Post Project Reflection

This past summer, I participated in the Intensive Chinese Language Learning program in Suzhou, China for two months. I was in class for about 4 hours a day in the mornings and then was able to explore the city of Suzhou in the afternoons with my classmates and language partners. On the weekends, we were able to take day trips to various cities in order to get a wider view of China and Chinese culture.

Going into the program, I was nothing but excited for the trip due to the fact that I had been studying Chinese since my freshman year of high school and hadn’t ever been. The biggest change that I saw in myself after this program ended was a newfound ability to adapt to new situations and be self-reliant. Beforehand, I had always seen myself as a pretty independent person but, while in China, I realized that there are definitely degrees of self-reliance. Though I had language partners to practice my Chinese with and help me navigate around the streets, I ultimately had to rely on myself to make sure that I could be understood and make sure that my needs were met. Unlike learning Chinese in a classroom setting, I was forced to adapt and learn as I went, which I really enjoyed; compared to just memorizing vocab and writing papers, we were able to take what we had learned and apply it to real life, within real interactions. What I took to be a high degree of self-reliance before is nothing compared to what I think I have now. 

Not only did I notice a change in myself, but I also realized my view of the world has expanded to the biggest it has ever been. Though I have been interested in Chinese culture for a while, nothing could have prepared me for what it is actually like to live in China. One of my favorite things to do when we had free time was to just walk around the streets of Suzhou and see locals’ houses. I liked getting to catch a glimpse of things that had existed for my entire life that I previously had no idea about. Now that I’m back in the US, I often wonder what all those people are doing at this exact moment and wish I was still there, experiencing the same things they are.

Going into this program, I was very excited about the idea of having language partners to talk to and help us understand what college students in China are like compared to us. What I didn’t expect at the beginning after first arriving in China was how difficult would be to communicate with them right off the bat. The first two weeks of the program were a little rough because I realized how much I didn’t know and how poor my speaking ability was. It took a little adjusting to realize that the whole point of the program was to work towards improving my language skills and not focus on all the things I didn’t know but instead work to build on the skills that I already possessed. Though it was easy to compare myself to the progress that my classmates were making, I had to work to just focus on myself and my own needs as a language learner. This realization definitely helped me become more self-reliant because I knew no one could make me truly understand unless I really worked at it myself. Being able to ask my language partners questions and have them as someone to practice talking with was one of the biggest highlights of the program. 

The freedom of the program allowed me to explore Suzhou on my own terms and have genuine interactions with locals. Though we had class every day, in the afternoons we were pretty much able to do whatever we wanted. This gave us amazing opportunities to go out and observe Chinese culture in real-time. Being in a completely different culture to my own put the day to day trivial things that I had often spent time worrying about into perspective. It made me realize that I should focus my life more towards living and experiencing, rather than concerned about other peoples’ perceptions of me. 

Not only was I able to explore different places around Suzhou, but I was also able to experience the food culture that makes up a major portion of Chinese culture. I loved the fact that food prices were so inexpensive compared to food prices in America so I really could afford to sample a whole range of different things. I discovered what now has become one of my favorite foods, Hot Pot, and all the different varieties of it that just don’t exist in America. In class, we often discussed the different styles of cooking and food preferences based on region and were able to sample different types of cuisine on our day trips to other cities. I tried some soup dumplings in the city of Nanjing that were the best dumplings I had ever eaten and then in the city of Hangzhou tried a meat mooncake that I still dream about now. This program really allowed us to immerse ourselves into Chinese life through interaction and samples of many different aspects of the culture. 

After having lived in China for two months, I can honestly see myself going back there to work and even live for an extended period of time. This program opened up a whole new world that I had only ever imagined and I found myself really come to thrive in the environment. Seeing as I am now considering living there, I would say this program was a very valuable life experience that possibly changed the direction of where I want my life to go. Not only did I get credit for two classes while there, I also made friends with many people I met that I still talk to now. I have become someone who is able to take things that come in stride and adjust to challenges without having them negatively affect me as much as before. This program was a dream come true to me because I got to go somewhere that I had always dreamed of while learning about something that I am really passionate about. 

STEP Post-Project Reflection: Impact of HIV, Tanzania

1. I participated in an education abroad program called Impact of HIV: Tanzania, in which I spent a month in the country studying the history of this disease and the public health response to it. I took classes and went on field trips to local clinics and other pertinent locations to put the HIV epidemic in a real-world context. I also gained a broader cultural knowledge by living in the country and learning basic Swahili.

2. I think the most important thing I gained was a better perspective on the privilege I have as an American. Going into this experience, I almost expected things to be more similar to my life than they were. The amount of poverty I saw opened my eyes to all the things I take for granted, like reliable electricity and clean water. The importance of infrastructure, as well as what a challenge it is to establish it, became very apparent.

