Meet U.S. Department of State sponsored Gilman Scholarship recipient Alex Montoya. Alex was a Gilman Global Experience Correspondent during the summer of 2014 studying and interning in Shanghai, China. The Gilman Global Experience allows Gilman Scholarship recipients the opportunity to record videos around academic and cultural themes to share with other students interested in studying or interning abroad in the featured country. For more videos please visit the Gilman Scholarship’s Official YouTube page.
The first few days we have been going through an orientation (lots of time in the classroom and little time to explore). We learn about Senegalese customs, learn to dance a little, learn how to eat around the bowl (this means we all eat out of the same big bowl and sit on pillows on the floor), learn about Senegalese EVERYTHING! I feel like I have forgotten most of what they said, but luckily I am not afraid to ask over and over again. Out of the forty-ish students here, I am definitely the one who doesn’t mind talking with the locals. I have made friends with about everyone I have met, and they are so welcoming. The Senegalese have one word that represents their culture: TERANGA. This roughly translates to hospitality. They have a firm belief to always invite people in and help foreigners because they never know if they will need help in the future. People gladly help me with directions, finding transportation, and I have already been given so many gifts. I have had special excursions to some markets and have been introduced to several people around the city while the rest of the students just stay in the hotel. I am truly trying to get out there and experience the culture– and don’t worry mom, I’m being safe.So since there is so much to write about, I will try to give an adequate abridgment of Senegal through my eyes with the understanding that I will never fully explain the entirety of this awesome experience.
Dakar is a thriving metropolis. There are so many people, street vendors and cars everywhere. We have to cross a giant highway to get to school (which is terrifying since pedestrians have no rights) and I feel like I’m always a bit anxious when I cross. They have three main neighborhoods where students live. I live in the furthest one which is called Ouakam. Try to search for pictures from Oaukum on the internet to see where I live. This is a developing country so that means that there are livestock on the streets, dirt roads, no dependable source of running water, and frequent electricity cuts. I’m learning to shower out of a bucket and enjoy being sweaty and smelly all the time.
The food is crazy delicious. Of course the main dish is rice and fish, but my host mom explained that she likes a variety of food. Everyone here eats out of one large bowl. Normally they eat with their hands, yet my family has adopted silverware after having been a host family for 6 years. Most of the dishes are very simple- lentils, french fries, rice, onions, etc. My favorite is the fruit, especially the MANGOS! They are so delicious! I eat about three a day because it also costs only one dollar for a kilo. I’m loving the food and so far no illness.
My Host FamilySo the best part so far is my host family. They insist that I call them ” Mama” and “Papa” along with my three brothers and one sister. Here are their names so you can get some sort of idea of who I’m living with: Simon Pierre, Bernadette, Christian (26), Amelie (23), Pappi (17), and Benoit (9). My little brother Benoit already loves me so much– he follows me around, copies what I do, always wants to play and gets sad every time I have to leave. My very first night with the family almost felt like I was in the United States. We had spaghetti for dinner and after we all played UNO! I am super blessed to be living with a family that shares my beliefs and has made me feel at home so quickly.
As I said, there is so much that has happened and so many people I have met! I am really missing feeling dry and smelling clean, but I know I will soon get over that. There is so much talk about EBOLA and with one case emerging in Senegal, I am trying to enjoy each day and do as much as I can.
I sat in my kitchen table in two different occasions and waited– nothing. In my hand, a pen, in front of me, my journal with only the date, the time and a title, “What I learned in Morocco.”
The page remained blank. Both times.
I sat there and thought, what did I really learn in Morocco? I had to have learned something! But in front of me, the naked pages revealed nothing.
I didn’t worry though. I knew that what I had learned was still pouring through my consciousness, taking root deep inside my mind.
I knew…but my mind and pages were blank. What did Moroccans and Islam teach me in the last five months? Where were all my deep realizations? Where was my profound understanding of the self?
Perhaps, more than I can share with you right now. As I said, the lessons learned are still being processed and just because I left Morocco, doesn’t mean Morocco has left me.
