The Independent Study Project (ISP) is a characteristic element of SIT study abroad programs. During the last third of the semester here, students had the opportunity to conduct primary qualitative research on a topic of their choice. To me, this research period was the most rewarding aspect of my time abroad for a few reasons. Primarily, choosing my own topic, selecting and interviewing renowned experts, and having a flexible schedule to conduct this research were the most enabling elements. Given that this project serves as my senior capstone project, I also devoted a great deal of energy to having my topic be comprehensive and specific to my interdisciplinary interests. Because the specific program I pursued is based in the highly international arena of Geneva, I had the opportunity of interviewing experts who work at the United Nations, World Health Organization, the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva, and many other highly esteemed institutions based in Switzerland. Making professional connections and building my network were two wonderful outcomes of this research. My favorite interview opportunity came up through a reference from my research advisor. For this one, I was able to travel to a beautiful town called Crans Montana in the middle of a Swiss valley. This was my first time conducting formal interviews for research purposes and I’m pretty sure I set high expectations for future research because of these amazing opportunities to explore. And while there are opportunities to conduct independent research back in the States, there was great balance of structure, guidance, and freedom during the ISP period, not to mention the centrality of expertise in Switzerland. All in all, the opportunities that have emerged this semester for both personal and career development were, at minimum, incredible. There were many challenges along the way including but not limited to non-response and balancing recreational time. Now that I’m on the other side and have presented my research to my peers and advisors, I have important lessons that I will be taking forward into my career as an aspiring physician.
By Emily Golden
In your original post, you defined yourself in your own words. Review this post and reflect on your own internal changes. Do you still identify in the same way? Has your time abroad given you new insights into your own identity? Has anything changed? If so, what? What do you think will be the hardest part of leaving your international community? How do you think you will stay connected to this community?
Noticing the changes I’ve gone through since my first post was surprising for me. While I did expect my outlook and perspective on my identity to change, I did not expect it to change in the way that it did. The lack of confidence in my language ability and my fear surrounding my conversational skills is quite evident in the tone of my first post. I remember feeling that anxiety in the beginning but I feel so detached from that now. I think that fear stemmed from me going about my abroad experience trying to trick everyone in China into thinking that I was not Chinese American. Not only did I have the language skills to explain how I’m Chinese, but not really, and how I moved to the US when I was 1 year old, but how I have a single white mother, but I also felt embarrassed and burdened to answer the inevitable question of “where are you from?”
But now, having taken an honest survey of my language abilities and having 3 months of being asked the same thing, I approach the question with a whole new attitude. Instead of dread, I take it as an opportunity to start a dialogue. For many Chinese people I am challenging what that think an American looks like to them and I look at it with this perspective now instead of thinking they’re going to judge me. I also understand that I’m not going to become fluent overnight and it’s ok to not understand when people engage you in conversation but its important to try. While this isn’t a change in identity, the pretty obvious realization has changed the way I carry myself here.
I also thought it was interesting how I identified strongly as an New Yorker in my first post. While I’m still impatient as the next person and dare to cross intersections while others wait, this identity has become less and less important. I’ve heard that identity is all about locality, so when I’m in America I feel the need to call myself a New Yorker but when I’m abroad, especially for a longer period of time, American is the only “marker” that I feel is super important. But I can tell, the moment I step back on American soil that part of my identity will probably change again.
For me, I think the hardest part of leaving my international community is acknowledging that it’s even happening. Just 4 months ago I didn’t know anyone coming into the program, didn’t have any of these amazing people in my life, and didn’t know how fast the semester would fly by. Now, just 4 months wiser it is going to be extremely difficult saying goodbye to the people I just met but who have become family so quickly. You build your community bonds so quickly when you’re abroad, and I can’t believe how many lifelong friends I now have when only 12 weeks ago I didn’t even know who they were.
Beyond the social media that everyone relies on here to stay in touch, I want to visit my classmates at their homes around the country. This journey would take me North, West, and South and I can’t wait to see how our relationships will grow from here on out. Regarding my teachers who I also consider my friends, they’ve shown how they still stay in touch with students from over a decade ago. I hope to be among that group too and stay in touch as the continue to change the lives of study abroad students likes me.
It is truly impossible to put into words the speed in which this semester has flown by and yet how many lessons, activities, and friendships have been fit in at the same time. Having my perspective on identity to guide me has been instrumental in my experience and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.