I also spent more time studying public health than I ever have before, and I found I am interested in it. The sociological factors that influence medicine and the perception of disease were fascinating. Public health might be something I want to pursue in the future; I feel it would be a useful application of my microbiology degree.

3. A large portion of the class associated with my study abroad was dedicated to our final project, in which we selected an aspect of Tanzanian life and its relationship to HIV. My topic was religion and how it affects the perception of HIV. While completing this project, I was able to delve into what its like to live in Tanzania, as a majority of our information was collected through primary interviews. Conducting interviews with real Tanzanians gave me a fairly unbiased look into the problems they faced. While my focus was on what religion means for HIV, I also got a sense of what religion means to Tanzanian people and how they tackle the problems they face.

Interestingly, something that came up during my interviews, as well as on some of the site visits we did as a class, was that HIV is not necessarily the number one problem for most Tanzanians. HIV medication in Tanzania is free because of US-based donations; however, challenges such as lack of nutritional food and clean water impact both HIV positive and negative citizens alike. This sheds light on the level of poverty that most people must deal with. Basic necessities are not always obtainable.

Simply living in the urban area of Iringa for a month also gave me a lot of insight into how much I take for granted. Although there was certainly more infrastructure in this area than the rural village of Kilolo, which we visited one weekend, there were still issues such as power outages and lack of hot water. Internet was expensive and unreliable, and some roads were unpaved. Houses were crammed together and half-built. My professor explained that because of the high inflation, money loses its value very quickly. This meant that people buy as many building materials as they can if they come into any money, then leave their projects unfinished until their next significant paycheck.

Despite the economic challenges faced by many Tanzanians, I was blown away by the friendliness and hopeful demeanor of most people I met. I found that everyone was welcoming of me and excited to hear about the work I was doing. I enjoyed talking with people and learning about the country as I conducted my research for my final project.

4. This transformation was significant for many reasons. I had a great time seeing a new place and exploring a new culture, and it inspired me to travel more after school. It also introduced me to the world of public health, something that I was aware of before but had never taken a class on. This experience has caused me to think about what I want to do with my degree in the future. Before going on this trip, I planned to go to grad school and work on a Ph.D. in microbiology. Now, I think I may want to incorporate more aspects of history, sociology, and public health into my future educational plans. While I certainly still want to pursue higher education, my interests and focus have broadened from simply wanting to do research, to wanting to do research with the intent to directly help people.

Two Months in Montpellier, France

1.I did a study abroad program in Montpellier, France, this past summer. I attended a French university and took French language and culture class.

 

2.I learned so much about myself and the world this summer. Studying abroad is difficult, but it’s also so rewarding. I had taken French for many years before the program, but am obviously not fluent, so living in France for two months was difficult at times. I was scared to speak because I knew I’d make mistakes and would get embarrassed. I went into the program with a goal of improving my French speaking skills, so I needed to stop being scared and start speaking. My goal was more important than my fears, so I eventually started to speak a lot. Yes, I made mistakes, but by the end of the two months, I was able to speak faster and with less errors. I learned I shouldn’t let my fears and doubts get in the way of achieving my goals and that I need to start having more confidence in myself.

Being exposed to a different culture for two months was an eye-opening experience. I was able to see the world through the eyes of French people. They have a different perspective on things like politics and lifestyle. It was really cool being able to see how they live and get their opinion on certain topics.

 

3. I lived with a host family during my time in France. I was only allowed to speak French in the house, and my host mom didn’t know any English. Living with a host family provided me with an environment to practice speaking French with French people. My French family was super nice and helpful to me. I settled into their home pretty quickly, but there were some aspects that I had to get adjusted to. For example, in France, they eat dinner around 8 or 9 pm, but I was used to eating around 5 or 6 in the States. I was really glad I lived with a host family and that they were so amazing. I was anxious to speak when I first moved in, but as I became more comfortable with the family, I spoke more and more. Thanks to them, my speaking improved so much- my host mom even commented on my improvement! Living with a host family definitely positively impacted my time abroad.

I took classes at a French university. My classmates were from all over the world, and learning about them, their countries, and cultures was incredible. We did a variety of exercises in class, such as speaking, listening, reading and writing. I had class every day for four hours, so it was pretty intense. We focused on grammar concepts and vocabulary review. This was another way for me to focus on my goal of improving my speaking. I don’t participate that often in classes in the US, but in order to make the most of my experience abroad, I knew I had to. I don’t like public speaking in a classroom setting, but participating in class abroad made me more confident to do so here. I learned I need to start trusting myself and not be afraid to speak up. Taking French classes in France was a great opportunity, and I’m so glad I did it.