And so without further delay, I will share with you just a few things I learned in Morocco.
Morocco is at a crossroads.
I learned that Morocco is a country that is not quite African, not yet European and not fully integrated with Middle East.
It is a country that has as much history as it has struggles. It is a country that is a hybrid of its past conflicts and recent conquests. Morocco has been so profoundly influenced by its past – its future is almost unreadable.
Morocco is still developing. Violence and sexual harassment against women is a problem that the country has failed to address. The king of Morocco lives in abundance in any of his five palaces while thousands of homeless Moroccans endure the elements outside. Corruption, wealth accumulation and inequality are unaddressed issues that have slowly been gaining light.
But Morocco is a country rich in opportunities. Its affluence doesn’t come from its GDP or its natural resources; its wealth comes from the Moroccan people – the people who wake up hoping today will be better than yesterday. Its people that have joys and pains and dreams and defeats – just like we all do.
Islam means peace.
Labeling all Muslims as terrorists is as ignorant and dangerous as when Hitler blamed the entire Jewish population for being the cause of Germany’s problems.
There is no difference.
When people use religion to justify violence, for any reason, they are no longer following the principles of their own belief system. Since peace and justice are at the core of every religion that claims that God is their source of knowledge.
Traveling light is a gift.
During my last few days in Morocco, I was traveling with my brother with just our backpacks and duffel bags. By no means were we traveling light, since we each carried about fifty pounds.
I had given away my larger suitcase and most of my belongings to my roommate and friends. I needed to travel with what I considered the bare minimum – and it was still too much.
As we traveled through Morocco, I realized how comforting it is to not have any additional weight on my shoulders. How refreshing it is to not be tied down to anything. How liberating it can be to have nothing but the clothes on my back.
As we moved from city to city, we realized we should have left more behind. Very much like in life, the less baggage we carry, the more free we are to move around.
It is not where you are, it is who you are with.
Bus, taxi and train rides would had been much more uncomfortable had I not had a friend’s shoulder to sleep on.
Hungry nights on top of Mount Toubkal would had been lonely had my soul not been filled with laughter.
The stars wouldn’t have shone as brightly had I not had someone to share my dreams with.
My tagine or couscous wouldn’t have been finished had I eaten alone.
The cities I walked through would have been empty, had I not had someone to see them with.
In my time in Morocco, I learned that it doesn’t matter where you are, it matters who you are with. You can be sleeping in a train station in Meknes, or staying in a luxurious hostel in Barcelona, or rocking on a hammock at home, and none of it would matter.
The place, the location, the time – that is all arbitrary. The people we share it with is what makes the difference.
But never forget the people at home.
Sure, it is nice to travel to distant lands and explore new cultures, but having that little piece of home with you always makes the road seem less dangerous.
I guess what I am trying to say is this:
Leave home, but come back to see how much you have grown. Learn about yourself so that you can teach others about themselves. Keep your loved ones close to your heart, because when the world gets cold, that is the one place where your memories will always keep you warm.
I am still learning who I am.
Perhaps the most insightful reflection that I have acquired is this: I am still figuring out who I am, and honestly, I might never find out – and the best part – that is okay, I have an entire lifetime to do so.
Life is a journey. Our purpose? I will let the dead philosophers argue with each other over the answer.
There comes a turning point, I believe, in every person’s life where we must decide: continue living the life we are living, or take a leap of faith into the unknown, venture into the realm where nothing is certain and everything is a mystery.
In “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” by Joseph Campbell, he calls it, “the hero’s call to adventure.” This is the point where the protagonist, you and I and everyone else, is faced with a challenge, with a quest they must embark on in order to attain completeness.
It is a journey from childhood innocence to adulthood understanding; it is the quest from ignorant prince to enlightened Buddha; it is the merging of two worlds– the unknown and the known, the yin and yang, the light and the darkness– into one ecstatic whole.
Our hero is rewarded with a deeper, more mature and holistic view of their role in the universe.