Our final trip of the semester was up to Cape Reinga, the northernmost point of New Zealand. On Friday night we traveled about six hours north of Auckland by car, arriving at our charming Karikari Peninsula Airbnb to play games and get some rest before Saturday’s full schedule. The first stop on the day’s route was Ninety Mile Beach, an extensive strip of beach stretching the length of New Zealand’s northwest coast. We first explored the sandy shore by car, as it is one of the beaches in the country on which you can drive. After a brief cruise, we hopped out of the car to take on the beach by foot, taking in the view and getting as close to the water as we could, only to run away when the waves surged in.
Our next stop were the Te Paki sand dunes, where we braved the sharp winds to sandboard. Sharing three boards among the ten of us, we took turns braving the gusts to plunge down the steep dunes. Beginning on our stomach and graduating to standing up, sand boarding was much like snowboarding and came naturally to the more athletically inclined among us. The wind created a beautiful pattern in the sand but eventually wore on us, as our exposed faces, necks and ankles were pelted with grains of sand that felt like tiny shards of glass.
The day’s final destination was the northernmost point of New Zealand itself, the lighthouse at Cape Reinga. A long and winding path from the mainland out to the lighthouse is lined with greenery, evoking the feeling of an epic Disney-style journey. The trail’s end boast beautiful views of the meeting point of the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea, with nothing but ocean as far as you can see in any given direction. Cape Reinga is the most spiritually significant place for the Maori people of New Zealand. It is thought that after death, spirits travel up the coast and out over the northernmost land point of the island. We sat in silence for a while, respectfully enjoying the feeling and the view.
That evening we watched the sunset on the beach near our house and made a big taco dinner. The following day we split up into two cars: those who needed to get back to Auckland to do schoolwork, and those who could take a bit more time. Where our paths differed were the hikes we took. I opted for the longer hike, having nothing due for school on Monday I figured I would extend this final trip as long as I could. My car went to hike Whangarei Heads, the longest and most grueling hike I did during my time in New Zealand. Beginning with two hours of straight and steep uphill climb, we then entered another three hours of up, down, up, down until descending for the final hour. By the time we reached hour three my legs were in pain, and I was unable to control where my foot landed when I stepped. The slippery mud that welcomed us from Friday’s rain was no help. All five of us struggled, but were determined to reach the views we knew awaited us. Once again, the route was worth it.
Our final descent brought us to Urquharts Bay, where we ripped off our boots and layed in the sun for an hour before taking the road back to the carpark in favor of doing the six hour hike again in the opposite direction. Nothing was special about the road route, other than the man who gave us water. Having been hiking for over seven hours, we had all run out of water and were desperate for more. We came across a house that displayed a sign offering fresh eggs for sale. We sent our most charismatic friend, Edo, into the yard where he met a sweet older couple who gladly filled our water bottles and asked us about our studies and hometowns. Being two Italians, a Norwegian and an American we gave then quite a variety of answers. That request for water remains the most characteristically New Zealand thing I’ve done -- asking a perfect stranger for a favor, and for them to automatically say yes without asking a single question -- and then becoming friends after a brief chat.
Our homes shape who we are today. Going abroad is not about renouncing all aspects of home and fully immersing yourself in a completely different culture with no consideration for your own. Going abroad is about learning more about the world and where your home stands in it. It’s also about learning that the world is not that big. Once you start looking, you find thousands of small similarities between your home and wherever you’re visiting. It’s important to find those parallels and use them as support to build the bridges between cultures.
Thanksgiving was celebrated two weeks ago in the US. Every year, family and friends gather together to enjoy a big meal. Everyone wakes up early and spends hours cooking the big feast. Families teach their children how to cook traditional dishes like turkey, mashed potatoes, mac n’ cheese, and of course, pumpkin pie. The day ends with a big dinner where everyone talks about current events, life updates, and what they’re thankful for.
Obviously, but Tunisia does not celebrate Thanksgiving (although SIT did host a great Tunisian Friendsgiving). However, they did celebrate Mawlid (المولد) a few days before Thanksgiving. Mawlid is the celebration of the birth of Mohamed. Every year, family and friends gather together to enjoy a big meal. Everyone wakes up early and spends hours cooking the big feast. Families teach their children how to cook traditional dishes like a3siida (عصيدة). A3siida is similar to a pudding made from pine nuts and it takes hours to prepare. Everyone helps out and decorates their own bowl of a3siida with almonds, walnuts, and candy pearls. The day ends with a big dinner where everyone talks about current events, life updates, and what they’re thankful for.