While abroad, I had the opportunity to travel to different countries and French cities. Solo traveling is challenging, but I persevered. When something went wrong, I had to deal with it; I didn’t have anyone else there to help. I dealt with delayed trains, cancelled flights, and much more. Solo traveling taught me a lot about myself, such as I like to be half an hour early for a train that won’t even get to the station until 5 minutes before departure time. Also, I had the false assumption that nothing will go wrong in my travels, but I was proved to be very, very wrong about that. Things did go wrong, and only I could deal with them and fix them. Going on these trips by myself taught me that I am independent and smart enough to get out of those bad situations. I have the confidence to handle anything in life as a result, because this summer showed me that I can handle things by myself. It’s scary traveling by yourself, but my goal and desire to see the world overruled my fear of solo traveling.

 

4. This transformation I had, of my language skills and self-discoveries, will be very valuable for my life here on out. I will take the things I learned about myself and apply them to life here. I will participate in class more. I know life will not always be easy, but I now know I can get through the tough situations. My French fluency has improved so much as well. Since I am a French major, I would love to use my knowledge of the language after I graduate. My other major is accounting, and business is a very versatile industry- I could live in France and do something involving business there after graduation. One of my goals is to live (and therefore work) in France one day, and my ability to speak French will help facilitate that. This program changed my life, and I am so blessed to have been able to do it. I am grateful to STEP for helping me get this opportunity.

 

Pictures: Paris (left) and the center of my town, Montpellier (right)

 

    

Study Abroad Shanghai

 

  1. My STEP project entailed me spending two months in Shanghai, China, studying Mandarin through an OSU approved program. I took 6 credit hours worth of language courses and completed a 3 credit hour public health elective. On various occasions I traveled independently to cities neighboring Shanghai.
  2. Traveling to Shanghai was a dynamic social experience and certainly impacted my perspective on how people live within cultures different from mine. Most of the people I interacted with were welcoming and excited about the fact that I was attempting to learn their native language which made me more comfortable living in a foreign country. Having to independently navigate the city and take trips outside of Shanghai allowed me to improve my self-confidence and trust my judgement as well as my ability to develop relationships with strangers in different places. Although the friendships I made were short-lived, it was fascinating to learn about different peoples’ backstories and to find some common interests by overcoming the language barrier between cultures.

 One day after taking my MCAT I boarded a plane to Shanghai, leaving my exhausted from test-taking and headed into a completely different environment. Adjusting to living in China during the first week was definitely the most difficult part of the trip, especially since I was missing my family and friends from back home. After learning to embrace the opportunity to improve my Mandarin skills by socializing in a foriegn country, I quickly adapted to the new situation and became more comfortable. During classes I worked diligently with the teachers to learn various grammar patterns and make sure my tones were being pronounced properly during my interactions with strangers I was constantly using my new language skills.

 

I traveled to Nanjing alone during my fourth weekend and stayed in a youth hostel for a couple nights. During this experience I was able to make friends with Chinese college students staying in the housing complex as well as with people around the city as I went sight-seeing. There were instances in the hostel where groups of us would be teaching one another different card games, talking about our family and life back home, and helping each other practice English/Mandarin. During another weekend I traveled to Xi’An for four days, once again staying in a youth-hostel. Throughout this trip, I happened to meet a handful of foreigners, including a few people from the United States, that shared their story on how they came to set up their lives in China. One of my days were spent hiking to the top of Mt. Hua, which was a physically exhausting endeavor but serene view from the top made it well worth the trip.

 

Whether I was going to bars or exploring museums, I was constantly learning more about Chinese culture while improving upon my ability to effectively speak Mandarin. I was constantly approached by strangers that were eager to ask questions about where I come from and why I’m living in China, which I was more than happy to answer to. There were also countless conversations I had with different taxi/uber drivers that left a great impression on me and led to me feeling welcomed in a foreign country.

 

4.

This change is significant for personal reasons because I feel much more comfortable traveling abroad and embracing a culture entirely different from my own. I’ve learned that even in foreign countries it’s incredibly easy to find a common ground with strangers, as we all (human beings) share many of the same basic strivings towards social and personal well-being. My ability to speak in Mandarin improved significantly, so I’ll hopefully continue to expand on my knowledge and possibly use it when interacting with international students. I’ve also developed a great appreciation for the time that I’m able to spend back home with family. Becoming grounded within a community that I can make positive contributions to and will reciprocate by providing me with a sense of purpose and belonging is also something that I’ve learned to deeply value. My experience cultivated a newfound appreciation for foreign cultures as well as a strong sentiment towards the communities I’m apart of back home.

HIV in context in Tanzania

For my STEP project I participated in a study abroad program which traveled to Tanzania during the month of July to study HIV in context.  During the program we analyzed data showing the HIV statistics of the Iringa region, in which we were staying, and went on site visits to solidify what we learned in the classroom about HIV and sexual education.  During my program many of my assumptions and anticipations that I held were challenged.