Going to Morocco was my call to adventure, but as I learned in my time there, the call of duty rings more than once. At any point, life can decide to interfere and once again ask our hero if they would like to embark on a detour from the main narrative.
It is during these detours that I have learned the most about myself. It is during these detours that the deepest parts of ourselves are revealed.
The Journey continues.
I learned that the journey is never over.
I am also learning that just because I am back home, doesn’t mean that the same Kevin has returned.
And now I must wait: for Life, for Fate and Destiny to knock at my door with another quest. A new journey.
The universe knows that I will answer.
“I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”
This quote is the most accurate way I can think of to describe my feelings for this country. During my first few weeks, I was happy to be in a new country discovering another culture, but I was by no means head over heels in love with life here. A week or so ago, as I sat with some of my American and Kyrgyz friends on top of a hill overlooking Bishkek and watched the sun go down over the city, I realized something had changed. Somehow I had fallen in love with this country without noticing it, and I had fallen hard.
During my orientation at school before departing for Bishkek, we were shown a graph of the stages that people go through when they study abroad. I’m not going to lie, the graph made me pretty nervous. Although I had never traveled abroad before, I had traveled throughout the US and I go to school pretty far from home, so I’ve experienced being separated from my family and friends for long periods of time. The thing is, home-sickness was something that had never been a problem for me, so I really had no experience dealing with it. Looking at this graph and listening to a presenter tell us that we would all at some point feel depressed and helpless was definitely intimidating. It also just didn’t sound like me. I think the presenter could see the doubt on my face, because she was quick to assure me that she hadn’t thought she would feel those things either, but she had experienced every single stage on the graph.
During those first few weeks in Bishkek, that graph was always in the back of my mind. I kept wondering when the frustration with the culture, the homesickness, and the helplessness would hit. Then, as I sat on that hill and looked out over the city I had come to love, I realized something. This graph wasn’t written in stone, I wasn’t obligated to feel things the same way someone else did. I’m not saying that there haven’t been times when I felt out-of-place or when I missed my friends, but, for me, these feelings never resulted in me wanting to leave or feeling extremely sad. I don’t think there is any model that can accurately predict how every single person will react to a situation and I think people experience different stages of this graph at different intensities and some may skip certain stages entirely. It doesn’t mean that some people are stronger or weaker than others; it just means we’ve all led different lives and react differently to situations. For me, I think I skipped the first stage, or “honeymoon stage” as its sometimes called, and just grew steadily more comfortable in this country until I realized that it was starting to feel like home. Perhaps, the fact that I didn’t have this period of overwhelming infatuation with Kyrgyzstan when I first got here helped me to not have a lot of negative or frustrated feelings down the road. I think what all of this comes down to, is that how we react to situations is completely up to us. I have no scientific evidence to back this up, but I’m pretty sure that every single student in the history of students who have studied abroad has had some sort of inconvenient, frustrating, or scary thing happen to them on their trip. Of course, some things have more of an effect on us than others and are harder to get over, but for the most part, how you choose to react to these things will define how you feel about your experience and determine how much you learn and get out of your trip when it’s over. It’s an empowering, but also slightly scary feeling to realize that we have so much power over our lives. I’ve gained so much from my experience in Kyrgyzstan, but I think the biggest thing so far would be this realization that I define my life and that I don’t have to fit it into anyone else’s mold, no matter how tried and true this mold is said to be.
Shanghai has a way of making many foreigners feel very special. Everywhere you go people always want to take a picture with you, buy you drinks when you’re out, or attempt to snap a picture of you when you’re not looking. When I’m waiting in a metro stop or an elevator, people always want to practice and develop their English skills as well, sometimes even their Spanish! After a week, stage two of culture shock sneaks up out of nowhere. People keep asking for the same thing over and over, you start to become a bit irritated. Next thing you know, the only thing to do at this point is to blend in with everyone by popping in ear buds and walk with the beat.
