Thoughts Before Takeoff

I can’t believe my semester abroad is coming on so quickly! In a few days, I will be on my flight to London to continue my degrees in English and theatre. I feel like I have to pinch myself to make it real. But it is! That being said, as I am procrastinating on the items I have left on my list of pre-departure to-do’s, I have come to terms with an upsetting conclusion: my prized chunky sweater collection that I live in during the colder months is not meant for traveling. I must leave some behind. A true tragedy.

Jokes aside, I’m so excited to start my new adventure. I can’t wait to do all the touristy things and to find some hidden gem spots. I love traveling through cities and discovering all the treasures the place has to offer. I am also buzzing about my courses because they all sound like so much fun. For example, I will get to see a theatre production once a week in one of my classes, and my literature classes are full of books that have been on my to-be-read list for ages! London is so rich with history in literature and theatre, and I am so freaking jazzed that I get to study both while I am there.

Emi in the Botanic Gardens
Emi in the Botanic Gardens

I have also been saying goodbye to my friends and family in the days leading up to my departure. While this doesn’t seem out of the ordinary as the school year starts, this time feels much grander than usual. Hope College is comfortable, and even though I’m not from there, Holland is home. Not returning to Hope this fall feels like a leap into the “real world” despite the fact that I am entering my senior year. However, it’s time to get out of my comfort zone and dive into new possibilities with both my love for theatre and my love for literature. Subscribe below and follow me through my semester!

Into The Unknown

As I prepare to officially depart for London in less than 2 days, I can’t help but do a little reflecting on my thoughts about leaving what is comfortable and known to me, and to then be entering a foreign place that I have never been before. The familiarity of family, friends, and the pace of day to day life will be temporarily paused to enable me to see another part of the world full of diverse cultures, exotic landscapes, and new adventures for the next four months! In a way, I feel like I’m reliving my freshman year of college. New people, new places, new part of my life! Of all the uncertainty that surrounds college and going on an adventure like studying abroad, one thing that has remained certain for me ever since I was a freshman at Hope was to pursue a dream of mine of studying abroad. 

As this past year has taught us anything, one of the realizations that has hit me is how little control we actually have of our hopes and dreams at times. As Australia was originally my preferred location to be for four months, the coronavirus halted this long-term aspiration and forced me to look at different options from a fresh perspective. In turn, I think this is what a lot of my time in Europe will entail. To be open to embracing a culture different from my own. To see a part of the world that I have never been exposed to before. To take advantage of all the new opportunities that will be presented to me. And lastly, to get out of my comfort zone!    

As I have exhausted the search bar of Google looking up what all the UK and Europe has to offer, I’m ready to immerse myself first-handedly and experience it for myself! Here’s to a semester of growth, challenge, and joy!!

Many Miles to Mexico

“Wait a minute, you’re scared!” my friend proclaimed.

“Correction, I’m absolutely terrified,” I laughed with a look of panic in my eye.

This exchange happened no earlier than a week ago and while I have managed to calm myself down, my wariness remains. In T-24 hours I embark on my semester abroad in Oaxaca, Mexico with SIT for a program focusing on Borders, Migration, and Transnational Communities. In all honesty, I have been at a loss for words to describe everything I feel. After all, this is an experience I have been waiting for my entire college experience. However, that all changed when I came across a curious little chipmunk during a walk through Centennial Park. 

Not to sound like I am living a Disney movie, but I feel like this chipmunk (metaphorically, that is…). Through careful observation, the chipmunk acted both cautious & curious, almost paralyzed, taking in its newfound surroundings. Once it determined the large looming threat (aka me) wasn’t as scary as initially thought, it visually relaxed continuing about its business. Despite what it had come to know, the presumptions about the human did not seem to add up.

This is how the chipmunk I encountered in Centennial Park presented itself.
This is how the chipmunk I encountered in Centennial Park presented itself.

This is me, except in my case the looming threat is not a human, but rather the thought of studying in Mexico. There are simply too many “what ifs?” swirling around in my head. What if I misinterpret a situation and make a fool of myself? What if having all of my classes in Spanish overwhelms me? What if my host family doesn’t like me? What if I catch Covid? What if, what if, what if…? This paralysis (for lack of a better word) of “what ifs?” and presumptions held me in a headspace of avoidance for a long time. However, as I started tackling the big items on my to-do list, such as packing for 3.5 months (not an easy task), my mind began to calm down.

In fact, a couple of days ago I received an email with a welcome letter from my host family, a lovely woman I will refer to as Dee. In response, all of my worrisome “what ifs?” started shifting. What if Dee teaches me to make the most incredible food? What if I find a bit of home in Oaxaca? Much like that little chipmunk in Centennial Park, my large looming threat is looking a lot less daunting. 