Two of my most significant transformations were related to the skills I developed due to the transition from the U.S. to Tanzania and how I analyzed the information that we learned and collected about HIV in Tanzania differently than before.  Transitioning from the U.S. to a rural Iringa required me to increase my flexibility. Although the changes pushed my limits of adaptation, there were many aspects of my life that stayed constant.  In the beginning of our trip there were many changes and events that occurred that were out of our control and it was important for me to remember to have patience when dealing with these things. While in Iringa we had a lack of internet access, different meal schedules and changes in site visits which created some frustration but being able to be flexible and enjoy the experiences as they came was one of the most important things that I learned during the program.

In the United States many are used to relying on comforts and fixed schedules which we did not have in Tanzania.  Although there are many differences that could be addressed, there are also major similarities between Iringa and the U.S.  One of the similarities which is significant to me relates to the topic of HIV and sexual education.  In our observations and analysis of the sexual education in Iringa we see many of the same processes occurring both in Iringa and in the United States.  When looking at other countries’ methods for education we often use the U.S. as a reference or gold standard of education when in reality misconceptions, education gaps and miseducation occurs.  In Iringa I spoke with a student at RUCU who still thought that HIV could be transmitted through saliva exchange and two other students who were not even taught HIV until health class in school.  We can see this in our own state of Ohio where many school districts still have an abstinence only curriculum and perpetuate misconceptions either through lack of education or miseducation.  This has taught me to be cautious in making generalizations and identifying broad trends in a population because there are always disparities with in populations.

During the program we participated in many site visits which included a branch of USAID, an elephant conservation organization, an HIV clinic, the regional hospital, an HIV support group , an orphan support program and a rural health center.  These site visits were vital in the process of learning about not only HIV but also the population which is being affected in this area.  This also allowed us to gain perspective on the response and treatment of HIV that is currently being used in Iringa.

We also read many articles and books relating to the HIV epidemic which were written from both a Tanzanian and an American perspective.  This pushed me to examine written work and research with a critical eye and with awareness of possible bias from the author.  Throughout my time in the program I was able challenge my own assumptions and biases which allowed me to develop both as a public health student and a global citizen.

Although we collected our interviews about HIV and sexual education  in Iringa it is important to note that we can see many of these same phenomenon elsewhere and we could look further into these same processes happening in a broader context.  Going forward I will be able to take with me not only the information we collected about Iringa and HIV specifically, but also the research skills, ethics and critical thinking skills that we  required in order to synthesize the information we gained from the course and the field sites  to create our final project.

This education abroad experience has enhanced my academic, career and life paths going forward. Experiential learning ,when immersed in a new culture and a new environment, requires skills In navigation, language, communication, awareness and ability to be outside of your comfort zone. This learning environment has forced me to hone these skills while also building on my foundation of knowledge about HIV and interventions that I possess from previous course content.

 

Coexistence in the Middle East – Studying Abroad in Israel

For my STEP Project, I studied abroad in Israel at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem from July 1st-July 25th this summer. I participated in their program titled, Coexistence in the Middle East. Through this program, I took two courses; “Narratives & Realities: Inside the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” and “Israel & The Post-Arab Spring: An Interactive View.” The program and courses combined expert academic lectures, numerous field excursions, and opportunities to meet with diplomats, activists, and representatives from a wide variety of political and cultural backgrounds.

As an International Relations and Diplomacy and Religious Studies double-major student, traveling to a place as entrenched in religious history and international controversy was both exciting and anxiety provoking. Aside from a weekend trip to Toronto, Canada and a few days spent in a few touristy parts of Mexico, I had never traveled abroad prior this trip. I didn’t know what to expect. Even though my courses would be taught in English, would I be expected to know how to communicate in Hebrew and/or Arabic? Since this was a direct-enroll program, who would I be taking classes with and would I get along with them? How politically charged would my classes be? All these questions, plus many more, anxiously floated around my head up until my departure. Upon my arrival, I was pleasantly surprised. I had very few encounters where a language barrier was a problem. My classmates, representing five different continents and coming from a wide variety of backgrounds, were engaged inside and outside of class. My professors and program leaders encouraged our critical inquiry and skepticism when it came to the social and political landscapes of Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, and the Middle East as a whole. Even though I was only abroad for twenty-five days, the courses were structured in a way that provided a deep understanding of the subject manner as well as plenty of time for exploring and traveling the country outside of class.