Clearly, Mawlid and Thanksgiving have very different roots. Nonetheless, the ways that they’re celebrated are not too different from one another. Loved ones come together to cook and to share a meal. Families and friends spend time together and have great conversation. There are many things that connect all people regardless of origin. Love of family, friends, and great meals are just a few.
As my study abroad program ended a little over two weeks ago and I am now back in the United States, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect upon my experience in Cape Town. I was lucky enough to volunteer with Teach Out for the majority of the semester and gained valuable insights that I hope to take with me back to DC. However, many of the questions I have asked myself regarding my experience have yet to be answered. One of them being, what does it mean to be doing service or volunteer work in a foreign country?
Especially in a country such as South Africa, where the consequences of colonization are still very prevalent, the topic of Western volunteerism is very controversial. While many volunteer programs are successful because they are run and managed by locals within the community they serve, there are an endless flow of volunteers from Western countries that spend just days or weeks at a service site only to leave the community waiting for the next group of volunteers. Therefore, when deciding where to volunteer I wanted to choose an organization that wasn’t temporary. Teach Out is not only a permanent volunteer organization but it is primarily comprised of South African students who are dedicated to improving public education in South Africa.
With this in mind, and after having lengthy discussions in class regarding colonialism and it’s modern day implications, I began tutoring with Teach Out with an open mind. The other American students on my program and I would often talk with each other about “White Saviorism” and what it meant for us as white, Western women volunteering in South Africa. So, in the past few weeks I’ve been reevaluating why I wanted to volunteer while abroad in the first place and whether or not I felt I was able to make a difference while there.
Service has been part of my everyday life since high school. As a member of Epsilon Sigma Alpha at GW, most of my weekends consist of helping out at food banks or with National Park Service. So to me, doing a service project while studying abroad was a given. However, the more I reflect on my time at Usasazo High School, in ways I have never done after serving in DC, I wonder if I had any right to be there. What were my intentions? Did I want to volunteer just to make myself feel good? Was it out of guilt for my own privilege?
I still don’t have a clear answer. While I would like to think my volunteer work was purely altruistic, any of these motivations could be true. And as far as whether or not I was able to make a difference by tutoring, I believe my experience allowed me to be a small part of a large influence on the student’s lives. The UCT students who make TeachOut successful and who dedicate time and effort to the Usasazo students will surely continue to make a lasting difference in their lives. And having been able to be just a small part of the bigger goal of improving education in South Africa assures me that the work we did made a difference.
I think the most valuable thing about my the service I did while abroad are these realizations. My study abroad experience would not have been the same without Teach Out. I am eternally grateful for all that it has taught me and the wonderful relationships I was able to form through the organization. And even though I may have learned much more than I was able to teach at Usasazo, I still believe it was meaningful. I now have the opportunity to take what I’ve learned back with me to GW so that I can be a better, more conscious, volunteer and do more meaningful service in DC.
By Rachel Blair
First and foremost, I want to say thank you to Paris. This has been an adventure that I couldn’t have even dreamed of. Paris is beautiful and my study abroad experience has been something I’m truly thankful for.
I am currently writing this at Charles De Gaulle Airport, at my gate. I can’t believe that it’s all over. This semester flew by. I’m excited to see my family when I get off this plane, but I know that what I have experienced these last three months is something that I will NEVER get again.
I have met some amazing people that I know I will continue to hang out with at GW, as well as some French students that I know I will keep in touch with. The memories I have shared with them will stay with me forever and they will forever be a part of one of the biggest experiences of my life.
I refuse to say goodbye to Paris, this is only see you later. It hasn’t really hit me that I’m leaving until now. Sitting down and typing about the amazing experience I have had makes this leaving thing a whole lot harder.
Sometimes I like to think back to when I first got to Paris and how new everything seemed and how scared I really was to face this big city without any family. But as my time in Paris progressed, I got a whole lot more comfortable there. Now I can’t see myself in my own home in New York. Paris still feels like my home to me, and I don’t know if I’m really ready to let go.
Whoever is reading this, take the opportunity to study abroad, it will be one of the best experiences of your life. You may regret it when you’re leaving, scared, and nervous, but as time goes on, you’ll grow to love where you are and the decision you have made. But most importantly, don’t do this for anyone else but yourself.
I was ready to commit to Paris because I wanted it so badly, more than I think I realized when I was applying. This is the time to grow, learn who you are, and experience the world in a totally different light.
There are so many memories from this program that I will hold onto forever. There are so many people that have made such a huge impact on me while here, and to the ones I will never get to see again, my heart weeps.