A few day of ignoring people as you walk around the city definitely causes a case of homesickness and stage three of culture shock hits you hard. At this point I begin to remember the comforts of home and how I really needed them now. I kept questioning myself as to why can’t I navigate the metro station yet, why can’t you speak Chinese yet, and every other negative thought.
Having more of a positive outlook a few days later, I found a solid group of friends that are from the US, France, Singapore, China and a few other place around the globe. We have done so many things together; without them there would be no way I would have done such crazy things. Busy days are always the best, especially with others. Culture shock becomes a thing of the past, and you finally begin to feel at home.
I think the hardest part of being abroad for me is when one of your friends you have made abroad end up leaving the city for good. With mixed emotions and uncertainty of when you will see them again, this part always puts me back a step within the culture shock. As for now, I will enjoy every moment I have with them and not worry about anything else.
Even before going abroad, I knew what I wanted to as a professional career: I want to become an international interpreter. My experience abroad will no doubt be invaluable to me as I continue to pursue that goal. They say that learning a language is easiest when you’re completely immersed in it. I lived with a Spanish family, who knew very little English, and had a Spanish class Monday to Friday from 9am to 1:30pm. This left me very little room to lose the idea of immersion. When I first arrived in Spain, I was incredibly shy and was afraid to make an error in my speaking ability, so I spoke very little. However, by the time I left Spain, I spoke fluidly, confidently, and happily. Sure, I was still slightly afraid of making an error, but that’s a fear that I’m going to have to overcome, if I’m going to achieve my goal of becoming an international interpreter.
While abroad, I also traveled to other countries via plane, bus, and train, often times going completely alone. Initially, I was also afraid of traveling alone. What if I got mugged? Could I navigate airport security on my own? Can I carry my luggage on my own? All of these questions buzzed through my head when I decided that I would be traveling. But, I’d promised myself that I’d take risks and put myself out there and try new things. My first trip traveling completely alone (from Zaragoza to London to Chester and back) was a complete success. I did my best to blend in and not act like a tourist, and it seemed to do the trick. After that, I had a lot more self-confidence and trusted myself to not get lost, or to find my way out of a difficult situation if necessary. I had a couple of close calls (getting on my train to London as the doors closed), but I made it to each place safe and sound. A tour group I met up while on Semana Santa (Spanish Easter holiday) even expressed their surprise and astonishment as I told them I’d been traveling alone for a few days before meeting the group. I don’t think I’d ever be able to acquire the skills and confidence necessary to travel alone if I hadn’t decided to study abroad in the first place.
Academically, the Spanish course I was enrolled in was definitely challenging! My professor had high expectations and would settle for nothing less. At first, it was incredibly overwhelming for me, and I thought that the professor was being especially hard on me. However, in hindsight, I realize that she was doing that because she knew my potential, and she knew that if I truly applied myself, I would be extremely successful. Now that the course is over, I’m very happy that I had her as my professor; I don’t think I would have learned as much as I did, had it not been for her. When it came time for the final exam, she spoke with me afterwards to offer any final comments and give me my grade. She gave me a 9/10 and said that I was a rare case because I actually speak Spanish better than I write it, and she offered me a few words of advice to help me in the future. Thanks to her, I now know what I need to focus on when I return to school in the fall in order to make myself successful, both academically and professionally.
Meet U.S. Department of State sponsored Gilman Scholarship recipient Karly Kahl-Placek. Karly was a Gilman Global Experience Correspondent for the Spring 2013 semester in Jaipur, India. The Gilman Global Experience allows Gilman Scholarship recipients the opportunity to record videos around academic and cultural themes to share with other students interested in studying or interning abroad in the featured country. For more videos please visit the Gilman Scholarship’s Official YouTube page.
