucial language truly is. It can be easy to be in the United States and think down upon those in developing countries that they do not have the same intellect but these students shattered those molds. They spoke multiple languages and were becoming experiments in specialized agricultural fields. Pride in our country is inherently a good thing, but it is also important to recognize the brilliant young minds of those in these developing countries. I, for one, do not speak more than one language and am not as knowledgeable as these men and women were about their fields. They were doing some incredible work at EARTH which mostly opened up my mind to the genius ideas and practices happening around the world that could be learned from here in the United States, particularly in utilizing nature’s natural advantages.

Touring the variety of farms on EARTH’s campus showcased the work the students were doing which complimented their education. They learned in the classroom but also with their hands on the farms. They were learning how to utilize the beauty of creation to their advantage in their agriculture. There are too many examples to recount them all but one in particular was the way they utilized the natural fragrance of the plants which essential oils are extracted from to keep away insects from their crops. They would strategically plant these essential oil plants, like lavender and mint, at the ends of their open-air greenhouses so that when the wind would blow it would carry the scent of the plant across the crops, deterring insects. The resourcefulness of the students was incredible to see in action. It inspires me to learn how to implement these practices in my own life now and in the future. To become aware of how creation is designed to work together and be used to enhance how we live and work.

{This picture is the open-air greenhouse with the essential oil plants in front. There are many other really incredible features of nature being utilized in this picture}

The home stays with local Costa Rican families and community service projects were what led to my challenging yet transformative experience with language. One of the community service projects we aided in was the installation of a biodigestor at a local farm. We helped serve as the hands to help this project move forward. A professor at EARTH came to lead us in the installation. He did not speak English so our guide Stephanie translated. At the beginning of the project, she translated every sentence. However, as we progressed in the work, Stephanie translated less. Despite her not translating as much, I was able to understand him, which was a cool experience. I had never directly worked in a language barrier situation such as this before. Our group spilt to stay with several families for the home stay. Myself, two other students, and one of the OSU faculty stayed together with grandparents who ran a bed and breakfast. We primarily interacted with the grandma and her daughter and grandson who lived next door. The grandmother did not speak any English but her daughter and grandson spoke some English. This was a real test of my Spanish, luckily two of the others staying with me were much more proficient in Spanish.

One evening we talked with our sweet host as we washed dishes in her kitchen. We were in her home and due to her only speaking Spanish, the conversation was in Spanish. I could understand most everything she said as she spoke. I have been told before that I am a good listener and I have recognized that as one of my strengths over the years. These situations of listening well and understanding as conversation was held in her kitchen and in the installation of the biodigestor further affirmed my strength of listening. However, this simple no pressure conversation in the kitchen also revealed my own pride that I have come to realize often keeps me from speaking and acting. As mentioned, I could understand the conversation but my contribution to the conversation was slim. Not because I didn’t know any Spanish but because fear of embarrassment kept my mouth from speaking the words I knew were not going to come out as fluent Spanish but at the very least as understandable Spanish. Over this trip, I came to recognize how this fear of embarrassment often stopping me from being heard and doing not just in Costa Rica but in my everyday life. How I actually miss out on certain things because of this fear. Now being aware of this, I have been working to overcome this pride and instead put on humility. It’s not easy, but it is something that is worth it, because those around me deserve my vulnerability, because that is how authenticity manifest itself. I wish I could go back and just speak to her in my broken Spanish, but it is too late for that now, but I hope that I get the opportunity to speak and act in other situations in the future because of this encounter.

A reflection of this trip would not be complete without mentioning two Costa Ricans who played a critical role in making this trip as fantastic as it was. Stephanie our guide and Carlos our bus driver spent the entire nine days with us. They travelled, ate, talked, and laughed with us. Stephanie was a twenty-one-year-old incredible woman who lead us and kept us on schedule. She was bilingual and such a sweet and caring guide. She made sure we were on time to everything, translated for us when needed, and shared about her dream of working with an international company. She also talked some about her husband and just showed a love and loyalty to him that was inspiring. Carlos was an older gentleman who was not our original bus driver. Our original driver ended up not having the right certifications to drive on EARTH’s campus so Carlos became our driver and it was meant to be. Carlos spoke very little English but the man loved as so well. Through the week, we learned that he has been divorced for twenty years and his kids and grandkids live farther away. He typically drives bus in San Jose and we were the first group he has ever spent an extended time with. He loved us as his own children, always trying to make sure we were having a good time and smiling. He loved to make us laugh and by the end of the week we all had nicknames from Carlos. Leaving them on that early Sunday morning was not without tears from all. Stephanie and Carlos loved us well in the short time they got to know us. You cannot really ask for more than someone who chooses to love and share joy with you.