I have no clue what the next few months will have in store for me, but I’m excited to see where they take me. Make sure to hit the “subscribe” button on the bottom of this page to follow along with the “Adventures of Sarah & Dee” and all the other amazing humans I meet along the way. I can’t wait to share them with you!

P.S. Fully anticipate more nature-themed metaphors as I continue to blog about Mexico, it’s who I am.

Two Days ’til Takeoff

Hey guys, I’m Leah, and in just a few days, I will be writing to you from Amman, Jordan!

I am going into my senior year here at Hope College and will be wrapping up my degree in Global Studies and Spanish. It has been a wild few years on campus, and I am so thrilled to get abroad and travel the globe. One of the main reasons I chose to come to Hope was because of their wide range of study abroad opportunities, and I am greatly looking forward to spending this entire upcoming year abroad!

Nova Scotia, Canada
Nova Scotia, Canada

In two days I will join the School of International Training (SIT) in Jabal Amman, Jordan, where I will study and complete field-based research over the course of four months. Jabal is a historic neighborhood in Amman, home to the famous Rainbow Road and other beautiful Jordanian destinations. Amman is also known for its almost nine hundred thousand refugees in and around the city, the majority of which are from Syria. My program, titled Refugee Health and Humanitarian Action, will dive deep into the lives, treatment, and health of refugees both in Jordan and the Middle East. I will also get to examine the many ways different NGOs and global organizations support refugees and displaced peoples.

With so many travel opportunities, it took a lot of time to decide which of Hope’s many programs was right for me, but I ended up choosing SIT’s Jordan Refugee program for two main reasons. The first, because while I have loved being bilingual, I am ready to tackle a third language! I’ll have the opportunity to take several credits in Arabic, as well as speak it with my homestay family. SIT is recognized for its field-based learning, which is the second factor that pulled me towards this program. I’ve spent a long time within the four walls of a classroom, and I am thrilled for that environment to grow into a place of curiosity, exploration, and adventure.

During my time in Jordan, I’ll also get to venture outside of Amman! If you want to hear about floating in the Dead Sea, see pictures of Petra, and hear about trek’s through Wadi Rum, go ahead and bookmark this page or hit “Subscribe” at the bottom of this post. I would love to have you come along with me!

Exploring Florida Culture

A wise man once said that “one safari leads to another” (Oscar Mbogo Paschal). When we were told we had to evacuate Kenya do to COVID, we were not given instructions on where to go. All we knew was that the rest of our program was online and we could not remain in their country. Any country not at a level four travel advisory was fair game. So, with an SIT stipend in hand and endless possibility before us, we were Florida-bound.

In true Tanzanian fashion, our time in Florida saw us going on many excursions. It wouldn’t be a true SIT program without hands-on learning. After all, how else could we hope to compare Florida beaches to Kenyan beaches unless we spent extensive time there? This approach also necessitated the visit of many fishing spots, boardwalks, and a theme park or two…

By happenstance, the place we ended up staying was nearby a boardwalk system through the Florida mangroves. Still having the crab itch from my ISP only a couple weeks prior, I couldn’t resist documenting some of the local species.

In between writing all of our papers assigned by SIT, we even managed to sneak away to Universal Studios in Orlando for some R&R. Over two days, we braved the 97˚ heat to explore both Universal Studios and Universal’s Island of Adventure parks. I would recommend coming at a time where you don’t need to wear a mask as they became stifling in the heat. My favorite ride ended up being Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. You really feel like you are flying!

So far as food goes, Florida did not disappoint. The island we were on had fantastic restaurants and boasts the world’s best donut place with the Donut Experiment, I agree 100%. When we felt adventurous, we would go down to the local pier and catch some fresh snapper.

I love to fish. Snapper from the pier was fun, but after that mahi mahi we caught in Kenya, I had my eyes set on something bigger. Luckily, some local contacts were able to get us on some tarpon and goliath grouper. Tarpon can weigh up to 250 pounds and the largest goliath grouper can exceed 700. To fish for these species, we had to stay out late at night and from a bridge. We would begin the night by fishing for our bait. Then, we would use that fresh bait to try and entice the bigger fish. We never did hook into any goliath grouper. Several times we had tarpon on, but were never able to land them. The way they fight combined with our angle from the bridge resulted in them constantly spitting the hook. Nonetheless, it was a thrilling experience.

While we certainly did our due diligence with hands-on learning experiences, we managed to squeeze in a lot of school work as well. During the month we spent in Florida, each one of us had to complete one reef conservation plan (20 pages single spaced), one semester portfolio (18 pages double spaced), one research proposal (16 pages single spaced), one ISP report (36 pages double spaced), and one research journal (22 pages single spaced). Time was definitely on a budget, but you couldn’t ask for a better place to gator done. It felt good when it was finally all sent in.

