When I thought there weren’t enough changes happening already, it turns out that week two is when real life really kicks in. It’s the week when you’re already out on your own – navigating the streets of Philly, signing a lease, moving into a new apartment, attending a new church, exploring different parks, trying different types of foods, starting a new job (tomorrow!), and attending class. The list could go on!
One way I’ve been looking to especially challenge myself is by walking into certain experiences alone. This could be a trip to the park to read on a bench, doing homework at a nearby coffeeshop, starting a conversation with the sushi chefs at the restaurant or meeting an older gentleman who is also contemplating buying some Luigi’s Italian Ice at the grocery store (it’s hot here!).
This past Sunday, I decided to visit a new church in the center of the city. Freedom Church is a nondenominational church that is held in a theater on Sunday’s. Walking up to the front door, the gentleman holding the door “greeted” me with a big hug as I entered the building. I was not expecting such immediate kindness–especially in the middle of a big city! I had arrived early and realized that I would have a lot of down time as I waited for the doors to open for the worship area.
Just as I began to feel the presence of discomfort being without any familiar faces, the same greeter approached me and was curious as to who I was, where I was from, and how I found the church. He led me over to sign up for a small group before the service started, and I’m now set up to meet weekly with a group of ladies in the Old City part of Philly. He introduced me to another recent newcomer, Michelle, and she and I ended up attending the service together. Worship was amazing, and I felt that here was where true community could be found.
When the service was over, I left feeling the confidence to enter into those uncomfortable, and sometimes awkward, situations. I knew I could have easily invited other people in my program, but I think that sometimes it’s important to open yourself up to meeting new people as it can be so easy to cling to those with us.
So far, The Philadelphia Semester has been a privilege. In two weeks, I’ve learned to take risks, to put myself out there, and to not be afraid of doing things independently. There have been great moments, and really really hard moments. Sometimes loneliness can even settle in. But no matter what, the team at The Philadelphia Center has our backs, and push us to maintain our open mindedness about learning and experiencing new things here!
So – plantains! They’re just one of the changes between the food here in Ecuador and the food in the US. Here, we eat plantains almost every day. I learned that there are about a million ways to eat plantains including boiled, fried as empanadas, and as “chips”. Also, I learned that there are approximately a thousand varieties of plantains. In the US, I can usually only find bananas and if I’m lucky “plantains,” but my host mom walked me through the pantry and described, at least, 5 different varieties of plantains that she currently has.
We eat a lot of fried food, which kind of surprised me. Whenever we make empanadas (either from plantains or from flour), we fry them. I’ve also eaten a variety of fried meats. The fried food is definitely an adjustment for my stomach. Because I’m not used to eating that amount of oil, it has upset my stomach quite a bit in the transition.
Rice, potatoes, and yucca are the most common starches here as opposed to bread or flour. My host family eats less rice than most families because only my host mom likes rice, but it’s a really common dish. Salad goes with every meal and fruit is served with breakfast, every day. I’ve probably been eating healthier than I usually do in the US.
I will say, I miss American food a bit. The food here definitely doesn’t have the same flavor palate or salt content as the food in the US, and I have found myself craving salty meals more than I thought I would. I had a burger, over the weekend, and it was good. But, not the same as a burger in the US. That being said, the food here is really good – especially the fruit! It’s so much more flavorful than it is in the US.
Yet, I can’t leave a post about food without giving a shout out to the seafood on the coast! I went to a beach town, last weekend, and ate some of the seafood they served. It was absolutely delicious! It was easy to tell that it was fresh and well prepared.
One thing I want to add (it’s not related) is that if anyone is interested in studying abroad (especially in Quito) please feel free to reach out to me! You can reach me at my Hope email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I would be happy to help you with anything or just to chat. When I was preparing to leave, I reached out to the person who was here in Quito last semester with questions about classes, packing, and visas (shout out to Morgan Overweg – thank you so much!) and it was very helpful for me, so I would love to help you with whatever I can.
A little over two weeks ago, I landed in New York for the first day of my Human Rights Program. I was quickly bombarded with the typical bumper to bumper traffic, a montage of smells, and loud noises. I was also welcomed with rich diversity, vibrant street art, food trucks, and a rustic industrial landscape. I hopped out of my Uber and entered my first orientation gathering where everyone was already discussing definitions of human rights, hope, peace, and activism. It was pretty exciting!
After mingling for a few hours, we headed back to our hostel. For my first time staying in a hostel, I have to say it was a lot of fun! The hostel’s walls were painted with huge colorful abstract paintings. There was a game room, a living room, and a kitchen. Time at the hostel consisted of attempting to rest amidst very packed days, getting to know the twenty eight other students, cooking together, doing homework in the main room, and even watching a free and somewhat cringey comedy show in a small study area.