These words can only attempt to describe this nine-day adventure to Costa Rica. The people, the experiences, the lessons shared in this trip cannot fully be expressed in words, it was a trip that will forever hold a special place in my heart.  

{The group from OSU that went to Costa Rica with two of the EARTH students. We saw a sloth on our drive back from a tour so we had to stop and take a picture.}

 -Joelle Hemmelgarn

STEP Reflection – My Month in Trondheim, Norway

For my education abroad program, I traveled to Trondheim, Norway with 9 other students from Ohio State. I took a class on clinical medical genetics and spent most of the time at the local hospital and in the lab. I was able to stay with a host family consisting of my host dad, Dan, my host mom, Maria, and my host brother and sister, Mikkel and Ronja.

These four weeks in Trondheim changed a lot about how I learned to perceive my surroundings. More than anything, all my experiences have transformed my perception of myself as a part of society. Whether that be through becoming more attentive or more self-assured, I’ve found different experiences impacting my own perception differently. Having lived in Columbus almost my entire life, I never took extra time to explore the city or pick up on the little details. I would say it’s boring here and never take a second look. Even in my own life I wouldn’t slow down and observe the people and things around me. Staying with a host family and immersing myself in another country and culture, I made extra efforts to observe their lifestyle, look for differences, and simply be more aware of my environment. Additionally, it was so eye opening to be in a society where their history dated back a thousand years and put into perspective how young America truly is. It was interesting to learn about the evolution of Norwegian society into what it is today and how that compared to American history. It was also transformative because I was completely shocked to see just how knowledgeable locals were about American politics. I didn’t know anything but what the quick Google search had taught me in fifteen minutes but everyone I met knew more than some Americans I’d discussed politics with.

Norway is also an extremely environmentally conscious country and I was so inspired when realizing how easy it was to make simple day-to-day changes to be more earth friendly. It was also a slightly shameful experience to realize how little I had been doing, even when I had thought otherwise. The people there were also surprisingly fluent in English, especially considering how little tourism and foreigners they get. Finally, the other biggest part of my transformative experience was my assurance in pursuing teaching as a career. While dropping my pre-medicine track and choosing to go into teaching was a relatively new change, the people I met in Trondheim really made me feel confident in my choice to do this.

At first, it was hard to find specific events that led to my transformation and realizations that I had during my stay in Trondheim. My time there felt quite comparable to my time at home: I would wake up, go to school, do homework, eat dinner with my host family, and repeat it all. Because there wasn’t a huge culture shock and they lifestyle seemed quite comparable, I didn’t come to appreciate the differences for some time. I couldn’t just take a quick glance. Oddly enough, the first thing that made me take a closer took was when I was eating dinner with my host family. They had made burgers for dinner and as we American do, I started piling everything between the buns and went to take a massive bite, only to look up and realize the whole family was staring at me. After taking a second look, I found that they (including 6 year old Ronja and 4 year old Mikkel) were neatly eating the burger with their forks and knives. This awkward and slightly humorous moment I what really made me reevaluate my first impression of Norway and Trondheim. From that point, I started picking up on more details. For example, I was struck with how family-oriented the culture is. At first I thought maybe it was just my family but asking the other students in my program about their host families, I found the same thing. Even after people had moved out of their parents’ houses and had their own children, there would be weekly dinners with the whole family and people would drop everything just to help family. The kids were as close to their aunts and uncles as they were to their parents, and not just in a “cool aunt/uncle” way, but they would actually listen to and respect them as if they were more parental figures. It was a stark contrast to what I’ve experienced in the U.S. and was more closely aligned with practices in the Eastern world.