The differences between my world in America and my new world in Italy were apparent right way. With my modest-sized suitcase in my hand, I waved my key card in front of a panel beside my dorm room. I heard a magnetic click as my door unlocked. I threw my bags on my bed and I searched for the electrical adapter so I could recharge my phone. I plugged my phone into the wall but the life-affirming green light on my charger was not activated. I walked over to the light switch and I toggled between on and off. No luck there either. The only thing that resembled electricity was a dimly lit green arrow next to the door. With my key card still in my hand, I inserted it into the slot and I heard a faint click. The lights came on and I felt cooler air at the back of my neck. I was amazed that the Bologna campus was so progressive in being “green” and I wished that we could be more like that back home. As I left my room for a group meeting, I pulled the key card from the wall. The lights went out and the air conditioner went off. In some small way, I felt like I was making a small contribution in the global effort to conserve energy.
After a good night’s rest, I was ready to start my first day of classes. However, the first order of business was breakfast. As I ventured through the hallways to the dining hall and upon entering the room, my first impression was that the Italian students did not look that much different from the other students at the Syracuse campus. As I carried my tray of food, I became acutely aware of the incessant chatter emanating throughout the room and I realized I didn’t understand what was being said. Luckily for me, I didn’t have to endure this surreal moment of feeling out-of-place by myself since there were twelve other Syracuse students participating in my film studies program. As I sat down next to the other film students, my attention turned to my Italian breakfast. What lay before me was not my “breakfast of champions” that I was accustomed to back home. My tray contained a fresh-baked croissant (with Nutella), a banana, a yogurt, a cup of pear juice (from a box) and a tiny ceramic cup of espresso. I can’t deny I was a little let down. Where were my eggs, toast, bacon and my 16 ounces of coffee? I said to myself, “You are in Italy…do as the Italians do!” I took a deep breath and I devoured what was in front of me. I was a little surprised that bread, yogurt and fruit were actually quite filling. As I was leaving the dining hall, the server politely said something in Italian, which I didn’t understand. I didn’t worry too much since I was on my way to my first Italian language class!
Since the day I started my journey to Kyrgyzstan, unexpected opportunities have become a daily occurrence for me. I can never be completely sure what my days are going to hold or what new people I am going to meet. One of these unexpected opportunities presented itself during my second week in Bishkek. One of our program assistants mentioned that there were many opportunities to teach English if any of us were interested. Two other girls from the program and I told her that we would be interested and she responded later that day with a teaching opportunity for us. A few other people in our program had already started teaching English here, and all of their situations seemed to be teaching one or two small children at their homes once or twice a week. At first, we were under the impression that this was going to be the same kind of deal, but we slowly began to realize that what we were in for was going to be a very different experience.
We got our first clue when we received a call telling us that a taxi was being sent to pick us up. We got into the taxi with no knowledge of our destination and watched the city fly by as our driver maneuvered his way through rush hour traffic (driving in Bishkek is absolutely terrifying by the way, mostly because lanes and general traffic rules don’t seem to exist.) We finally stopped at a building that had the words ENGLISH ZONE emblazoned across the front and climbed out of our taxi. We were greeted by one of the managers and then taken into a room where the owner began to talk to us about our time in Bishkek so far. After a few minutes of small talk, he suddenly became very businesslike. “So you want a job” he said. “Before we go further, I want you guys to tell me about the most influential teacher you’ve had and why they impacted your life so much.” At this point, the three of us realized that we would not be giving one on one lessons to small children while their parents made us snacks, and that we had quite literally stumbled into a legitimate job interview. We scrambled to get into professional mode and somehow managed to get out coherent and decently intelligent responses to his questions. After the impromptu interview, he told us we would have a five-day trial period and explained the premise of English Zone to us. English Zone is a school that is trying to revolutionize learning. Students are not given lessons on vocab and grammar directly, but learn it through learning other subjects in English. They give presentations on topics, debate controversial issues, watch videos, learn songs, and are just generally immersed in English the whole time they are at English Zone. “Moderator” is also substituted for the word “teacher” because the idea is that the moderator should facilitate discussion and learning more so than teaching information directly. I found these concepts fascinating and on par with my own feelings on education.