We have class about four to five days a week. Class is quite unconventional, and I love it. We usually sit in a large circle, instead of behind desks, to engage in in-group discussions, participate in various activities, and wrestle through the assigned readings. Sometimes this looks like creating short plays, illustrating concepts on posters, sitting in silence or even journaling.
In addition to class, we have done many group activities to help us prepare for the tough subjects we will be facing. This includes anti-oppression, mental health, and resilience trainings. Our group leaders continually emphasize the importance of both self-care and community-care. Also, we are learning how to be in touch with our emotions and our body through mindfulness and self reflection, helping us stay present through tough or potentially triggering conversations. Talking through human rights issues can be difficult and heavy. I am really impressed with the amount of training and preparation we have had upon entering this program, and am very excited to continue on!
Paris is a complicated, historic city. There are unwritten rules to just about everything, and if you want to be treated like a local, you better follow them all. Unlike in newer American cities and towns, quick convenience and individual happiness are subject second to the city’s collective needs and functionality. Say au revoir to “the customer’s always right” store policies and “build-your-own” choices on the menu. You’re in Paris now kids, and what the past 100 years has said, well, still goes.
Here’s the thing, though: living in Paris is living in history. Rules aren’t just rules in Paris, they’re reasons. For example, when enjoying an outdoor market (which the city has plenty of), you can’t grab fruit and veggies directly off the stand to purchase. It’s extremely offensive to the merchant because you’re essentially saying that you know better than them about their products. In actuality, the people operating each stand at the markets are professionals in their produce and are trained to pick the very best of their selection for your needs.
These unwritten how-tos go beyond food, of course. As another example, you can’t take a long, hot shower in Parisian apartments or wash your dishes in a sudsy, boiling bath. Why? Well, most apartments share a small tank of hot water each day for the entire building. If you use it all up for your luxury or even practicality, you’ll have a sky-high electric bill…and some angry neighbors at your door (yes, they’ll know it’s you!). Moreover, some apartments in Paris are so old that it will wake up the whole building at night if you merely flush the toilet. Oh la la.
So, as a study abroad student, why am I jumping through all the hoops to vivre à Paris? Besides its beautiful language, winding streets, and oh-so-chic style, I’m jumping through the hoops to live here because I’m a part of a collective culture that is bigger than myself. I’m choosing a city for more than just my needs and convenience for the sake of a greater good. In Paris, every breath in the present is taken from its past and builds its future—together, as collective Parisians (or in my case, almost Parisian), and I want to be a part of that.
Though I still have a lot to learn when it comes to becoming Parisian, every time I make a mistake in this new culture, embarrass myself over the language barrier or am tired of everything being more difficult than I’m used to, I remember the history I’m breathing in and becoming. That, to me, is worth every fashion faux pas.
I’m currently sitting in my tiny 3rd floor dorm room on my mosquito net-covered bed as the hot African sunlight streams in through the barred windows onto my face. “Did I put on enough sunscreen today?” A question I’ve been asking myself a lot, along with other questions like: “Is this the right way to take a bucket shower? Am I using this water filter right? Please God let me be using this water filter right, and What time is it right now in the U.S. again?” as I count backwards with my fingers. My roommate Ellie sits across from me on her bed, and we laugh as we recall all we’ve experienced in less than a week.
To begin our orientation week, we flew into Dar es Salaam, a major city along the coast. We became quickly acquainted with the unfamiliar noises, such as being woken up by the call to prayer or chickens squawking in the morning, as well as the crazy traffic and driving on the left side of the road. We spent time exploring the city, visiting museums and markets, learning traditional tribal dances, and traveling to a small island for a beach day!
After a few days in Dar, we had an 11 hour bus ride to our university, Ruaha Catholic University, which is in the city of Iringa; the city where we will be spending the majority of our semester. Lucky for us, some of the highway to Iringa was paved through a national park. As you can imagine, I gasped and pressed my face right up against the window when I saw a wild giraffe only a few feet away from me. The giraffe was just chillin’ on the side of the road. We found that 11 hours goes by quickly when you’re on the lookout for wild giraffes, zebras, baboons, and antelope the whole ride… even when you have to stop the bus so they can cross the road in front of you!