There is so much I want to say, but it’s impossible for me to do that without crying so I’m going to keep this last post short and sweet.
Study abroad! It will change your life for the better and I promise that you won’t regret it.
Finals week is here, and I think I’ve mastered the intersections of procrastinating and study abroad. While my peers are in Maastricht (like responsible adults), I’m back in Italy, avoiding my final papers and snacking on Panettone! Call it irresponsibility or just plain crazy, but if I’ve learned anything in the past few months it’s that you CAN travel around and still pass your classes!
That being said, it’s difficult knowing that in a month I’ll be leaving all of this — the spontaneous travel, the amazing food, and Maastricht— behind. I miss GWU, and I miss D.C., but I’m not really ready for the impending judgmental looks when I ask for mayo on my fries.
Study abroad is a lot of things. It’s putting yourself in a whole new, unfamiliar environment, oftentimes where people don’t speak the language or don’t know your culture. It’s experiencing new flavors, meeting new faces, and trying things you never thought you’d try before. It’s oftentimes lonely, oftentimes sad, and oftentimes exciting and happy. There are moments where you sit in your room, wondering why you came here and wishing you were back at Crepeaway. But there are also moments where you look out across the river and think, “By God, I’m actually here.”
The most amazing part of this experience, though, has been my own personal growth. With so much time by myself, I had to become more comfortable and assured in my own body. Over these past four months, I had a lot of time to think about my past, my future, and how that affects my present. I’m much more confident, much more able, and much less willing to deal with things I don’t find of value. Maybe the Dutch bluntness rubbed off on me, or maybe traveling alone just caused this. But I doubt I’ll have trouble speaking up in class, or voicing my opinions to my friends come second semester.
I’m lucky because I have another month left in my apartment. I still have time to visit Eindhoven, Groningen, the Hague, Rotterdam, Berlin, and all the places I wanted to go but didn’t have the time in the beginning. But I can’t say that I’m not ready to go back. It’s been a fun experiment, but I miss the ole U.S. of A. Of course, I’m sure I’ll feel that way about Maastricht in four months.
About two weeks ago, I had the amazing opportunity to ride along on a jeep trek throughout the Judean Desert. I packed my peanut-butter-and-jelly-in-a-pita sandwich and headed for the hills. Crammed inside the back of a 90’s banged-up Land Rover, we were tossed back and forth and up and down from the moment we started off of the ‘official’ (aka paved) road. But despite the blatant lack of seatbelts and the convenient flat tire we acquired half way there, it was magical. Looking past the dusty glass windows were miles and miles of rolling earth, speckled with fraying green bushes and the occasional Bedouin child running after our car with his donkey. I imagined Moses and his gang traversing these hills, shuffling around in the heat of the desert, not knowing which way was what, but knowing that their way was the right way.
After 2 hours that seemed more like 4 hours, we pulled up to the starting point of our long-awaited hike. Our guide promised sweeping aerial views and an enchanting ancient monastery perched upon the banks of an ever-surging river. So, we went. We embarked on this journey, tiptoeing around cliff edges and jumping off of baby boulders and occasionally stopping for an obligatory selfie. We eventually reached the lookout point I suppose the guide had been waiting for the whole time. It was like the universe knew we were coming: the temperature was perfect for a light sweater and a light sweat and the birds greeted us with their singing. Outstretched before us were the sweeping views and the enchanting monastery and the river.
The river that cut into the earth resulting in a series of staggering cliffs downwards. The river that the monks of the monastery used to walk down hundreds of steep steps for, just to take a sip. The river that flows all year round – fueled not by clouds, but instead by toilets.
Yep, every single drop of this surging stream of water in this lovely, picturesque setting is pure sewage. This area is known as the Kidron Valley and it runs from west Jerusalem, to east Jerusalem, into the Judean Desert, and pours out in the Dead Sea. The sewage water not only corrupts several coveted holy sites along its route, but also is a major conduit for diseases and an inhibitor for plant and animal growth.
So why would the ‘start-up’, desalination and reclamation nation just let this happen?
According to the Jerusalem Wastewater and Purification Enterprise, about 85% of the sewage in the Kidron Valley comes from East Jerusalem -- a territory under shared jurisdiction between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. And quite unsurprisingly, the two haven’t been able to reach an agreement on how to deal with all of their poop (some pun intended).