The history and politics of Norway went hand-in-hand and gave me a glimpse into why this country became what it is today. The thousands of years of history and war resulted in a highly liberal, almost socialist society that I got to experience. It was incredible because of all the problems I have with American politics and of all the changes I would like to see, I found so many of those already a reality in Norway. As someone who very strongly believes in liberal ideologies, living in Ohio, and being raised in a predominantly conservative society made me feel as though I wasn’t at liberty to express my beliefs. I felt like I was constantly challenged and judged for my convictions. Staying in Norway, where my ideologies align so closely with theirs, I felt like I could grow in them and learn how their society works, implementing these policies that promote the liberal agenda. It was a learning experience and one that I felt encouraged partaking in. That being said, I did also come to understand that not everything I want is necessarily practical for a country the size of America. Countries like Norway could do it because of the smaller populations and the more concentrated population but in America, we would have to find new solutions to achieve similar results. And, I also realized that the people here were so aware of the rest of the world. Many Americans, but definitely not all, are so often concerned with what’s going on with America that we tend to ignore the rest of the world, maybe not intentionally but in my experience, we don’t go out of our way to make the extra effort either. I found that to contrast so heavily with the Norwegians I met, as well as people from all the other countries I traveled to after my month in Trondheim. Coming home has made me realize that I need to do a lot more to become a global citizen. Also, living with host mother, who is a teacher, and meeting my host grandmother, who is also a teacher, I felt more reassured in my career choice of becoming one. I was able to learn a little bit about the Norwegian education system and it made me think about what I had learned about schooling in Norway that I could implement in my own future classroom. My host grandmother is a biology teacher as well, which is what I want to teach, so asking her tips on how to keep students engaged and interested was a wonderful opportunity. The more I talked to both of them about their experiences, the more I felt confident in wanting to pursue the same field.

Environmentally, I was so surprised to see how aware people were. Very little was actually thrown away. There was a compost in my host family’s backyard, different recycling for different materials, and everything was used to it’s absolute max, whether that meant reusing containers until it was completely unusable or using every part of a vegetable. They wouldn’t heat their house unless it was absolutely unbearable. Clothes were always hang dried instead of using the dryer (which they did have) and they would always remind each other to be cautious of how much water they used for everything from showering time to leaving a facet running. Everything was a simple change and something that wasn’t a new concept, but I realized that I would so often take the easy way out, even when I knew it wasn’t the most earth friendly. It made me rethink my lifestyle at home, especially after seeing that it wasn’t very difficult to make these small changes in my everyday lifestyle.

This transformation of being more aware of my place and my actions within society and our world is valuable for many reasons. As a future teacher, I’ve absorbed a lot from my host mom and grandmother. They’ve shared their experiences, telling me that it’s often times an unappreciated job, one that can be thankless but also very fulfilling. They’ve taught me that as long as I can impact someone’s life positively, I should be proud. My medical genetics course also talked extensively about bioethics and it’s a topic that I feel very strongly I should incorporate into my future teachings. It’s a topic I had never learned about until this May semester class and I really wish that I could have because of all the implications into so many parts of our lives. As someone striving to be environmentally conscious, this has been a wakeup call for how much more I can actually be doing.

What I found to be the most significant part in this transformation truly is my increased awareness of the world around me. Yes, I am an American citizen but I should strive to be so much more than that. I want to be a global citizen, one who tries to understand people from all over the world: their cultures, their politics, their histories, and everything that I can. It’s a huge undertaking, and one that’s never-ending but as someone who also loves to travel (and I experienced this often during my 4 weeks of traveling after this program), I currently know shamefully little about the rest of the world. This trip made me aware of this particular shortcoming and now that I’m home, I know it’s something I need to work to improve. Whether I was in Norway during May, or in Spain or Switzerland, people of all ages would talk to me about American politics because they could. I want to do the same for them.

Everyone in my program during our first week when we took a tour of Trondheim! This is in front of the oldest and biggest cathedral in Trondheim

Classic O-H-I-O on our very last day in the lab!

My host family and I sitting in their newly finished stairs when they threw a “stair party” to celebrate

Cuba: Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Urbanism

Ryan Pickerill

Education Abroad

My STEP Signature Project was an education abroad trip to study the architecture, landscape architecture, urbanism, and culture of Cuba. The 10 day trip began in Havana and continued through Vinales, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Varadero, Matanzas, ending back in Havana.