Settling into Iringa has been interesting, to say to the least. All of us in the program are learning and experiencing so much in such a short amount of time! We’re learning how to take bucket showers, manage sleep in noisy dorms, bargain at the markets, create a wardrobe of only long skirts and dresses (collared shirts for the boys) for our conservative campus, filter our water, and learn what food is and isn’t safe… which I may not have done the best job. On day two in Iringa, I had to take a trip to the local clinic due to a high fever and other flu-like symptoms, have some lab work done, and try to communicate about some confusing lab results with a Tanzanian doctor. I only know greetings, so far, in Swahili! “How are you?” and “Thank you” did not get me very far. Thankfully, my program director was there to translate. In the end, the clinic was able to give me some trustworthy antibiotics to take care of whatever is making me sick. Something that I was praying before arriving was that God would give me peace that surpasses understanding as I knew there would be a lot I wouldn’t understand when I came to Tanzania. Let me just say, He hears our prayers! Although it was a little startling to get sick and have a clinic visit so soon in the semester, I knew I was in good hands and would be okay, and was even able to laugh at the whole experience as it was happening (I’ll spare you of the pictures 🙂 ).
Well, my group is about to walk downtown for dinner (we’re trying a new restaurant every night- food is unbelievably cheap in Tanzania compared to the U.S.!) so time for me to go! More posts about food, culture, and Tanzanian university are soon to come so stay tuned! Thanks for reading.
I feel like half of the fear of studying abroad comes from the getting there bit. Airports are kind of intimidating. There are so many things to remember, especially when you’re traveling alone! You have to go through security, find the right gate, and double check that you’re at the right gate because there’s a flight leaving from the same gate before yours. Then, when you get to your layover, you have to find the right terminal. Who knew that Terminal “I” didn’t exist and I actually needed to get to Concourse E? Not me! And then to the right gate. Plus, you have to drag your luggage EVERYWHERE, otherwise the airport police will take it. The real price of safety is the luggage you forgot to take with you to the bathroom. But, I made it to the Santiago airport, luggage in hand!
But… I think we can all agree that the scariest part is customs. Many people just check “nothing to declare” and walk through. I, for the first time in my life, did not (some may say that was my mistake). All of my host gifts were food items, and most of them fit into the “agricultural products” section of things you have to declare. When I got to the front of the line, the customs official asked what I had, and I told him about the honey and dried fruits and nuts I had. He motioned for me to put my luggage through the scanner. When it rolled out the other side, he told me to take the honey out of my bag. Trembling a little bit, I did. He told me I couldn’t bring it into the country and I had to hand it over. I gave it to him, unsure of what would happen next. If you’re wondering what happened, absolutely nothing. He just took the honey and waved for the next person to put their luggage on the belt. I walked out of the airport, a jar of honey short, but otherwise unscathed. So I’m here to tell you that I survived two large international airports and a customs stop, and I promise it’s not as bad as you think it’s going to be! It’s just the first adventure of many that await.
So there’s actually not a ton of information about studying abroad when you have needs. I remember spending so much time browsing the internet trying to find literally anything regarding disability abroad. So I guess that makes it my job to break the ice.
For a little bit of background, I have been chronically ill since birth. I am an ambulatory wheelchair user (part-time), who does have some mobility. And, I deal with a multitude of chronic illnesses that impede my energy levels. But, I really wanted to study abroad. So here we go.
First, TALK TO YOUR DOCTORS!!!!
Before I begin, it is VERY important that you do not study abroad if your health does not allow you to. The last thing you want is to have a medical emergency hundreds of thousands of miles away. My journey began by talking to my doctors about the possibility of an academic experience abroad.
My doctors helped me identify whether I was stable enough to go abroad and the tools I would need to succeed. For instance, they told me I would need a place with easy access to medical care, so one of the programs I was looking at was simply too rural for it to be safe. Also, I would need a place that had paved roads and many flat sidewalks; programs that were in the mountains were not a possibility.
I had to make sure my personal needs were met. I’m obviously a student first– that means I had to find a program that, on top of all my medical needs, would allow me to take the credits I needed to graduate. Being a Computer Science and Creative Writing double major made that surprisingly difficult. Think about it; I would need a STEM and English program abroad.
That’s more difficult than you would think. It’s important to start the process early–even earlier than maybe some of your abled friends would start looking. Personally, I started in November of 2018 for a Fall 2019 semester, and that seemed to work well for me. However, if you happen to be chronically ill and see several specialists, I would even start pushing for a year and a half before going. I managed to have everything I needed just in time for me to go, but there were definitely some loose ends that would’ve been nice to tie up before going. I almost delayed my flight a few days, but thankfully didn’t need to.
Alright, I have my list of programs, now what?