Unfortunately, this isn’t a new story. According to the Israel Parks and Nature Authority, over 90% of sewage from the Palestinian towns flows totally untreated into 162 km of rivers and streams. The Kidron Valley is just a big, stinky example of this.
Israel has the money and the proper technology to clean these rivers up, but due to political tensions, these resources aren’t being deployed. Many efforts have been made to discuss joint solutions, but every time there is a disagreement on where, who, or how. With this disagreement, the project falls to the wayside as each government waits for the other to crack. Meanwhile, the problem continues to worsen.
But what if we forgot about borders for a second. What if we forgot about ‘mine’ and ‘yours’. What if we saw this little sliver of the earth as simply earth? Maybe this sounds super hippy-dippy and utopian, but it’s actually the simplest perspective. Whether you identify as a Palestinian or an Israeli, you still live on the same land. You still have to wake up every morning and wash your face and brush your teeth and drink water. You’d still like for your kids to be able to go play in a stream, or at least not die from accidentally getting too close. I mean the drive behind the conflict is a love for the land, right?
Last week, we submitted our big independent study projects and I can safely say everyone in our program looks incredibly relieved. The whole month of November was dedicated to research and it has finally come to an end. While the whole process was very rewarding, it was a new kind of challenge I hadn’t had to navigate before. While abroad, the academics have not been as rigorous as they are on campus. I found that balancing independent research and this flexible time period was a challenge that resembled student life for me back at GW. This time frame pushed me even harder to establish a temporary balance between research and leisure because there was still so much I wanted to see and didn’t get to earlier in the semester. Now, we’re in our presentation period and learning about each other’s presentations. It’s truly incredible to hear from my peers researching and pursuing their passions. I’m very pleased with the way the directors of this program organized presentation period because it allows students to showcase their wealth of knowledge on incredibly interesting topics that I would have not otherwise discovered. This does, however, mean that the program is coming to an end.
Saying goodbye to Switzerland is definitely going to be bittersweet. I’ve had an amazing semester abroad here and feel like I’ve made the most of all this country has to offer. Sure, the cost of living here is astronomically high, but there are ways to make it work while still having fun. I have met incredible people abroad and I look forward to keeping in touch and planning visits with them. The bonds we have been able to establish on such a short timeline are at a level I did not anticipate coming into the program. Traveling and studying abroad with my friends has only brought us closer and I can only wish everyone has the privilege of experiencing the wonders of friendship abroad. That’s not to say I don’t miss my friends back home. I think of them every day and we have kept in touch as much as our schedules have allowed. We count down the days and brainstorm all the things we’re going to do when I return.
It feels like it was just yesterday that I was meeting other students at the Nyon hostel for our orientation. Yet here we are… traveling, singing, dancing, laughing with and supporting each other. Soon, we will go our separate ways and back to the lives we temporarily left. I am both excited and nervous for the transitions of readjusting to DC life. One thing’s for sure though and that is I am forever grateful for the love, mentorship, support, and friendship during my time abroad and seek to carry these warm memories wherever my next adventures take me.
As my semester abroad comes to an end, I write this last blog post with a heavy heart and a great load of wonderful memories. Reminiscing on my first post, I realize my identity has not changed much but it definitely grew stronger and by that I mean that my pride in it has multiplied. Experiencing such a diverse and welcoming scene where people from all over Asia and many European natives, now expats, have built an environment of respect and discipline and have proven that this cohabitation is not as difficult to achieve as other areas of the world have portrayed. I have realized that my identity as a global citizen has deepened and affirmed further than ever before thanks to my several opportunities to travel, explore and familiarize with such different cultures. I have been around so many nationalities and languages such as regional Malay, Mandarin, Bahasa, Tagalog... Moreover, I have had the incredible honor of visiting some areas of Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea, Australia and Thailand. This thirst for discovery and wanderlust has grown insatiable as I constantly battled between classes and expanding my array of foreign visits and cultural knowledge to learn from. The hardest part about returning home would definitely be leaving this City-State hub called Singapore—connecting you to so many other amazing places, a literal door for travel lovers as myself. Another hard reality is putting an enormous distance between friends that you developed special bonds with but will become dispersed all over the world. The good side is that I now have a global network of friends and we can visit each other. Indeed, plans and dates have already been reserved for reunions in the coming future. I have also shared contact information with my professors to keep in touch with. Although I have had an incredible experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world, I’m happy to find the comfort of home in Morocco for a few weeks before heading back to GW and finding a certain stability for one last semester where my weekends will look like Gelman library dates and not Singapore Changi airport meetings en route for yet another adventure.