This time outside of class was where I found myself being the most reflective about my own background, views, and assumptions. Unlike many of my classmates who were well-traveled and from more affluent backgrounds, I did not grow up in a family that could afford to travel. Having grown up in a family that regularly went to the local food bank for meals, dealt with many high medical bills due to family illness, and never lived in the nicest neighborhoods, I found my perspective to be a unique one among my peers in Israel. While the program couldn’t take us into Palestinian controlled portions of the West Bank, during our days off I made time to travel to Ramallah, Jericho, Bethlehem, and Hebron. I walked through a refugee camp in Bethlehem and was reminded that while I may not have grown up in an affluent family, we always had food on the table and things definitely could have been worse. I walked through numerous checkpoints where my American passport and visa meant that I barely got a second glance from the guards, while the Palestinians who crossed through these same checkpoints on a daily basis were subjected to random checks and long delays. I spoke with families who had lost children in the violence on both sides of the conflict. I learned that there were far more than two sides to this conflict. A major focus of the program was to analyze and detangle narratives and perspectives in a way that allowed for a deeper understanding of the core issues at hand. Analyzing my own perspectives was a part of this as well.

A meaningful outside of class excursion that I embarked on was traveling to the spot on the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized. When I was born, my parents named me after this biblical river. I grew up able to pick the river out on a map from a very young age and I knew that I always wanted to visit this place. I imagined the river as having pristine waters and sacred vibes. I thought that by traveling there I would uncover something meaningful about myself or maybe rekindle the Christian identity that I used to so strongly identify. But actually, reality was far different from my imagination. As we were driving up to the parking lot alongside the river, yellow signs dotted the fences alongside the road. Our tour guide told us that these signs labeled where landmines were located and warned us not to go off the beaten path. Nearer to the river, we saw professional landmine sweepers clearing mines that had been placed around a church. These mines were placed after Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and were maintained as a border defense mechanism. Israel and Jordan made peace in 1994, and Israel renovated a small portion of the site in 2011, but in order to access this site, pilgrims and tourists have traveled along the same militarized road lined with mines that I did. Nonetheless, the river itself was still a very cool place to visit. Dipping my toes in the water, even if it was muddy and closer to a creek than a “river,” was a powerful moment for me personally. The contrast of the sacred holy site with the nearby landmines, while a bit jarring at first, sums up the nature of this place and the often close proximity of security to ancient holy places.

Another important interaction on my trip was an in-class visit with Col. (Reserve) Danny Tirza, the IDF’s chief architect of the Separation Barrier and former territorial and border adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. When Col. Tirza discussed his creation – a 400+ miles long barrier along the West Bank that is made up of high-tech fences and 25-foot steel reinforced concrete walls – he emphasized the role it played in Israeli security. He personally designed the route that the barrier would take and even seemed to brag about the parts of the border that ended up cutting into internationally recognized West Bank territory. He also spoke about undercover raids that would take place to deter terrorism in a village near the Jerusalem-Bethlehem border. When talking about the preparation for these raids he mentioned how IDF soldiers would be taught to “talk like Arabs, dress like Arabs, and even smell like Arabs.” When pressed on what he meant by smelling like Arabs, he did not have a further comment. While Col. Tirza’s problematic statements could have merely been a reflection of his upbringing and environment, I don’t think that entirely excuses them. Knowing that a former high-level official would say things like this was shocking but not entirely surprising given the complexity of the conflict in this region. Even though I was frustrated by his words, hearing his perspective was an important part of the course and an important part of considering all the factors in this conflict.

During the courses, my classmates and I had many opportunities to meet with activists, officials, and diplomats from many different backgrounds. Our meetings took place all across the country, not just in Jerusalem. We traveled to  Nahariya, the Golan Heights, the border with Lebanon, the border with Syria, a Druze community, Neve Shalom Coexistence Village, Gush Etzion and the Roots peace organization, the border with Gaza, Sderot, Masada, the Dead Sea, and many more places in between. One of these meetings brought us to The American Cultural Center in Jerusalem where we met with two US Foreign Service Officers. As an international relations and diplomacy major, working for the US State Department could be a future career path for me. Being able to meet with professionals within my potential future career field was a spectacular opportunity. Throughout the course we also met with a Russian diplomat, officials from the Israeli Foreign Ministry, a representative from the UN, and representatives from the Palestine Liberation Organization, and so many more. These meetings were insightful and impactful to my future career. Because we were a very outspoken and well-educated student group, we always came prepared with many difficult questions that many people would not have the opportunity to ask.

My study abroad trip to Israel and participation in the Coexistence in the Middle East program was incredibly impactful personally, academically, and professionally. Traveling to places I have heard about my whole life, visiting my namesake river, and soaking in the rich history of this place taught me so much about myself and meant a lot to me personally. As someone who is interested in international conflict resolution, being able to travel to a region of the world that has, at times, been defined by conflict was extremely beneficial to my academic pursuits. Merely reading about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a textbook, doesn’t really do justice to the complexity of the issues on the ground. Having the opportunity to meet with professionals in my potential future career path – diplomats and foreign service officials from a wide variety of backgrounds – was professionally enriching and taught me so much about my field. This trip is something that I will undoubtedly remember and cherish for the rest of my life. I am so thankful for the STEP Program at OSU and countless other scholarship and grant sources for making this opportunity a reality!