Well, that list of programs needs to get narrowed down. I ended up with two programs that would accommodate all my medical needs and my credits. If you have more options, I’d start narrowing them down by interest, first. Are there some programs that just sound better than the rest? Are some more accommodating than others? Are some in a more ideal location? Don’t be afraid to ask students who have been on the program or even the study abroad office. They will know better than you will, in terms of program details on accommodations, interests, popularity, etc.
Finding a good, personal fit is really important. This will be the place you will be living for an academic semester. If you aren’t feeling confident about the process, the place or your accommodations at any point, DO NOT GO. Trust that gut feeling.
That being said, it’s normal to feel uneasy or nervous about going abroad. I definitely had a few stress breakdowns in the early stages of applying. I was nervous about leaving Hope and my friends, and my comfort zone. Those are normal feelings. But, distinguish them from being unsure of your safety and whether you have the resources to succeed. One set of feelings is totally normal–the other is a red flag.
Don’t be afraid to call the program director. They’re there for you, and they often have a better idea of what’s available at the country/program you’re looking at. If not, they will definitely know who to contact and can get you connected with them. Before choosing this CIEE program, I called the program head, and several of the staff here at the American University of Sharjah to make sure everything I needed would be available. Everyone was super understanding and helpful, and really have been making my transition to campus a lot easier!
As scary as it can be, communicating is VERY key.
Cool, I’ve found a program, applied, and got in! Now what?
Congrats, how exciting! But the work doesn’t stop there. Also, frankly, here comes a ton of paperwork.
If you have any sort of academic accommodations, you will need to talk to disability services to make sure they transfer. In other words, visiting our local disability services.
I had many meetings with them. Not only can they help you potentially pick a program, but they can make sure your accommodations transfer over to your study abroad program. They can also help you find resources in your new home. For instance, Mrs. Dattels showed me a resource called Mobility International USA that has a ton of valuable information on accessibility abroad, something I wouldn’t have necessarily discovered on my own. They can help with the literal mounds of paperwork that has to get done to study abroad. A good amount of it does have to get filled out by your doctors so make sure to keep in contact with them, and visit them several times before finally going abroad.
Right Before You Go
Before you go, make sure you have enough medication to get you through the next few months. Make sure that your medication is legal in the country you’re traveling to.
That’s another thing you should be aware of: some countries have medications that are flat out illegal, but others require some extra paperwork to enter the country. For instance, I learned that one of my migraine medications was a controlled substance here in the UAE. I talked to my doctors and, thankfully, it was a medication that we decided I could function without for a few months. I could have filled out the necessary paperwork to bring it into the country, but it turned out to be too much of a hassle. Make sure you do your research! You can always ask your program director for more information if you’re confused, but Google is usually pretty helpful in that regard.
Be sure to have copies of the prescriptions on you! I had a giant folder with copies of all my medical documentation stowed in my carry-on, including a note from my doctor indicating my disabilities. It ended up being EXTREMELY essential, especially at customs. To be honest, I even wish I had more documentation so just get as much documentation as possible.
Then, when you’re booking the flight, make sure you call the airline. Most airlines will give you a free bag if you need one for your medical supplies, but you often have to fill out extra paperwork. I ended up getting an extra bag for all my medical equipment and was able to check my mobility device for free. That can save you so much money and hassle.
I did one last round of appointments with my doctors before I went, just to make sure I was okay to travel. And now, here I am!
Traveling with a disability or with extra accommodations can be nerve-wracking. It’s a lot of paperwork. It’s pretty stressful. But it can be done, if you take the necessary precautions and take care of yourself in the process.
I’m super nervous to spend a semester. The nature of chronic illness is that it’s unpredictable. But, I am confident in the accommodations I have in place, and after being here a week, I am thrilled to say I made the right choice. It may be a lot of work, but it is super worth it!
I arrived in Thailand a little over 3 weeks ago on August 10th. Every day since then, I have given thought to what I should share in my first blog post. It hasn’t been the easiest task to decide on what to write about because a lot has happened since I got here.
I flew into Chiang Mai a few days later than everyone else in my program because I had a doctor’s appointment in the U.S. that I couldn’t miss. The day after I landed at Chiang Mai International Airport, the 13 of us hopped into the back of a truck and drove 2 hours to a small village called Sri Kham in the Phrao District of Chaing Mai Provence.
Phrao has a lush agricultural landscape with rice fields and orchards extending in every direction. The weather was quite unpredictable, with storms coming through every day. Despite the pockets of sunshine and occasional breeze, the air was thick with humidity and even the simple task of breathing became a challenge at times. Rain and humidity made bugs and mosquitos an ever-present reality.