All in all, this was one heck of a semester. COVID did its best to throw us continuous curveballs but looking back, I’m not sure I’d change a thing. I have managed to learn more, see more, and experience more this semester than any previous; all the while making lifelong friends. I could not have asked for a better conclusion to my four years at Hope College. Speaking of conclusions, with the altered time schedule, I was able to make it to my graduation ceremony!

There are so many people that deserve to be thanked for making this wonderful semester possible, they are listed in the video below. I would also like to thank everyone who took the time to read these blog posts. I hope you enjoyed reading them as much as I did compiling them.

  1. 79487275795842,33.20512724204158
  2. 33333333333333,33.33333333333333,33.33333333333333

ISP Week

SIT is a school for hands-on learning experiences. One of those experiences offered across all of their programs is the Independent Study Project, better known as the ISP. Under normal circumstances, the ISP involves a prep week, three weeks of data collection, and then one week to work on a paper. Under COVID circumstances, they gave us one day for prep and three days for data collection…

Given the situation, I chose to study mangrove crab populations within the Mida Creek mangrove forest. I chose this study given our pre-existing relationship with one of the beach guides there named Hassan. One other student chose to study mangroves at the same location, which gave us the opportunity to work together.

The First day we arrived on-site, we spent it getting the lay of the land. Hassan took us on a five mile hike through the mangroves. The mangroves at Mida Creek are separated into three distinct zones characterized by specific species of mangroves. Part of my study was spent trying to figure out if crab species were also confined to specific zones.

Below are some of the crabs I was able to categorize on my prep day with Hassan’s help.

The following three days were spent collecting data. Data was collected using a transect and quadrat method. In simpler terms, this entails laying out a long line (200 meters in our case) which is our transect. Quadrats (which are just squares of predetermined size) were then placed every 20 meters along our transect. Everything that landed within the quadrat was sampled and recorded. I wrote down all species of crabs I saw along with their numbers while my partner Gilley recorded the mangroves species present.

During those three days, we sampled one zone a day. What we didn’t know ahead of time was that the third zone was actually on an island. By the time we figured this out, we were already into the third day of sampling. Luckily for us, Hassan had a few connections up the creek.

Once across the bay, we were able to collect all of our data from the third zone. We even managed to meet some local fisherman who gave us some fresh squid.

Now that we had “all” the data we needed to complete our paper, it was time to celebrate. Our class spent one last farewell cruise on our now loved Waka Waka before heading out the following morning. Thank you Kenya for all you had to offer!

Below is an extra video I thought worth sharing showcasing thousands of soldier crabs

  1. 99677029440749,22.006459411185016,38.99677029440749
  2. 79221594475831,33.20778405524168

Free Time around the Coast

Taking the SIT Tanzania mascot for a tour around Kilifi
Taking the SIT Tanzania mascot for a tour around Kilifi

Our free time around Kilifi was far and few in between, but we made sure to make the most of it. Activities in the immediate area included tuk tuk rides around town, trips to one of the local beaches (sometimes waaay too early), walks through the mangroves, and rides on the Waka Waka, which was a traditional sailboat operating out of the channel. Being on the Hope College sailing team, the latter was definitely my favorite.

I’ve always loved to fish, and so it’s only natural that I would put out my feelers to try and source local opportunity. We got lucky with our guide back from our Mida Creek excursion. This guide just happened to know a few captains who agreed to take us out for a day of sport fishing at a nice price. The boats were a bit smaller than we were used to, especially given the swell, but it was well worth it.

We ended up bringing back the biggest mahi mahi back to Makuti Villas for their chefs to prepare. Anything extra, which ended up being most of the fish, was a gift for their hospitality.

Dr. Rose managed to arrange a day trip to Mombasa on our behalf. Mombasa is a large port city just over an hour South of Kilifi and contains a very rich history. Throughout the last 400 years, Mombasa has changed hands from the locals, to the Portuguese, to the Arabs, to the Germans, to the British, and now back to the locals. As part of our trip, we got to see Fort Jesus, visit the historical Portuguese district, shop at the oldest spice market in Tanzania, and visit Haller Park with all of its exotic animals.

The hippo on the right in the picture above is an adult female. Before Haller Park, she was kept as a pet until one day she threw a temper tantrum and crushed the family volkswagen!

Below are some extra videos showcasing some excursions in greater detail, enjoy!

  1. 79221594475831,33.20778405524168
  2. 79221594475831,33.20778405524168
  3. 95880414312618,36.04119585687382

Coastal Ecology

As soon as we were able, our professors got us back to learning ecological research methods, only this time it was in water. With the help of local guides, we were able to visit a variety of marine parks in and around the Kilifi area. Local seagrass expert Dr. Charles headed up our field data collection while Dr. Oliver and our activities coordinator Oscar were along to assist.