STEP Reflection

My STEP project was a five month long education abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. While abroad, I took Spanish classes, taught English to local middle school students, and lived with a host family. I had the opportunity to travel around the country and learn about the history, culture, and language of Argentina. 

Many things about my understanding of myself changed while I was abroad. I learned to be patient with myself while learning a new language, and I learned to become more independent. Through planning and scheduling, I realized that I have a flexible and laid back personality and that I can use that to my advantage. Argentina also gave me a deeper insight to what is really important. The people that I met while abroad helped me to widen my world view and see people as generally good. Another big takeaway from my education abroad is that a culture that is different from my own is not better or worse, just different. 

Traveling by myself throughout Argentina helped me to cultivate independence and self-sufficiency, especially in a second language. Having to navigate through a new country was difficult at times but it taught me to have patience with other people and to have confidence that I could do things myself. Scheduling transportation, housing, and various activities all aided in my Spanish-speaking abilities and made me want to keep practicing and improving my skills. 

My interactions and relationships with locals helped me understand what really matters. My host mother, professors, and friends always prioritized family and friends over everything else. Success to them wasn’t about money; it was about relationships with friends and family. We always ate dinner together as a household and I knew that that was an important aspect of their culture. Nobody seemed to care how many internships I had done, where my clothes were from, or what my plans for the future were. All that mattered was the kind of person I was and what I held close to me.

All of my interactions with travelers and locals led me to believe that people are generally good and want to help out. The amount of times that I had a positive interaction with someone that turned my whole day around was numerous. Locals were always willing to help me with my Spanish, and other travelers were eager to make friends and share tips. The world is so wide, and so full of great people. 

Lastly, my experiences with a new culture transformed my mindset. My program director would always say that the culture that is new to us is not better or worse than what we are used to, just different. In Argentina, people usually eat dinner around 10 pm, they often have transportation strikes, and good coffee is hard to find because locals prefer to drink mate. All of these cultural aspects were new to me, and upon reflection, I have learned to accept these differences without judging them. Daily life is different everywhere and it is important to adjust and not compare. 

It is hard to describe how valuable these transformations are to me. I know that I will be a better, more understanding person because of this education abroad. I am so thankful that I got to learn about the culture, history, and economy of Argentina because it really put things into perspective for me. I realize how fortunate I am to have all that I have and to live where I live. I also know that I will be more open to trying new things and more confident to reach out to people and places. 

Academically, I am happy that I got the opportunity to speak Spanish everyday and take classes with local students. My speaking abilities improved tremendously. This helped me realize that while learning a second language is difficult, it is worth it, and is something that I want to continue doing. I hope to be fluent eventually and continue to use Spanish in the future. My trip was amazing and I will carry these lessons with me forever.

Maria, my host mother.

Me in front of Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina.

Summer in Italy

For my STEP project, I traveled to Italy to study abroad. I took a course called “Michelangelo in His Works” where we got to visit a multitude of museums, cathedrals, and artwork to study the history and importance of Michelangelo’s masterpieces. I lived in the city of Florence and was there for 6 weeks.

While abroad in Italy I was able to encounter many experiences and people who helped shape my views and thought processes. I learned the importance of spontaneity and risk. The world we live in is so large, but yet we confine ourselves to such a small part of it. As I was in Italy, I would travel to many different cities and even countries. I went all around Italy, to Switzerland, and to Croatia. Each place was unique in its own way. I got to see how people on the other side of the world live. I learned how many things I take for granted and how fortunate I am to live the life I do.

This study abroad trip truly showed me how amazing life can be. I learned that planning out your life step-by-step will never work. Things never play out as you hope they do most of the time. And people end up allowing stress and past plans ruin what their future could hold. You need to just live and experience all you see and do. Living in the moment was my biggest eye opening piece of advice I learned while abroad. I am very grateful that I had this experience.

Many events and interactions shaped my change throughout my study abroad. However, one important one was the relationship I strengthened with my best friend, Mackenzie. Being able to travel the world and be adults together really showed us all that we were missing out on. We would plan weekend trips to different cities and countries and travel with complete strangers. We would meet new and friendly faces each day, most of which couldn’t even communicate with us. But by their smile and body language, you could tell how accepting other cultures and countries are. Our world is so large yet together as humans, we can make it small too. I shared so many laughs and lifelong memories with Mackenzie. We both had realizations about our future plans for life, how we thought through problems, all the things we take for granted, etc. I’ll never forget this trip, and it’s mostly due to her.