We began our trial week that day and observed a class. The next day we showed up for training and our supervisor said “Rachel and Alex you’ll be observing my class. Gabby you have a class in ten minutes that you will be leading.” I’m not going to lie; there was a moment of pure panic where my thoughts went something like “What. I have no idea what I’m doing. I’ve had no training. I should run…Or play dead… Is it possible to do both?” I managed to clamp down these thoughts however, and shakily walked into my class ten minutes later with a very sparse and haphazard lesson plan. That class was one of the most fun and eye-opening experiences of my life. All of the students were my age or older and were already at a conversational level. They were also hilarious and my nerves disappeared almost immediately. Since that day, I’ve been volunteering there Monday through Friday and loving it.
One of my friends told me once that he thinks that there are people we meet who are like puzzle pieces and that, throughout our lives, these puzzle pieces come together and help shape who we are as a person. For me, the students and the people I work with at English Zone are definitely some of my puzzle pieces. They have not only taught me a lot about Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan, but they have taught me about myself. They ask me questions that make me think and come up with answers to my questions that I have never considered before. They have taught me about an aspect of myself that I didn’t really know existed and helped me discover that I am passionate about helping people learn. They have told me about their dreams and ambitions and inspired me to follow my own. They are funny, smart and dedicated and make me want to strive to be better every time I moderate a class. Many of them have also become my friends and the time I have spent with them outside of English Zone has resulted in some of my favorite experiences here so far.
I had no idea when I applied for this summer program in Bishkek that I would become part of a startup company that is trying to change the education world. I didn’t know that I would find a new passion or that I would meet my students and learn so much from them. They have opened up parts of this culture that I would not have gotten a chance to see as a foreigner. Before going to English Zone and meeting the people there, I hadn’t really considered the possibility that I would come back to Kyrgyzstan down the road, this trip seemed like a once in a lifetime kind of deal. The unexpected friendships and connections I have made there have made me want to return and learn more about this country and become more involved in the work that English Zone does.
When I initially went to Spain, I expected to find an environment different from what I was accustomed to in the United States, and I wasn’t disappointed. In Zaragoza alone, where I lived, I very rarely would see trash in the streets. Every once in a while, I might spy a random plastic bag blowing in the wind, or a pop can on the sidewalk, but it wasn’t very common. It also struck me as odd that the sidewalk was wet one day, even though it hadn’t rained or anything in a few days. As I was walking to class the next day, I saw a giant machine being operated along the sidewalks. As I got closer, I realized that the machine was actually spraying and sweeping the sidewalk, gathering trash as it went as well. I thought that this was definitely a great way to keep the streets clean, and I wish I saw more of that in my hometown. As a person with a disability, who can easily trip and fall over the smallest bit of trash, clean and clear streets and sidewalks are a blessing!
Another form of conservation that I found in Spain, particularly in my host family, was the reuse of food. My host mom was an absolutely fantastic cook, and I enjoyed almost every dish she cooked. However, she would often times make large portions and I’m a smaller guy, so I don’t always eat much. If I wasn’t able to eat all of something, instead of throwing it away like I might at home, she’d insist that we could reheat it for later. Leftovers became my best friends in a sense. Even if I didn’t like the dish she had prepared (which was rare), she would try to reuse different parts of the dish in something else that I might enjoy. As she once told me, “I went to Cuba once. After seeing what little food they have, I will never waste a single bite of food, if I can help it.”
One last thing I noticed about Spain was how much Europeans in general really have learned to cherish and take care of the environment, particularly the most beautiful parts, like the beaches. For example, I visited two different beaches in Spain: the main beach in Valencia and La Concha (The Shell) in San Sebastián, named for its shell-like shape. The couple of beaches that I’ve visited in the US have been quite dirty, to be honest. The sand can be quite uncomfortable to walk on, due to miscellaneous pieces of trash. However, I particularly enjoyed the day I spent in San Sebastián because I was able to walk on a clean, beautiful beach, only having to worry about small shell pieces, instead of pieces of glass or an empty can of Coke. I really appreciate that there are still clean places like that in the world, and I hope that one day people will see the value in such places and will in turn, take better care of them.