Cuba is one of those places that most people have a strong opinion about, but few are particularly informed about. So I’d heard from people who told me about a hellish country where all the citizens are miserable and government agents follow Americans, looking for an excuse to throw them in jail. I’d also heard from a family friend who thought of Cuba as a nice, big Caribbean beach resort. I personally thought that Cuba was some sort of time capsule, and that I should go see it before it changes. Having actually been to the country now, I understand it much better. The truth is, Cuba is a complicated country with a unique history that defies any simple classification.

As a landscape architecture student, I was surprised by the highly social culture and the quality public space. Cubans love to be outside and they love to meet people and socialize. As a result, their cities are built around public squares, Oceanside promenades, and streets that prioritize pedestrians, not cars. Even in a city like Havana, there is a sense that many know each other to some extent. The focus on outdoor space and social interaction was clear in the architecture as well. Most of Cuba is a mixture of Spanish Colonial and Soviet-inspired brutalist architecture, but it is all adapted to be more open to the air and social interaction. Cubans themselves are friendly, smart, and politically informed with varying opinions about their own government. Everywhere we went, they were enthusiastic to talk to us, show us things, and share their opinions with us. Overall this trip shattered my preconceptions of Cuba as well as all of the opinions I’d heard from others before visiting. As one of the most unique places I’ve ever been, it expanded my world view as well.

One of the experiences that revealed something surprising about Cuba was a day trip to the Vinales Valley, an agricultural area. It turns out that a lack of resources due to embargoes forced Cuba to develop some of the most sustainable agricultural practices in the world, such as the use of marigolds instead of pesticides. There is this tendency in the United States to think of places like Cuba as somehow behind, in need of “modernization.” It turns out that in some ways, such as agriculture or, as we learned from our guide, conservation (Cuba has some of the world’s healthiest coral reefs,) the United States may have something to learn from Cuba. As a landscape architecture student, this was a particularly important thing to see as sustainability, the environment, and food production become increasingly important.

Probably the biggest factor in changing my preconceptions of Cuba was meeting people. Sarah Daisy, our guide and a former teacher, gave us all of the talking points in each city we visited, clearly focusing on things that the Cuban government wanted us to hear. However, she always encouraged questions from our group on the tour bus. These question and answer sessions ended up covering everything from the environment, to the healthcare system, to what every day Cubans think of President Trump. Given her pro-government lean she was surprisingly candid, giving us interesting yet little-known information about what works in Cuba and what doesn’t. On our last night in Cuba, I had dinner with our bus driver. He spoke very little English and I, unfortunately, do not speak Spanish, but we found a way to get our ideas across to each other. He actually drove President Obama’s car during the Obama family’s official visit, a fact that he was very proud of. As a child he attended art school for percussion and is a talented drummer. We exchanged family photos, and then we played Six Degrees of Fidel Castro, in which I found out that his wife’s father was Fidel’s wife’s cousin (a relation that, he told me, did not afford him any special treatment.) Both Sarah Daisy and our bus driver were primarily positive when talking about Cuba and its situation, just like the taxi drivers, “Air BnB” owners, hotel operators, and tourism-related workers we talked to.

Another one of our trips was to an art school in Cienfuegos. The kids and teachers that we met at this school were, for the most part, enthusiastic to show off to us. We listened to solos and duets by music students, sat in on a dance rehearsal, and looked at artwork created by both students and teachers. This was a great way to learn about Cuba’s unique school system, with schools that specialize in the talents and interests of their students (art schools, math schools, science schools, sports schools, etc.) It was also inspiring to meet Cuban kids who were excelling in the things that made them passionate. We had a similar experience meeting art university students in Havana.

Of course, I’m presenting Cuba in an entirely positive light. It’s naïve to think of the country that way. Some of the interactions and experiences I had with anti-government Cubans were just as influential in my experience. We visited an art museum in Havana that featured anti-government artwork from various decades. Throughout every part of Cuba it was noticeable how much reverence the people had for Che Guevara, Abraham Lincoln and Jose Marti, and how little they had for Fidel Castro. Apart from in very touristy souvenir shops and on the occasional government propaganda billboard, Fidel’s image appeared nowhere-Che was painted on walls on every street, statues of Jose stood in every central square, and framed pictures of Lincoln hung in many Cuban houses. But my most important experience happened in Matanzas. I was sitting on a bench in the central square when an old man sat next to me, asked me if I spoke English, and then asked me if I was an American.