Another event that occurred that shaped my change throughout this study abroad was all the things we, as Americans take for granted. Being over in Europe, lifestyle was very different. For example, air conditioning was something that many did not have, I lived in Florence for two months in 100-degree weather with no air conditioning. At first I was furious, constantly miserable and complaining. It took me time to realize that this lifestyle is normal for Italians, and air conditioning is meant to be a luxury. Getting used to the heat took some time, but in the end it was a big eye-opener. Many other things are taken for granted such as access to water, access to restrooms, etc. These are simple, every-day things that we, as Americans, don’t think twice about.

And one last event that occurred was the relationship I made with my professors. They were both Italian women, but spoke very well English. It was so interesting to get to learn from them and see the differences in their teaching styles and opinions. Both classes were very interactive and entertaining. I learned so much from both of these women, material wise and knowledge wise. Their humor, patience, and devotion to teaching was truly a treat.

The changes that occurred during my study abroad are very valuable to the rest of my life. I will always remember how grateful I am to have the things I have in America. However, I will never forget the Italian lifestyle and how beautiful and happy their culture was.

Academically, I learned how to be accepting of a new culture and new teachers. It sometimes got hard when taking notes and trying to study if the English wasn’t spot-on like I’m used to. I had to adjust to the differences and find new ways to learn and study with their style. I learned many critical thinking skills and patience with this.

And in my future, as I move on and take on my first full-time job within a hospital, I will be better equipped to work with international patients. I will have a better understanding from a cultural perspective and hopefully be able to better connect with my patients. This trip will affect me for many years to come and has truly taught me some of the most valuable lessons yet.

 

 

 

Poland Study Abroad – LaRazia Tolbert

  1. My project was a study abroad trip to Poland. There, I studied social and political change in Europe while taking classes at the Polish Institute of Philosophy and Sociology. I also conducted independent research analyzing Poles views and attitudes with regards to the Polish social structure.
  2. Prior to this trip, I have never been on a plane let alone outside of the country. I come a from small city in northeast Ohio and never did I imagine that I would be able to experience such a thing. Having had this experience, I truly realized that there is a whole world out there waiting to be explored. I see the world now in a whole new light. Before, the world was so small, not really something that I fathomed to be so huge; but, now after all going to another country and living in another country for an entire five weeks, I know that the world is huge and I can go see it and do things unimaginable.
  3. While abroad, there were a number of things that contributed to altering my worldview, the people, the culture, the language, studying, conducting research, exploring, traveling to other cities and more. I will touch on each of these just briefly as it is hard to put five weeks worth of experience into just a few short paragraphs, but I will share a bit about each and how and why they had the impact that they did. First, we have the academic side that I spoke a little about. While there, I took a statistics course which included a lab. I also had a history course along with six credit hours of independent research. All of these things were new to me. While working through these courses and conducting the research in a condensed amount of time, I was able to step up to the challenge and really prove to myself that I was more than capable of the demands of the program. Being able to learn statistics in just five short weeks and then apply what I was learning to my own research really showed me how these skills are going to be very useful in my future profession as well as the rest of my collegiate career. Second, I had the more personal development that occurred. Being an African American female traveling to a country that practically has no minorities present in their population added to my being the only minority amongst my peers was really impactful in this aspect of my experience. I learned so much about the difference in cultures and perspectives of others. I really gained more appreciation for other people’s cultures and how they view life. Also, in this experience, I was able to open my own outlook on life. Prior to, I can say that I was a bit close-minded and having had this experience I realize that there is so much more out there than just what I think and know.
  4. This change that I have spoken about is important to my life because its changed my entire outlook on life. I am sure that the course or the track that my life is on now is different in a number of ways than it was prior to this trip. I was not one to really think traveling would be my thing, but now, I want to travel and experience the world. Even in my professional life, independent research was never really in my collegiate plan; obviously, that plan has been altered. Graduate school has definitely become more attainable due to this as well. Holistically, having gone through this program, I gained a sense of direction for my future and potential career endeavors.
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STEP Reflection – My 6 Months in Brazil

During my STEP Signature Project, I traveled abroad to Brazil to complete an immersive language program. I stayed with my host mother in the city of Curitiba where I took Brazilian Portuguese and Geography of Brazil classes at the federal university. I was also given the opportunity to travel around Brazil and learn about the rich and unique societies that each region of the country was able to offer.

I had no expectations of the country before arriving which, I think was a good thing as I had no preexisting stereotypes about the people or the culture. This allowed me to really understand and connect with the people and learn about the country on a level that was so fundamental because my experience was so pure and not biased by any other aspect. Being a child of Indian immigrants, I did not experience a huge culture shock because I have traveled to different parts of the world before that differ greatly from Western society; however, I was able to appreciate the common sentiment to enjoy life and appreciate the ones you love that the Brazilian people have adopted. This attitude was one of the most important things that I have learnt and really differed from the cultures I have experienced before. Another thing that brought more depth to my understanding of the world was the ambiguity of people’s appearance. There were so many different types of people in Brazil, mainly due to the numerous waves of immigration and refugees that have found their home in the huge country. This really redefined my thoughts on race and cultural barriers. It also made me feel less concerned about how other people perceive me due to the color of my skin; something that I find myself having to do many times in the United States.