I spent 6 days and 5 nights in this village, learning about the culture mainly through body language and google translate. My host dad, Pha Khum (พ่อคำ), and host brother (known to us as Bill) lived on a small plot of land that had 4 structures: the kitchen, bathroom, building where Pha Khum slept, and the pleasant wooden shack where Bill slept in one room and I slept in another.
Our program met once or twice a day to do some fun/educational activities throughout the week. We plowed and planted rice fields, cooked authentic Thai meals, played with children at school, and even learned a Thai dance. But, most of my time in the village was spent sitting outside at Pha Khum’s big wooden table, socializing with card games and trying to figure out the extraordinarily complicated Thai language.
Upon our arrival back to Chiang Mai, we had a weekend to rest and recover before classes started at Chiang Mai University. I went all around the city with friends exploring markets, restaurants, and coffee shops. Chiang Mai is bustling with all sorts of vibrant colors and smells. There are 7-Eleven shops on every corner (at one point I could see 3 from where I was standing on the street) and the power lines here would give any electrician an aneurysm. The streets are usually packed with cars and motorbikes, making the common task of crossing the street quite the experience.
A lot has happened since we got back from the village: classes have started, I experienced Chiang Mai Ram Hospital (that is a story for another blog), spicy food has taught some of us a great lesson, and I found a place to climb!
The culture shock has been real and I am more homesick than I ever planned on being, but Chiang Mai is gradually becoming somewhat of a home. Slowly but surely, I am establishing a routine and I can’t wait to continue the adventures!
And just like that – the official move has happened! Traveling for my first day to Philadelphia, PA, was an absolute whirlwind. It looked a lot like a 4am alarm, a rush to the airport, a hard goodbye, a flight full of anticipation, and a long walk down the sidewalk rolling two overpacked suitcases down the streets of Philly. But, life is busy here, and quickly I realized that everyone is just trying to keep up.
I arrived at The Philadelphia Center, in the downtown area, around noon, and was greeted at the door by one of the faculty advisors, Mark. Without hesitation, I was pulled into the room where the students were just beginning orientation. We spent some time going over safety tips for the city and what to expect, with the understanding that most of our street smarts would come from our everyday experiences.
Our group was divided into three, and in smaller sections we toured the big city. A lot of very practical information was given, and we would frequently rehearse each item – such as understanding the numbering systems for the streets, how to navigate the SEPTA railway, how to alert a trolley driver that you needed to get off. So much had to do with just culture in Philadelphia and picking up on their frequent phrases. If a passenger is trying to get off of a trolley, but the back door isn’t opening, other passengers may call out “step down!” to remind the passenger that you must trigger the door’s opening by putting pressure on the top step of the stairway. There are many things I could never have known!
Learning experiences like this brought so much excitement! I realized just how much there is to know about the city of Philadelphia. We stopped for lunch at the Reading Terminal Market, asked each other lots of get-to-know-you questions (housing decisions made tomorrow already!), and came back for a full group dinner at the center.
And to top it all off – one large ice cream cone for a late night snack!
Last summer, I had the amazing opportunity to visit Liverpool for 10 days with a group of Hope College delegates to participate in The Big Hope 2. This young leaders’ congress was an amazing experience. Young people all over the word came together to discuss freedom, conflict, equality and change, in a way I had not been able to partake in before. It was a truly unique, inspiring, and educational 10 days. It was also a difficult and exasperating time filled with self doubt.
While I enjoyed every academic aspect of being on Liverpool Hope University’s campus, being in Liverpool was another story. My 10 days in Liverpool will always stand out to me as a time where my identity and sense of self worth were shaken. I had never before wished so desperately to be invisible. It seemed as if everywhere I went I was met with either harsh glares or cameras put in my face, reminding me that my dark skin was not a norm. With whichever of these two actions, people (whether on purpose or unfortunately due to lack of cultural experience) made me feel like an anomaly.
A few of these situations included trying to decide what to order in the café of the Museum of Liverpool while being stared down before ending up leaving with nothing. Or, forcing a smile as a group of women rushed around me, pinched my cheeks, called me orange because of the color of my then hair and took pictures, were difficult to come to terms with.
Coming back home to regroup was immensely important. Conversations with friends and family once more filled my spirit with love and dignity. I knew that I had done nothing wrong. I knew that many of those moments were charged by ignorance. I also knew that while it is okay to hurt after being faced with seemingly hundreds of microaggressions, I should not have let my self truths waiver.
I am strong. I am intelligent. I will continue on my path of education, spreading awareness of themes of love, equality, and justice on a global scale. My goal on this second, much longer trip to Liverpool, is to remain resilient and focused. I hope to find the same joys I’d found on campus, throughout the city.