Hi! My name is Olivia Ellis, and I am a 2021-2022 Gilman Alumni Ambassador from Charlotte, North Carolina. I graduated cum laude from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a degree in International & Global Studies. As a Gilman Scholar, I had the wonderful opportunity to virtually intern abroad in Hanoi, Vietnam in the spring of 2021.
Taking pictures is always the best while taking a small break from lesson planning!
When I prepared to go abroad for my initial abroad program in Seoul, South Korea, I constantly wondered how I would make friends. I was about to step into a completely different society, my identity as an African American female, and as a foreigner, would be greatly perceived. I knew that I would stand out amongst the Korean students in my classes, dorm room, and in public. Although I did not know what to expect, I was determined to make my abroad experience joyful and try to meet new friends by being my most authentic self.
Once the pandemic began, my plans, my hopes and the world shifted. I was preparing for this exciting and anticipated change in my life, to be blown away by the effects of the pandemic.
Although my plans were changing, I continued to search for study abroad opportunities, which were only virtual options at the time. I had many factors to continue to pursue finding a new opportunity to take on. However, I wanted to meet native people and learn about them, their stories, and their culture. I wanted to experience something new. So, I told myself “Let’s do this.”
I felt very fortunate to be able to find a virtual internship amid the new adjustments from the pandemic. I was open to interning in any country, I was very flexible and excited to be assigned to Vietnam. Although I was ecstatic about this wonderful opportunity, I found myself feeling those same thoughts as before, about how to make friends. I felt pressured to figure out how I can present myself to others through a computer screen? Will meeting on zoom make it easier to get to know my peers, to communicate, to relate? How will I have the same experience with Vietnamese culture, as my peers have had in their in-person program? These questions lingered in my mind, constantly growing, and becoming stronger as I counted down the days until my orientation.
Once that day came upon me, simultaneously, my worries were washed away.
Julie and I hanging out on Zoom!
On that day, I met my beautiful friend Julie. Julie was my advisor from Abroader, a secondary internship company that I collaborated with throughout my program. When you first meet Julie, you feel this warm and positive vibe. She is someone who will brighten your day, from her charismatic and joyful personality and her lovely smile. In moments that I felt unsure and nervous about trying new activities and teaching my first class, Julie was always by my side. Whether it was an email, a text message, a Zoom call, or her attending my classes, she was always someone I knew I could confide in. Despite her busy schedules, Julie always shows up and stands out. I admire her perseverance and she is someone who truly inspires me to live my life happily and to work hard for my dreams.
Our friendship is quite unique. The more we talked the more we realized how similar our lives were. We have similar career fields in English Language teaching, we love music, exercising, and eating delicious food. Most of all we love to talk! We communicate by calling one another on Zoom and WhatsApp, we mostly talk about the world and traveling, as well as our daily lives. We are always excited to share about new TV shows and movies that we watch and the music that we listen to. Julie is very talented, and she can sing and play the ukulele. She sent me videos of her singing and playing “Let It Be” by The Beatles, during my internship and now she will send me her music on Soundcloud. Although I am not the best singer, I’ve promised to sing a Vietnamese song for her one day, because of our exercise challenge.
We would share photos of the sky from our locations. (Photos from outside of Julie’s work office, It seems like the sun shines brighter in Vietnam!)
There were so many times that I learned about Vietnamese culture during my internship. Not only did ABROADER supply us with cultural exchange meetings, but Julie would share about Vietnamese culture with me outside of our meetings. Julie shared many photos and videos with me as she and her family prepared for the Tết Holiday (Lunar New Year Festival) this year. I loved receiving notifications full of beautiful pictures of red and yellow flowers, fabulous decorations, and mouthwatering food. One aspect that I learned about Vietnamese people is that they value their time, especially family time. Tết Holiday is about your family and going back to her hometown was a common conversation that we would have. Julie would send me videos of her traveling back home for the holiday, including an adorable video of her grandmother cooking food for her and her family once she arrived home. Not only did we talk about Vietnamese culture, but I also shared about my African American culture as well. We would discuss social justice issues for the Black community in and outside of the U.S. I would teach her about hair culture; the importance of Black hair, its significance to the Black community and how we maintain our hair in protective styles such as braids, wigs, and wearing beautifully designed headwraps. As well as the importance of loving ourselves by embodying our natural hair and our skin color. We would talk about colorism within both of our communities and how it affected us as women in our societies. I always talked about my students at the Will to Live Center (WLC), a non-profit that provides students with physical disabilities, technology, and English skills. I wanted to learn more about their experiences in Vietnamese society and Julie would also share information about people living with disabilities in Vietnam. Through my interactions with my students, the WLC and Julie, I was inspired to write my dissertation about the Cultural Understandings of Disabilities in Vietnam. I’m sure you can guess that Julie was one of my biggest supporters during that time. Having open discussions with each other is what I believe made our friendship bloom. We both expressed our willingness and curiosity to learn about each other and our cultures.
Decorations that were placed in the city of Hanoi.
Currently we keep in touch consistently. We are always sharing about the new opportunities that we are taking on, sharing our sad days and happy days, and uplifting one another. I always reminisce about my gratitude for my internship opportunity and being able to meet wonderful people. I did not expect to have a friend like Julie in my life, and to be connected in such a unique way. Through all the growth and lessons that I learned during my internship, I’m grateful that I learned how to be a great friend to someone over a thousand miles away, and to experience having a great friend from lovely Vietnam.
Chị Cảm ơn nhé! Mong sớm gặp chi! (Julie, Thank you! I hope to see you soon!)