“I have to tell you. I am old enough to remember Cuba before Castro, and I am a history teacher. Cubans are not happy, they are starving. Even Batista was better than Castro.” This was a good reality check to bring me out of the positive haze the rest of the trip had put me in. It’s easy, especially because the Cuban government is invested in giving American tourists a good impression, to come away from Cuba thinking that everything is great. But it’s equally easy to walk away with some sense of superiority and pity for an oppressed nation. The reality is much more complicated and continues to become more complicated as the increase of tourism makes it clearer that Cubans are not all equal in a society that claims to be built on social and economic equality.

As I mentioned before, the public space and social culture in Cuba are excellent, and were important to these experiences I had. With so much pedestrian access to their city and each other, Cubans can encounter the ideas of others and share their own. This likely played some part in the Cuban Revolution and will likely play a significant part if there is another revolution in the future. Students studying design-related majors are encouraged to travel, because the more design you see, the better designer you are. This seems especially true for a landscape architecture student visiting such a public space-oriented country. This trip will have a lasting impact on how I design for the remainder of my time at OSU and into my career afterwards. From a personal standpoint, it was also very important to have my preconceptions of Cuba challenged once I got to the country, and challenged again once I’d formed a new opinion. In the future I will be less judgmental and more objective.

Europe 2017

From January to June 2017, I was an exchange student at Universiteit Leiden—the oldest university in the Netherlands—taking courses in Dutch history and culture, European politics, and Southeast Asian studies, all fields less easy for me to explore at Ohio State. I was additionally able to visit nine other European nations, from Portugal to Bosnia & Herzegovina, during my time abroad and make friends from many more countries and continents besides.

Thinking about how I might have changed—or transformed—over the six month period of my time in Europe is a bit difficult. After all, I was just living my life, with normal ups-and-downs inspired by weather, news, homework, weekend plans. But, these six months weren’t normal; this wasn’t quite my normal life. The concrete city streets of Columbus were replaced by brick paths alongside centuries-old canals in the small town of Leiden; fries with ketchup replaced by frites with mayonnaise; English by Dutch (Nederlands). More importantly, my entire network of family and friends was suddenly an ocean away, a divide even advanced telecommunication technologies do not fully diminish. I was alone. And more than a little morose for other reasons—not least, I arrived to my new country on January 20th, just as my old country was experiencing its own decisive shift, the institution of a grim vision of the present and a grimmer vision for the future. (The friends I quickly made as school began unsurprisingly had many questions about Trump, and from January to June, I never stopped having to [attempt to] explain.) I left the U.S. in something of a funk but have now returned a more able, balanced, confident, and, I hope, worldly person.

One of my favorite novels, E.M. Forster’s masterpiece Howards End (1910), begins with a powerful epigraph: “Only connect.” Good advice, I’d say, and study abroad offers endless opportunities for connecting. New people, new places, new languages and customs, new creatures (e.g., I had to learn to get along well with the crowds of pigeons and seagulls who practically ruled over my near-coastal town), new experiences, etc. But only connecting only gets you so far; there is value, too, in being able to disconnect, to ‘process’, to reflect. Even though I could hardly walk across town without running into a friend or acquaintance from school—not dissimilar to the OSU experience—my time in Leiden was a lot more solitary than I have been accustomed in Columbus. (After I could not land a spot in a dorm, I ended up renting a small, slightly dingy studio apartment, fulfilling any fantasy I might ever have had of being bohemian.) My life was quasi-monastic, coming to resemble—with many large exceptions—those of the friars I envisioned each time I visited some medieval religious site or opened up Umberto Eco’s monastery-murder-mystery The Name of the Rose (1980), which I finally had time to finish this spring. Okay, just the extensive time for meditating and reading and contemplating the mysteries of existence were similar. But nearly as much as all the stereotypical study abroad adventures I was so fortunate to have (Eiffel Tower selfie—check), I was excited to have this chance to step away from the pandemonium that is my average semester at OSU: 18 or 19 credit hours, extracurricular meetings 6 days a week, parties and friends nonstop, never enough sleep. Three years through college, with doctoral ambitions one day, I needed this kind of break from routine, time to rediscover and reignite my passions.