The first place we explored was Jumihija Beach just South of Kilifi. We spent the day sampling the seagrass beds in the reef protected lagoon. 3, 100 meter transects were laid in roughly 1 foot of water. We then recorded shoot density, variety, as well as proximate invertebrates. The highlight of this excursion was getting to eat a sea urchin halfway through, that is, until I realized the only edible part of a sea urchin was its genitals. Still, the salt water helped drown out the taste of gonads and it wasn’t bad.

The second place we went was a place called Mombasa Marina Park. This place was by far my favorite. Mombasa is located roughly 1.5 hours South of Kilifi, and is a bustling coastline city of over 1.2 million people with a rich history. Upon entering the city, we were driven to a beach where we boarded a clear bottom boat. The boat took us about a mile out to a seemingly random spot, that is, until I peaked beneath the waves…

The goal of this excursion was to understand how to sample fish populations under water. This was done by placing 3, 50 meter transects along the seafloor using a giant tape measurer. We then donned our snorkel gear and began to collect our data.

Data was collected by slowly floating along the transect and recording all fish species we saw along the way. We also recorded estimated fish length as well as how many there were. With the amount of fish present, this would have been difficult for an experienced researcher. As someone who had never seen these fish species in my life, it was interesting. My data sheet was riddled with the numerous species I was able to identify such as the “yellow blacks” and the “not clown fish”. Luckily the point of this exercise was the methodology involved and not the accuracy of our results.

Overall, the day was a huge success! Despite shortcomings, we managed to collect huge amounts of data to be presented on later. I still cannot believe I get to call this school. As if the day wasn’t already cool enough, a camel was awaiting us on shore to take us back to our cars.

Lessons from the Concrete Jungle

The New York Arts Program has flown by like a whirlwind. This whole experience felt like just a couple of weeks even though it was four months of living in the city. From the slightly chaotic start of figuring out my new life to settling into the city culture, NY has equipped me with new tools and perspectives. Below I wanted to share two main takeaways from my experience in NY, and its impact on me.

LEARNING TO TAKE INITIATIVE

Over the past few months, I had the opportunity to make many new relationships and get to know some great individuals. Although this added a lot to my experience there, it also pushed me out of my comfort zone. As I began reaching out to small groups from different churches and meeting up with people for coffee or outings, I constantly found myself in spaces where I didn’t know anyone and had to initiate relationships. These moments pushed me to adapt, and live beyond my feelings of doubt and nervousness. Of course, I wasn’t always successful in that and failed many times, but each moment was one that has shaped me to become more confident when venturing out of my comfort zone.

Doing these things showed me how rewarding the other side of fear can be but also how to pick myself back up when things dont turn out the way I expect.
Pushing myself to initiate new relationships outside my usual friend group has grown my confidence and independence in creating community around me. It has given me the tools to face similar situations in the future, and has taught me how to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.

LEARNING TO ENJOY MY OWN COMPANY

The first few weeks in NY, my mind was occupied with being in a hurry to create a community in the city and make new memories with friends; spending time alone was definitely not on my radar. But as soon as everyone slipped into their daily schedules, I found myself with a lot of time on my hands. Seeing this rare opportunity, I decided to try to go on small adventures on my own. This mostly consisted of long walks in central park, window shopping, and exploring more of NY. Although these things are simple, they created a space where I could begin to grow the relationship I have with myself, and learn to enjoy my own company.

Doing this showed me how easy it is to forget to steward the relationship I have with myself and get caught up in other relationships around me. But by setting aside time to spend alone, I learned that the time I invest for myself is just as valuable as the time and energy I pour into others.

Central Park

One of my favorite places to go in New York was Central Park. One of the very few perks of COVID was that our program moved to different dorms located in the Upper East Side. This made Central Park only a short walk away from home, and I’m so grateful for that. Whenever I didn’t know what to do with my day or if I had an extra hour to spend between work and school, I would speed walk to the park. Especially after a long day of work staring at the computer for seven hours straight, I would book it to the park to spend some time there before the sun went down. The park was like an escape for me. An escape from all the hustle and bustle of the city and a nice change of scenery. In addition, the dorms we lived in offered zero privacy, so it was the perfect place to go when I needed some alone time. 

One of my favorite parts of the park was how quiet it was. As soon as you entered the park, it was like the city around you melted away. It was like stepping into another world. All the sounds of cars and honking, suddenly disappeared and you were surrounded by nature. And the park is much bigger than you think that it would be. I was constantly discovering new things about the park every time I entered. One time on my way back from the Upper West Side, I somehow stumbled upon a beautiful rock archway in what felt like the middle of the woods. The paths of the park had turned to dirt and the trees were thick, making the air cool and dense. No matter the season too, the park was gorgeous. I got to witness the transition from winter to spring and I was shocked with how quickly everything bloomed and turned green. For being such an urban city, New York does a great job at making sure their green areas bloom.