My classes, meeting other students and travelling were the factors that really allowed me to initiate and follow through with my transformation. When I had arrived in Curitiba, it was really nothing like I had expected. The city was very big and I realized that almost no one spoke English. Not having any previous knowledge of Brazilian Portuguese, I quickly discovered that I would have to develop my language skills very fast in order to do something so simple as just ordering food. This determination really fueled my interest in paying attention in class, practicing the language and building my vocabulary with every chance I got. The first month of my exchange was very mentally challenging as I felt very isolated to others due to the language barrier. My host mother also only spoke Brazilian Portuguese so I had to communicate with her using a translator. This was something that really inspired me to learn the language rapidly as I wanted to avoid the translator and really get to know her and connect with her on a level that required the intimacy and emotion of the direct, spoken language. I was able to start picking up the language within a month. This linguistic knowledge really allowed me to understand the Brazilian culture on a closer level as I learned many slangs and words that were exclusive to the country and the people. Through my classes I was also able to meet other exchange students from places such as France, Spain, Croatia, Ireland, and more. This gave me another aspect of cultural learning that I really wasn’t expecting. I was able to connect with people from all over the world. I also made many Brazilian friends through the university and the program. I was able to spend time with them in different social setting and circles that let me explore Brazilian pop culture and youth culture. My connection with Brazilian people my age really allowed me to immerse myself in the language as I began to participate in conversation and learn how to speak Portuguese informally, expanding on my base of formal/ didactic Portuguese.

I began to travel with some English-speaking friends and families to see the breathtaking beaches and views that Brazil had to offer. Within two weeks of arriving in the country, another exchange student’s host family invited me on a family vacation to the coastal beaches of Parana. Although I still was not able to speak much of the language, I was able to observe what a typical getaway to the beach would entail. I was able to enjoy some tasty barbecue, churrascaria, and beautiful waves. I also traveled with some other exchange students or Brazilian friends to places such as Rio and Sao Paulo. I went to Sao Paulo to celebrate Carnaval and it was one of the most culturally enriching experiences I had. Being able to celebrate life with Brazilian people is really something that I will never forget in my life. I even began to feel comfortable enough in my language skills to begin traveling on my own. This was one of the most rewarding and transforming experiences for me because it really forced me to practice speaking and I also connected with so many people that I never would have imagined. For example, one night I had dinner with an older couple from my host city of Curitiba who had moved to the coastal village of Pontal do Sul. They cooked me dinner and we had a wonderful conversation about my life in the US and their life in Brazil. Towards the end of my exchange, I did a 2-week solo backpacking trip through three states within the interior of Brazil. Here I met even more interesting people and other foreigners who taught me so many things about their home country, themselves, their viewpoints and their traditions. My Brazilian geography class really enriched my journey as there were many things that I learned in class that I was able to witness and observe in real-time. For example, I traveled to the city of Uberlandia to meet with my friend and her boyfriend. Her boyfriend’s family was in the agricultural business. After learning extensively about this industry in my class, I was able to understand better the nuances and social aspects of this business after visiting Uberlandia. This is just one of many examples where I was able to have such a rich immersion within Brazilian society while traveling.

Not only did traveling and connecting with different types of people help me gain a comprehensive knowledge of the country but it also allowed me to develop a deep and passionate love for Brazil. I had made so many friends and such a strong personal connection with host mother that it really was difficult for me to return to the United States. I know that I will return to Brazil very soon. My experience also helped me gain a newfound appreciation for myself. I was met with many obstacles during my trip that I was able to overcome. By not being shy to practice the language, I was able to make the most out of my exchange in terms of forming connections and discovering the country. Also, my penchant for trying new things really opened my horizon for new foods, friends and experiences. During my time in Brazil, especially while backpacking, I appreciated my courage and motivation in learning about the country. The experience really made me a more confident person and I find myself less afraid to take risks and more inclined to enjoy life.

Lastly, my experience also helped me academically and professionally. During my time studying at the federal university, I was able to connect with a pediatric nephrologist that worked for the university hospital. I was able to shadow and meet with her on numerous occasions which not only expanded my Portuguese vocabulary into the field of healthcare, but it also allowed me to understand Brazil’s public system of healthcare. This opportunity allowed me to expand my options in career choices and also confirm my interest in the field of global healthcare and health policy. As a senior, this is rewarding as it helps me on my career path and path to medical college.