Chief among these passions is and has long been movies. I had the great good fortune in Leiden that my apartment was centrally located within easy walking (or, in the Dutch way, biking!) distance to not one but three theatres—a close enough approximation of the Gateway/Wexner combo that I have taken definite advantage of during my time in Columbus. From American awards-season movies I missed to fantastically unique independent films from around the globe (Italy, South Korea, New Zealand, Finland) to blisteringly hot new releases, I loved finding the time to sink low into the darkness and be enchanted by the flickering lights in front of me. My cinephilia began in high school, something of an escape from the bleak sameness of suburban Missouri, but it was quite different in the Netherlands—there was nothing I wanted to escape from! I would leave the theatre and walk out to perfectly cobbled streets and bricked buildings straight out of a Rembrandt painting; he was born and raised in Leiden after all. But the best moments were when I made the 45-minute train ride to Amsterdam’s Centraal station, took a short ferry across the harbour, and entered the magical EYE Filmmuseum. Here was practically everything movie-related I could hope to experience: showings of classic films, like a restored version of the post-WWII romance I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), one of my all-time favorites; extensive one-of-a-kind exhibitions dedicated to cinema masters, including Scorsese and the Hungarian genius Béla Tarr; and special events, such as a public conversation between Tarr and Jacques Rancière, for decades one of the most influential philosophers in France and beyond. Unbelievable; incredible. I began college majoring in film studies but became disillusioned with my courses at the same time as I was becoming enamored with the breadth and depth of studying history and geography, basically anything across time and space. A few years of searching and cinema again seems to be one of the things that most makes the world—of today and days long past—understandable, interesting, and wonder-full to me.

But what a world we live in. Except for during the first few months of the Trump administration, when I longed to be back in the U.S. participating in protests against banning Muslim refugees/ignoring consensus climate science/stripping healthcare from millions/etc., Europe was a perfect viewpoint to understand the world as it is, learn how it has been, and imagine how it might be. In 1940, months before committing suicide to avoid Gestapo capture, the great German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin approached the fundamental duality of history in suggesting “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism”; both were still on display in Europe in 2017. In the Netherlands and in France, when not being dazzled by incomparable artistic treasures (often financed or plundered through centuries of intercontinental imperial exploitation), I anxiously watched the rise and eventual electoral underperformance of major ethno-nationalist political parties, Geert Wilders’ VVD and Marine Le Pen’s Front National, though this tide of what many scholars have identified as “neo-fascism” thankfully seems to have run out of steam. In Greece and Germany and other countries besides, I saw the very human faces of Europe’s much-discussed and much-vilified refugees from Africa or the Middle East, begging for charity and mercy beneath the grandest of architectural masterworks, whether the ancient Acropolis in balmy Athens or the gothic cathedral of chilly Köln. In Amsterdam and the nearby town of Haarlem I walked through the hiding places of Jewish refugees and ‘native’ Dutch-Jewish citizens (including the home of the Frank family) who tried and all-too-often failed to avoid the horrific treatment wrought by Europe’s most successful fascist movement merely 70-something years ago, never forgetting that, with two Jewish grandparents, I too would have met the Nazi threshold for persecution and extermination. Still, for all the grisly aspects of Europe past and present—America too, for that matter—I cannot shake the hope that both really can be a good enough refuge for people of all kinds, and soon.

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity,” wrote Irish bard W.B. Yeats in his “The Second Coming” (1919), a poem continuously influential since its publication as much of the world lay ravaged by war, things having fallen apart. I arrived to Europe in 2017 somehow, for better and worse, both passionately intense and near-convictionless about our planetary situation of famine, poverty, and violence, ecological collapse and myriad other injustices—and, more distressingly, our seemingly bleaker future. I left Europe six months later with, I believe, clearer eyes, wider ears, a freer mind, a fiercer heart. More than ever I am certain I want to become an anthropologist, a lifelong student of social and cultural phenomena, and, as I once wished, a filmmaker. But in whatever I am able to accomplish, I want to make sure to play my part in the global collective effort to address the many challenges new and old of the human condition. My basic convictions—of what is significant, sacred, to me—have been rebuilt and restored. Spending half a year in Europe provided the perfect time and place for connection and disconnection, for immersion and reflection. I am so grateful for the opportunity.

Windmill and canal (really more of a moat) on the northern rim of Leiden’s old town center

At the ruins of Delphi, an ancient Greek site famous for its oracle, with my friend Meera on a windy day

Krka National Park in Croatia

Bell tower in Bruges, Belgium